by Kevin Cook
Teacher’s Comments: The tragic story of golf’s founding father and son. An excellent read.
If you have even a passing familiarity with Old and Young Tom Morris, then you know that their story is—at its core—a tragedy.
Old Tom was the game’s first true club pro, whose innovations in greenskeeping, course architecture and management still resonate today. His son, Young Tom, was the game’s first touring pro—a full time golfer who never stooped to caddy or tend greens. Together, they dominated the game’s early years, winning eight of the first twelve Open Championships., as well as numerous other early golfing events.
In Tommy’s Honor, Kevin Cook offers readers a pair of compelling biographies and an account of the barnstorming days at the dawn of professional golf. It is beautifully written easily transporting the reader to a different time and place.
Old Tom was an ambitious man, beginning his career as an apprentice maker of “featheries”, the early feather-stuffed, leather golf balls. He also was an accomplished player, upon whom “gentlemen” bet large sums of money during matches (he received but little of this, though, apparently thought of more as a “racehorse” than anything else.)
After being fired from his featherie job for playing one of the new gutta percha ball, Old Tom moved to Prestwick to build and maintain a new golf course there. It was the first of many of his designs. Later, he would return to St. Andrews, where he turned the ancient sheep pastures in the linksland into the “home of golf.”
Son Tom (actually the second son by that name, the first having died as a toddler), brought up at St Andrews, was a natural and bold golfer who played the game in ways that the old guard—his father included—had never conveived. Tom played for money, and by winning bets and staging exhibition matches, earned as much in a month as a working man Scot earned in a year. Still, his choice of career apparently disappointed his mother, as Young Tom was relatively well educated for the day. After spending a considerable sum on Young Tom’s education, Nancy Morris hoped that her son might take up a profession that would move him up the social ladder.
And moving up the social ladder was an important consideration, for there were enormous class differences at the time.To his dying day, Old Tom Morris, who made St. Andrews what it is today; who virtually created golf as we know it, never once set foot inside the R&A Clubhouse. He was a servant, and nothing more. (It was not until 1920 that professional golfers were allowed in the locker room at a club that sponsored the US Open. That door was opened by Walter Hagen and the members of Inverness Golf Club in Toledo.)
The class system also extended to the middle and lower classes, where the sons of book keepers would never stoop to marry the daughters of coal miners. On this point, too, Young Tom bucked the system. He married Margaret Drinnen, daughter of a miner, a woman of questionable reputation who already had borne a child out of wedlock. Old Tom did not even attend the ceremony.
I’ll not spoil the ending for those who are not familiar with the story. But I will say that it moved me.
Tommy’s Honor is more than a straight biography, though. While telling the stories of Old and Young Tom, Cook also manages to offer great insight into their time and place. It’s my favorite kind of history—a book that illuminates an entire era through a single event or biography (such as the 1913 US Open in The Greatest Game Ever Played . (Another favorite is a book that takes a single invention, product or idea, and traces its impact through all of history, as in Salt: A World History ).
One of the most interesting things to me—as a golfer—are the accounts of the various matches played by Old and Young Tom. Golf in the mid 1800s was a considerably different game. Strategies were different; distance were shorter; courses were much rougher; expectations were different. Cook’s descriptions are vivid and informing, and I learned quite a bit.
Tommy’s Honor is a must read if you have any interest in the history of golf.