The original Tiger
1850 was the year everything turned on its head for Tom Morris. Besides being unfairly let go by his employer Allan Robertson, the head golf pro at St. Andrews (read more in "Old Tom returns to St. Andrews" post below), he and his wife Nancy lost their first child Tom. After moving across Scotland to Prestwick to become head pro and build a golf course, Tom and Nancy had another child they also named Tom in 1851. With infant mortality rates around 22% at that time, it is understandable why parents would reuse a name after a baby's death. These rates remained at this level until the turn of the century, when they would dramatically drop to 10% in a very short time. They are <1% today in First World countries.
Young Tom had a very different upbringing than his father. He was not hired out as an apprentice at a young age, and didn't even work in his father's ball and club making shop. He also attended an expensive, prestigious private school in town - Ayr Academy. Since it seems very unlikely, given his strong religious background, that Old Tom was living beyond his means, the Prestwick job paid well. He must have had some glowing references from the member at St. Andrews who secured him the post after his dismissal.
With easy access to a top notch course along with proper instruction and plenty of encouragement from Dad, Young Tom became an accomplished player at a young age. One strength was he kept the ball in play. While long off the tee, he kept some power in reserve to minimize misses. He was also a creative shot maker, being the first to shape shots and hit high pitch shots (instead of low bump-and-runs) onto greens. He could putt for dough too - a golf historian wrote Tom missed fewer short putts than any other player he had seen. Supreme under pressure, and a gallery favorite with a pleasant, engaging personality, Tom was the complete player and person. In a different era, he too would have been a global star with a billion dollars in endorsement money. Hopefully, he would not have also been chased down his driveway by his wife swinging a golf club.
Lore moment: Young Tom wins a third Open in a row
Young Tom first beat his dad in 1864 when he was 13. Since Old Tom was a fierce (but fair) competitor and accomplished player, this was not "let the boy win to build his self esteem." Young Tom then played in his first Open the next year. Wow. From beating Dad on a Saturday to teeing it up with the best in the game. Given his dad, there may have been raised eyebrows at junior being let in the field. But he held his own, and then finished ninth and fourth the next two years to show he belonged. He also won his first tournament against an Open-like field at Carnoustie in 1867 when he was 16. Results were beginning to match the potential.
Old Tom won his fourth and final Open, at age 56, in 1867. In his second Open win in 1862, Old Tom won by 13 strokes, the largest winning margin in major history until Tiger's 15 in the 2000 US Open. Asterisk alert: there were only eight golfers in the field. The baton was then seamlessly passed to Young Tom, who won his first Open in 1868 at 17 (with a hearty ten in the field), still a record for youngest major winner. He also sank a hole-in-one, the first in recorded tournament history. Like the previous eight Opens and the next two, this one was played at Prestwick, so one pair of golfers had a clear local knowledge advantage that they successfully exploited.
Showing his win was no fluke, Tom then won the next two Opens in 1869 and 1870. He was the first to break 160 in '68 and '69, and then broke 150 in '70. These odd scores came from the Open consisting of three rounds on the 12 hole Prestwick course, all played in a day. The Open was eventually doubled to its modern 72 holes in 1892.
With him lapping the field, the Tiger similarities never seem to end. One difference is the winner of the early Opens got to wear the Championship belt for the year - shown above around Tom's waist, and in the photo below. Maybe this is where boxing and rodeos got the idea. And how cool would a Masters' belt be instead of a jacket?
Interestingly, the belt could be permanently won - if someone won it three times in a row, they could keep it. Perhaps this is the best they could do in an era before prize money. And like a hole-in-one contest or a half-court basketball toss, they were probably not expecting anyone to ever do it. Tom did, and it sent such shock waves they did not hold the Open in 1871 for lack of a trophy. Really? They couldn't come up with something in the ensuing year?
Claret Jug arrives to save the Open. Sort of.
When the Open resumed in 1872, there was a new trophy and a new tournament format. The Open would now rotate among three clubs - Prestwick, St. Andrews, and Edinburgh - who would share in the expense and hassle of hosting the tournament, and also contribute prize money. Ah. So the missing Open of 1871 seems to be a lock-out with which the modern fan is all too familiar. The Prestwick members, and perhaps also Old Tom, pitched their plan to share costs as well as grow the Open to the other clubs. They likely felt their best leverage was to threaten to cancel the Open if the others didn't reach an agreement. It didn't work, and the 1872 Open was soon also at risk. Sigh. Not sure who wins in these cancellations, but it's surely not the players or the fans. Without many of either of these in those days, however, there was even less incentive to reach a compromise.
It is even more appalling when considering the amounts involved. The total prize money was under $50 in today's dollars, and would remain that low for the next twenty years. The Claret Jug cost about a grand. So they cancel the Open for about a thousand dollars. Nice. And from what we know about Old Tom, he was almost certainly against the cancellation. Thanks members.
Agreement was finally reached in time to stage the 1872 Open, but this was eleventh hour stuff as Prestwick was once again the host, and the pledged Claret Jug was not yet available to award to the winner. Young Tom won his fourth in a row. Surprisingly, it was the last Morris Open championship. More on why in the next post. But it is very fitting the first name inscribed on the Claret Jug, done after the event, is Tom Morris. A great tribute to both father and son of the same name.