5 - Old Tom Morris plays in his 31st Open 1895


Young Tom Morris marries Meg Drinnen, a surprise choice

As the leading athlete of the day, Young Tom was highly visible and in demand. In those days, that meant constant exhibition matches versus all comers arranged by promoters primarily interested in the accompanying betting action. Unlike his father, Tom Jr. displayed the grace and charm of his upper class, private school upbringing during these matches, which further increased his already high popularity due to his on course success. And while no athlete then became wealthy, Tom was doing well financially since each match did have a purse. So he really was unique among his fellow professional golfers – well off, refined, and beloved by both the masses and the privileged classes. Clearly, he would have had many options for companionship and marriage.

His choice to marry Meg Drinnen in November 1874, however, raises some questions. She was 30, had a child outside of wedlock, came from a humble background and was working as a local house servant. This was an unexpected choice for the most eligible bachelor in Victorian Scotland with very religious, Bible-reading-and-quoting parents (especially Dad). Old Tom was clearly upset, and actually did not attend the wedding. This must have made headlines. What was Tom thinking?

Some whispered she trapped him with liberal affections. He would not be the first to succumb to this plan of attack. And she had clear motivations given her lowly status -   maybe she was merely a nineteenth century groupie or gold digger. However, wanting a way out of pedestrian life can hardly be strongly condemned. 

Maybe she was just good company. Tom was likable and affable, and he surely enjoyed being around lively, fun loving people. The thought of marrying one of his parents’ choices probably left him with a sick stomach, as they would be prim, proper, and religious, but also likely dull and self-righteous. Meg was religious, and had gone through a difficult penance period after her child’s birth to clear her and her child’s name and standing in the church. But those who have fallen and repented are generally much more pleasant to be around than those who deceptively feel they have never really sinned.

Or maybe this was another Matt Damon-type move. Celebrities who really do not enjoy their fame and visibility will almost always marry someone from a completely different walk of life, someone very much out of the spotlight. There is refuge in being with someone very “normal,” who is not mesmerized by the bright lights and prominence, or in constant pursuit of them.  Meg would be Tom’s escape to reality and every day life. 



Meg and Tom tragically die months apart  

10 months after their marriage, Meg and Tom were expecting their first child in September 1875.  The timing of this child, in the days before the timing could more easily be managed, suggests restraint during courtship, so a solid knock against the first theory above. And unlike today, immediate children would naturally have been the expectation, casting a different color on any marriage consideration.

At that time, promoters wanted to stage a 36 hole contest in North Berwick, across the Firth or sea inlet from St. Andrews, against the Morris’ fierce rivals – the Parks. Willie had been a bur in their saddle for years, starting with winning the inaugural Open at Prestwick in 1860. Talk about a party crasher. It was Old Tom’s idea and tournament, and Willie wins? He had won twice more by 1875, and his horribly-named brother Mungo had won in 1874. Willie and Mungo sound more like evil twins in a Pixar movie than championship golfers. From all accounts, they were aptly named.  Willie was a screeching self-promoter and an aggressive, overbearing player, a combination prone to capture headlines but few fans. He was the anti-Tom Jr. So when Tom and Tom had yet another chance to play Willie and Mungo, they jumped at the chance. Especially since they lost last year’s match. 

It is said Tom had reservations about leaving his wife so close to childbirth, but men were much more removed from the whole process back then. He probably thought he would be doing little but pacing and waiting if the baby did come while he was away, and he would be back in three days in any event. And this was a chance to beat and muzzle the Parks for a while. The scales were tipping towards going. It is very unlikely any woman in a similar situation would have made the same choice. Another exhibit confirming men and women are different, and that women generally operate on a higher plane.  Sigh. 

The Morrises and Parks were all square after 34 holes. With just two holes left, a messenger breathlessly arrives at the tee with an urgent telegram for Tom from Meg. “Come home now.” He does not know she has started labor, and is bleeding uncontrollably. He must have been very concerned and assumed his wife was in labor, but then does another typically male calculation:  there’s no train for a few hours, there’s only two holes left, and they would forfeit the 25 pounds ($825 in today’s dollars) and bragging rights for the year.  Plus, no way Dad would support me leaving now. I need to stay and finish. Again, hard to see a female doing the same decision tree.

They win the match, and to his credit, Tom does not wallow in the win, but urgently tries to figure out how to get back to St. Andrews faster. A train still won’t leave for a few hours to make the 6 hour trip back. A spectator steps forward, and offers to sail across the Firth of Forth. (Firth?  A great British word, up there with nil and mull.) They arrive at about 1 am after hours sailing in pitch black, and meet Old Tom’s second oldest son James at the dock. He first tells Dad, who then tells Tom the horrific news – both Meg and baby boy are dead. A second telegram with this news had actually reached North Berwick just after they took off in the boat, but the townspeople mercifully kept it to themselves instead of shouting it out to the boat. 

Your wife and child die within a year of marriage? My goodness. Tom was barely functioning for days after this, and Old Tom had to take care of signing the death registry and arranging the funeral. He started drinking heavily. Others kept encouraging him to play golf, to help take his mind off of a new life cut short, and he did play several matches over the next few months despite the worsening weather. 

On Christmas Eve 1875, Tom came and talked to his sick mother Nancy for a while, and said goodnight to his dad before turning in. He died in his sleep, and had a small stream of blood coming out of his mouth. The doctors concluded it was a pulmonary embolism, which meant an artery burst and filled his lungs with blood, which caused him to drown. He finally succeeded in drowning his sorrows, and reuniting with his wife and child.    

As a public and beloved persona, the town donated a large memorial for Tom for the St. Andrew’s cathedral cemetery, shown here. His epithet reads:

Deeply regretted by numerous friends and all golfers

He thrice in succession won the champion’s belt

And held it without rivalry and yet without envy

His many amiable qualities

Being no less acknowledged than his golfing achievements



Lore moment:  Old Tom plays in his 31st Open

Some say Young Tom died of a broken heart. Old Tom said if this was the case, he would have also died. This was like Earl losing Tiger, Elin and Sam. And he didn’t know how much more grief would come his way. His wife Nancy died the next year, and he lived 32 years as a widower. His remaining three children all died before him between 1893 and 1906. For such a religious person, he had to ask more than once what was the purpose and reason for such trials.

The admirable and incredible reality is he kept going in the face of one funeral after another. He skipped the 1875 Open, the year of Tom and Meg’s death, but continued to play in almost every Open until his last in 1895. He continued to care for and refine St. Andrews, designed many other courses around the UK, and mentored and influenced others that would go on to spread the game to the US and beyond. His ability to keep going in a productive, busy life is astonishing.  Where did the inner strength and resolve come from? Believers would say it was his faith in the divine and infinite, but wouldn’t such a belief “earn” less trials from a loving Creator? What’s the point of faith then?

Old Tom gives us a hint of his view. Later in life, when asked how he made it through his many trials, he said being gloomy was a bit of a sin because it suggested we know the Lord’s business better than He does. So somehow, he believed and trusted that his challenges were for his benefit and learning, not as a punishment for misdeeds or sins. That’s a much deeper than normal faith, so then the question is how is it developed, especially since it seems to be so rare.  Adversity usually neuters faith, not strengthens it. But maybe those with the most faith need the most difficult trials to reach their full potential.

Old Tom died in 1908 while making a wrong turn in the St. Andrews clubhouse. He fell down some stairs to the cellar instead of turning into the bathroom, and died instantly. He was spared the challenge of declining health and a prolonged illness before his death. Maybe the heavens felt he had suffered enough, and it was time to come home for a joyful family reunion.