Old Tom Morris didn’t invent the game of golf, but he is recognized as the sport’s founding father. He played in the first 36 British Opens, winning four times, and sired a son, Tom Morris Jr., who won the world’s oldest golf championship four times on his own. But as much as his successes in tournament golf and as a parent are significant, Tom Morris Sr. left behind the legacy of being a champion among men.
The authors of the day came to respect him for the way he handled victory as well as defeat; and there was no greater loss than when Tom Morris Jr., mourning the death of his wife and child, died at the age of 24. Horace Hutchinson wrote about Morris’ “unruffled serenity of temper.” John L. Low described the way Morris was “always cheerful during a life which met with almost continual disappointments and sorrows.” Yet, according to Hutchinson and Low, what separated Old Tom was his humbleness and the way he addressed himself to men of all classes.
"People say he died of a broken heart; but if that was true, I wouldn't be here either."
In The Book of Golf and Golfers, Hutchinson described him as “One of the most remarkable men-best of men and best of golfers-that ever missed a short putt.” Hutchison concluded that Morris “has been written of as often as a Prime Minister, he has been photographed as often as professional beauty, and yet he remains, through all the advertisement, exactly the same, simple and kindly.”
Born in St. Andrews, Scotland, June 16, 1820, Morris spent 12 years as a golf-ball maker under Allan Robertson before moving to Prestwick, where he became custodian of the newly formed club that, in 1860, gave birth to the British Open. He finished second to Willie Park in the first Open Championship, won the next two, finished second to Park again in 1863, then won again in 1864 and 1867. He had a slow, smooth swing and was fiercely competitive; his only flaw was a difficulty with short putts. In 1862, he didn’t miss many, winning the Open by 13 strokes, a record that still stands.
Morris moved back to St. Andrews in 1865 to become greenkeeper for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. It was a position he held until his retirement in 1904. Today, his portrait hangs in the R
Tom Morris, Sr. last played in The Open Championship in 1896 – at age 75.
“As St. Andrews became increasingly a mecca of golfers, so, too, did the sturdy patriarchal figure and bearing of Old Tom come to symbolize all that was finest in the Scottish character and in the ancient Scottish game,” wrote James K. Robertson in St. Andrews, Home of Golf. “His kindly, yet capable and gentle nature, enshrined him a good many years before his death as the authentic Grand Old Man of Golf. To generations of people all over the world his name and his picture epitomized the game.”
When Morris died, in 1908 at the age of 87, the funeral procession extended the entire length of South Street in St. Andrews, from the port to the cathedral. It was described by Andrew Kirkaldy as “a cloud of people,” and as Kirkaldy noted, “There were many wet eyes among us, for Old Tom was beloved by everybody.”