Old Tom Morris

By DS

Was Old Tom really the first great golf architect, or is his reputation inflated by those who redesigned his courses? Richard Goodale tries to find out.

We call him Old Tom Morris, and for very good reason. He was the father of Young Tom Morris, whose playing skill blazed across the golfing firmament as brightly as any before or after, for far too few years until he fell into death at the age of 22. To have given either of the two men exclusive use of the name would have been an insult to each. Both were geniuses, in their own way.

On that tragic day in 1875, Old Tom was 54, and had enjoyed a life of tremendous accomplishment. Four times Open Champion himself, he was Keeper of the Green at Prestwick from 1851-1865, and then Custodian of the Links at St Andrews. He was instrumental in transforming both of those courses from primitive layouts to modern venues conducive to both strategic play and general enjoyment, and he had designed or remodelled many other fine links which exist to this day, such as Westward Ho!, Perth, Leven/Lundin Links, Luffness and Carnoustie. A pioneer of modern agronomic techniques, he was the primary influencer in the creation of many standards in the game, including the 18 hole course, the use of separate tee boxes, and the metal ringed hole.

And yet, due to a strong constitution and a healthy lifestyle, Old Tom was a young 54, and he responded to the death of his son with a flurry of activity which brought the world of golf into the modern age. Much of this activity related to the continuous improvement of what is now known as the Old Course at St Andrews Links.When land was reclaimed between the current 18th fairway and the North Sea, Old Tom built the current first green across the Swilcan Burn and broadened the 18th green to include today’s ‘Sunday’ pin position and the Valley of Sin.

His work also transformed the putting surfaces. When he took over the keeping of the green, the putting surfaces were little better than what we would today call rough.With his weeding and rolling and constant instruction to his key assistant of “Saund, Honeyman! Saund and mair saund!” the greens developed into the superb playing and putting surfaces they are today.

One can argue that the main reason the Old Course still tests the finest golfers in the world is the green complexes Old Tom both built and perfected. This in itself would put the man in the pantheon of the finest architects of golf but, of course, there was more.

From 1875 until his retirement in 1904 (at age 83), Old Tom designed or remodelled roughly 60 courses, including some which today stand as the finest in the world. Most of us know most of these already, but just listing the names of some of the most revered trips off the tongue so smoothly that I can’t resist writing them together: “Dornoch, Machrihanish, Elie, County Down, New Course, Portrush,Wallasey, Lahinch, Muirfield, Rosapenna and Nairn.” They sound in my mind very much like the call of the railway stations in Darwin’s essay on Aberdovey, but of the journey of a lifetime, rather than just another Edwardian summer.

Of these 60 courses, none survives today completely intact, but this is hardly surprising. Over 100-125 years, change happens. Sands shift. Coastlines erode or recede. Plants grow. People and times change. Let’s look at the last of these factors.

At the beginning of the golden age of Old Tom’s design career (1875), golf was still primitive and limited in scope, with probably less than 50 courses in the world, the great majority of which were in Scotland. The gutta percha ball was pre-eminent, and its playing characteristics led to courses of 5,500 yards being considered ideal. Heavy course scraping and grading equipment had not been invented, so most earth moving had to be done by hand. And, while there was increasing interest in golf in the wealthier parts of the kingdom (England), there were few obviously natural sand-based sites available there, so the budding golf architecture business was largely confined to Scotland (and Ireland), where budgets were tight.

However, by the end of this period (1904) things had radically changed. Due to rising prosperity (and, one must assume, the inherent beauty of the game) golf was booming, particularly in England, but also increasingly in America. As a result, where Old Tom was earning tens of pounds for his work in Scotland, architects of the next generation such as Willie Park Jr. were earning thousands for theirs in England and the New World. Technology, such as the horse drawn scraper, had created the means to build and shape courses on land previously thought to be unsuitable for golf (such as the heathlands around London and the scrubland of eastern Long Island). And the Haskell ball led to a massive increase in distance for the accomplished player.

Due to this last factor, almost overnight courses needed to be above 6,000 yards to offer a challenge to the better players. And so, courses began to tinker with the designs they had been left by Old Tom, firstly in seemingly innocuous ways by finding back tees, but then in re-routings to squeeze even more yardage out of the course. Sound familiar?

These tweakings seemed to suffice for 15-25 years, but by the mid-20s, in most cases, even these measures were not enough, and wholesale revisions were made. As a result, courses such as Muirfield and Royal County Down have very little of the great man’s work left, even in their bones.While others, such as Royal Dornoch and Cruden Bay, still evidence much of his architecture. If you are desperately seeking Old Tom Morris, you have to look carefully and with a loving and knowing eye to get a glimpse of his genius. But, once you can and you do, what treasures are there to be found! Given the changes that have been made over time, it is mostly about individual holes. On the great and even less well trodden links we can find many gems, still largely as they were when Old Tom conceived them.

To start with (and why not, since it is an opening hole!) the ‘Battery’ at Machrihanish. Possible the first ‘bite off as much as you can chew’ design, it curves gently but lethally around the bay, tempting you to challenge the beach. Arguably the finest opening hole in golf.

