I used to play off a two handicap," Old Tom Morris tells me. "Now I'm a cheating seven.
Or is it David Joy speaking? We're in Joy's cottage behind the Grange Inn in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Old Tom has just been showing how he gripped a hickory-shafted club: hands split, feet wide. "Moost ae th' arly champions had big hands." he says; then the burr in his voice falls away and Joy straightens, saying, "I had to learn to hit the ball as Old Tom. He had a hammer grip and a very open stance because of the whip of the club."
It doesn't take long to get used to the way Old Tom visits David Joy in midsentence. Since 1989 the two natives of St. Andrews, born 135 years apart, have shared the same psychic space. Joy, 39, is a playwright, artist, actor and engraver who, when he isn't walking the streets in cape and whiskers, directs plays at the local theater. Tom Morris, 174, is the old fellow with the famous beard—"honorary professional" to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, greenskeeper of the Old Course, pioneer course designer and four-time British Open champion in the 1860s.
"I'm very careful where I take Old Tom," Joy says, placing his stage whiskers on a workbench. "If you put him in the wrong situation, it's just somebody in a costume."
Indeed, it's startling to come across a man, dead 87 years, in the streets of St. Andrews. In May, Old Tom was spotted in a V-E Day parade on market Street, marching with the bustled members of the Ladies Putting Society. On other occasions he has been seen playing the Old Course with wooden clubs and feathery balls, his beard and coattail flapping in the wind.
"I kept coming across Tom Morris in all sorts of situations," the actor says, recalling how two decades ago the most ubiquitous of St. Andrews' golfing icons began to haunt him. While working on a series of drawings of Open champions, Joy covered his studio walls with photographs of Morris and his cronies. Already there were ancestral echoes: Joy's great-grandfather was one of Tom's regular caddies; his grandfather was a clubmaker at Auchterlonies, St. Andrews' most enduring golf retailer. So in 1990, when the Open was most recently played on the Old Course, Joy got the idea of doing a one-man Tom Morris show at the Byre Theatre. "I don't know how I got away with it, because it was an improvisation," Joy says. "I went out and researched him properly after I'd done the show."
The result is a splendid impersonation: a wistful old man whose tales of golf in the 19th century are punctuated with warm chuckles, resonant "hummphs" and a smoker's cough. "It's a syrupy image of Old Tom," Joy concedes. "He was very stooped in his old age, very vulnerable, but I do him proud and straight-backed. He was already 'Old Tom,' you see, when he was 46, because he was the oldest winner of the Open at that age. He had a pawky sense of fun, a dry humor. In the research I couldn't find a bad word about him."
We go outside and stand in the garden next to a wicker ginger-beer stand. From his hillside Joy can see the spires of St. Andrews. "When folks come up in the summer," he says, "I let them hit feathery balls from the garden into my car park. It's like hitting a little baseball, and they can feel the give in the old clubs. Because there's quite a difference in hitting the feathery from the first gutta ball, which is like hitting a stone...."
And Old Tom begins to talk again, through Joy—a man of indeterminate age staring benevolently down on the town where golf gained purchase on a people.
You don't get to talk to the other icons of St. Andrews golf, but you see their names and images all over town. At 22 North Street, a polished metal plate announces R.R.B. AUCHTERLONIE, D.D.S. (More than a century ago, another Auchterlonie, a little boy named Willie, got his start in golf at this corner, using a bent stick to propel champagne corks toward gas-lamp posts.) A short walk away, in the Cathedral graveyard, one finds the tombstone of Allan Robertson, Old Tom's first employer and the first true golf professional. On Golf Place, a block from the Old Course, graphite-shafted cleeks and cashmere sweaters beckon buyers at Auchterlonies, where clerks drop the names Laurie and Tom and Eric as if the famous clubmakers were still producing beech drivers in the workshop.