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Saints Alive!
John Garrity
July 17, 1995
Old Tom Morris is but one of many legends encountered near the Old Course at St. Andrews
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July 17, 1995

Saints Alive!

Old Tom Morris is but one of many legends encountered near the Old Course at St. Andrews

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Robertson, strangely enough, is the least visible of the so-called "respectable caddies"—i.e., the ones whose skill earned them course privileges. At the British Golf Museum, on the sea by the Old Course, he appears as a sinister-looking wax figure in a diorama depicting the manufacture of feathery balls in the mid-19th century. At his side is a top hat full of feathers, the volume needed to pack a ball. Robertson produced a thousand or so featheries a year in his kitchen. His true genius, though, was as a player. He was, in the words of the Dundee Advertiser, "the greatest golfer that ever lived, of whom alone, in the annals of the pastime, it could be said that he was never beaten." This last claim stretched the truth—his own apprentice, Tom Morris, bested him in singles play—but it is accepted that Robertson and Morris, as a team, were never beaten in foursomes. Furthermore, Robertson was the first man to break 80 on the Old Course, shooting a 79 in 1858, when feathery balls flew no more than 170 yards and greens were unmowed stubble.

Robertson died of jaundice in 1859 at age 44. Had he lived longer, he might be better remembered for his golf. Instead, he seems a semicolon in the lore, a man who balked when modernity loomed. In 1850, taking his first swing at the recently invented gutta-percha ball, Robertson deliberately topped it and then muttered, "Ach, it winna flee." To which Old Bob Kirk is supposed to have said, "Flee, damn ye! Nae ba' cud flee when it's tappit!"

So threatened was Robertson by the gutta-percha balls, which could be made quickly and cheaply, that he got his hands on a number of them and melted them down. But if technology refused to stop for Robertson, he can take celestial solace from the fact that the first Open Championship, played in 1860, was staged to determine his successor as the undisputed champion of golf.

A few steps from the Robertson diorama, the BGM offers an early-20th-century display: the workshop of clubmaker Laurie Auchterlonie. The only shortcoming of this exhibit is that visitors can examine an almost identical shop, still in use, at the current Auchterlonies, just up the street. Various Auchterlonies have hung their shingles on three sides of this block; time-lapse photography would show their names moving around like carousel horses. "The present shop sign says SINCE 1897, notes retired R&A historian Bobby Burnet, "even though that Auchterlonies actually began in 1914." He adds dryly, "Which I think is contrary to the Trades Description Act."

It takes a genealogist to keep all the Auchterlonies straight. The first Laurie won the U.S. Open in 1902. His brother Willie, famous for carrying only seven sticks (and using only five), won the 1893 Open Championship at Prestwick despite scoring 8, 5, 6 and 6 on the 1st hole. (His deepest-faced club was a mashie, a low-lofted driving iron that made escape from rough difficult.) A gifted teacher of the game, Willie served the R&A as honorary professional from 1935 to his death in 1963, at 91. His son Laurie, by most accounts an even better club-maker, succeeded his father as honorary professional until his death in 1987. The second Laurie was "a very fine man," according to Burnet, "but bad tempered." He wintered in Pinehurst, N.C., leaving St. Andrews to his uncle Tom and cousin Eric, who didn't get along with Laurie and ran a competing shop.

Today there aren't enough traditional clubmakers to carry on a conversation, much less a feud. At the Tom Morris Golf Shop, adjacent to the 18th green of the Old Course, club production is stuck on zero. "Making handmade clubs won't pay the bills," laments the shop's manager, Brian Anderson. Instead, the shop specializes in sportswear and souvenirs.

It was in this shop that Old Tom made clubs and held court from 1865 until his retirement in 1904. He lived upstairs in a flat that is still used by his great-great-granddaughter, Mrs. Bunty Mould of Crail. Except for a 14-year stint as greenskeeper at Prestwick, during which time his sons Tommy and Jimmy were born, Morris's world revolved around Fife, the sea and the game of golf.

More than any man of his time, Old Tom left his imprint on the game. At the Old Course he helped devise the first metal cups for firming up the hole; he discovered how sand, scattered over bare spots, encouraged the growth of grass. He crossed the British Isles by donkey cart, train and steamer, laying out golf courses as obscure as Askernish and as renowned as Muirfield and Royal Dornoch. He even invented the double-loop routing of nine holes to a side that is now standard.

As a player Old Tom was known for good course management and accuracy from tee to green. His weakness was the short putt, suggesting that he patented the yips as well. A letter was once addressed to THE MISSER OF SHORT PUTTS, PRESTWICK, and the document was promptly delivered to Morris.

With thousands visiting St. Andrews next week for the Open, the Morris grave sites in the cathedral cemetery are certain to attract pilgrims. A white marble statue of Young Tom, who won four Open championships before the age of 22, inhabits an alcove tomb above the gray slab covering his father, who outlived him by 33 years. The sad story is usually told in two parts: first, how the Morrises, on Sept. 2, 1875, had just beaten the Park brothers at North Berwick, on the south bank of the Forth, and upon returning by boat to St. Andrews learned that Young Tom's schoolteacher wife had died while giving birth to their child. "It's na' true!" the stricken Tommy is supposed to have wailed.

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