Or, how about the sixth at Cruden Bay, ‘Bluidy Burn’. It is named so in commemoration of the fierce battle with the invading Danes in 1012. The canted green perched above the burn led Tom Simpson to call this one of the best holes in the British Isles. The fourteenth at Royal Dornoch (‘Foxy’) is called by many the greatest hole in the world. Old Tom found its green site among a string of five fingers of sand on the lower links. It survives today, unchanged. And these are just a few of a long list of famous holes he created:
• The ‘Dell’ at Lahinch
• The ‘Alps’ at Prestwick
• The ‘Cape’ hole at Royal North Devon
• The 18ths at Leven and Lundin Links
• The 8th at St Andrews New
• The incomparable 235-yard cliff side par three at Anstruther
• The 9th at Elie, whose green falls away from a cliff at the end of the fairway
• The exquisitely simple driveable creek side 8th at Kirkcaldy
• The unforgettable 180-yard straight uphill 18th at Kinghorn
• The 1st and the 5th and the 18th on the Dornoch Struie – which were holes on the Championship course until 1940.

Despite these achievements, modern critics, starting with Tom Simpson himself and continuing to this day, tend to denigrate Old Tom’s work. The criticisms seem to be based on three issues, each of which can be argued or explained.

Firstly, he is criticised for practicing ‘36 stakes in the ground architecture’. Well, it’s true: Old Tom did do most of his work in this way, surveying the land, ‘finding’ 18 tees and 18 greens, staking these out and then moving on.What else was he supposed to do? In his golden age, there were no economic technologies for building golf courses so one had to ‘find’ them. The argument assumes that the means (techniques) are more important than the ends (the course itself). Old Tom’s courses speak for themselves.

His forms, say the critics, were overly geometric. Some of the few surviving pictures of Old Tom’s greens seem to show simple squares cut on raw land, and primitive horizontal earthen dykes built as hazards. This is true, and yet, in the 19th century having properly cut greens was a luxury and those ‘simple squares’ were on carefully chosen areas of land – sites such as the 4th and 14th and 17th at today’s Dornoch – that would evolve into the world-class greens they are today. As for the earthen dykes, these mimicked some of the most distinctive and sporty ‘natural’ hazards; the dry stone dykes that criss-cross links such as North Berwick and St Andrews. Where he could find such dykes (at Bridge of Allan, for example) he used them creatively. Where he could not, he tried to replicate them, with minimal funds and the primitive technology at hand.

Unconventional routings round off the list of flaws, according to Tom’s detractors. Many of his courses have a number of crossing holes and most have relatively little variety in length. His Cruden Bay routing, for example, had 15 holes between 245 and 360 yards. Dornoch in 1892 had only one hole longer than 400 yards and only two under 200.While this sounds bizarre, one must remember that in those days of the guttie, a 340 yard hole was a ‘two drive hole’ and a 255 hole a drive and an iron, according to the golf writer Horace Hutchinson. As for the crossing holes, remember Old Tom’s budgetary constraints, and also remember St Andrews, where he grew up and lived the most of his life.

Standing on the eleventh tee of the Old Course you have a magnificent view across the Eden estuary and if you turn around an equally marvellous view of the town. Golf-wise, you can see players from the seventh crossing in front of you playing their share of ‘your’ green. To the right you can see the double eighth and tenth green, with players from each hole often swapping places if their shots are wayward. It is a confluence of golf and golfers, and the epitome of the entire course, which flows backwards and forwards across the rolling land with often little demarcation as to which player should be playing where and no particular care of why. How different and more satisfying this is than the modern idea of hole separation, where each golfer plays in his or her own little world, almost oblivious to the fact that there are other people on the course. I am not convinced that Old Tom would have liked Wentworth or even Pine Valley.

The Old Course is more like a labyrinth than any course I know. Many ways in and out for most holes, but rarely any path being obvious. Much of this character preceded Old Tom, but much of it is also due to his custodianship of the links over the most important years of its history. And, when I think of Labyrinth I think of Daedalus, the great artificer of the ancient world. Pausanias said of Daedalus: “All the works of this artist, though somewhat uncouth to look at, nevertheless have a touch of the divine in them.”How else could one describe the Alps at Prestwick?

People can argue as to whether golf course architecture is an art or a science or even both, but I think it is more a craft than either, and the greatest practitioners are the craftsmen or artificers such as Old Tom Morris. Those who wish to practice this craft could do worse than thinking of this great man every time you stand over your drawing board or stand in an unbroken field trying to find some golf. You could even whisper to yourself the mantra of Stephen Daedalus in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” That the ancient Daedalus also had a son, Icarus, who flew too high and died too young might just only be a coincidence.

Richard Goodale has written books on two of the greatest links courses (Royal Dornoch and The Old Course) and is now managing the publishing business of OptimizeGolf. An American, he has lived in Scotland for the past 15 years, and among his other sins appeared on Mastermind in 1997 with the specialised subject of the golf links of Great Britain and Ireland. He has degrees from Stanford and Harvard, but would trade both for a more reliable swing

This article first appeared in issue 5 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2006.

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