Young Tom Morris
The messenger worked his way through the crowd at North Berwick Links. A tense match was being played between 4-time Open Champion Willie Park, his brother Mungo, and the 4-time Open Champions Tom Morris and his son Tom Morris Jr. This was a super star contest. Between the four participants they had won 13 Open Championships. The foursome was playing the 17th hole when the messenger handed the message to Tom Sr. Old Tom read the message and quietly put it in his pocket. The match continued with Old Tom and his son winning 1-up. Old Tom then approached his son and said, “We must go Tommy. Your wife. We’ve no time for the train.” The golf world would never be the same.
Thomas Morris, Jr. was born April 20, 1851 in St. Andrews, Scotland. His father was the designer, groundskeeper and professional at Prestwick Golf Club. The first prodigy, Young Tom was taught by his father, and at age 13 beat his Old Man for the first time. This was quite a feat since his father won the 3rd of his four Open Championships in 1864. He participated in his first Open Championship at age 14 in 1865 and finished 9th. He came back in 1866, moving up to a tie for 3rd in 1867. He would win his first Championship by 3 shots in 1868 at 17 years old. The 2nd place finisher was none other than his Dad, Old Tom Morris. Young Tom was, and still is, the youngest Open Champion in history.
Young Tom then entered an era of dominance in golf that has rarely been approached. He won the Open again in 1869, but this time by 11 strokes. 1870 saw him increase his winning margin by an astonishing 12 shots. This record still stands. “He was simply to good for the competition,” wrote Ross Goodner. Young Tom was so dominant that the original “Championship Belt” was permanently given to the young phenom. The Open Championship was not contested in 1871, because there was no doubt who the “Champion Golfer” of the year was. It was 20-year-old Thomas Morris, Jr.
The Open Championship returned in 1872, and again Young Tom was “The Champion Golfer of the Year” with his 3-stroke victory. The cherished Claret Jug was introduced after the 1872 Tournament, and the first name etched on the trophy is Thomas Morris, Jr. He is the only golfer to win the same Major Championship four times in a row. Young Tom would finish tied for 3rd in 1873, then the next year finished in 2nd place, two strokes behind Mungo Park. Mungo’s Brother Willie Park, Sr. won his 4th Championship in 1875. This set up the big match between the Parks and the Morris’s on September 11th, 1875. It was a BIG Match and Old Tom knew it.
The note given to Old Tom said that Young Tom’s beloved wife Margaret had gone into labor with their first child and was having difficulty. It’s not clear whether Old Tom told his son the contents of the message, but he hired the fastest boat available to get them across the Firth of Forth, back to their home in St. Andrews as quickly as possible. It was too late, by the time they arrived, Young Tom’s wife and infant baby boy, also named Thomas Morris, were both dead.
Young Tom was devastated, he began to drink heavily for the first time in his life. He continued to play golf, but his heart wasn’t in it. Three months after the death of his wife and child, Young Tom came home on Christmas Eve from a trip to Edinburgh. Their home overlooked the 18th hole on the Old Course at St. Andrews. His ailing mother was up to greet her son. As he went to bed he wished his father a “good night.” When Tommy did not come down the next morning his father went to check on him. To his horror, his son was dead.
The news of Young Tom’s death quickly spread through Scotland. The autopsy listed a “Burst artery in the right lung” as the cause of death. The death certificate says “Pulmonary Hemorrhage” as the cause. The people knew better. Young Tom Morris died of a broken heart.
Young Tom’s place in golf is tough to comprehend. Since he died at 24, he wasn’t around long enough to create a long legacy as his father did. Old Tom would live to 86. Old Tom Morris was not the “Champion Golfer of the Year” four times, but he was also one of the chief designers of three of the top courses in the world (Muirfield, Royal Dornach, Carnoustie). Old Tom was the head greenskeeper and professional at the Old Course at St. Andrews from 1865 to 1906. Then he fulfilled the same role at historic Prestwick. You could make a good argument that Old Tom Morris is the most important person in the history of golf, but his son was clearly the superior golfer.
Young Tom revolutionized the way golf was played. He used an interlocking grip, a big backswing, and swung harder than his contemporaries. His course management was revolutionary. He invented clubs which would eventually become the 9-iron and sand wedge. He was the first player capable of hitting a ball with such force and heights that the ball would back up on the green.
He had an engaging personality, a young, handsome, modest man, who made golf a viable spectator sport. Think of a 19th century Arnold Palmer. His tragic death was deeply felt throughout Scotland. In 2009 Golf Magazine rated Young Tom Morris as the 14th greatest golfer of all time. Most of the other ratings don’t even list him. That’s just not right. In the late 1860s and early 1870s he achieved a degree of dominance that only Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson and Tiger Woods ever approached. Due to his early death he cannot be a serious contender for greatest player of all time, but he is definitely in the top 20, and has a compelling case to be in the top 10.