Old Tom Morris

Old Tom’s “lost course” at Askernish is the perfect example of his use of natural land to its best advantage.

Old Tom’s “lost course” at Askernish is the perfect example of his use of natural land to its best advantage.

The Grandfather of Golf

Four-time Open champion Old Tom Morris is best-known for the quality of his golf. But his work on courses across the UK and Ireland drove golf architecture and greenkeeping into the modern age. Duncan Lennard examines his legacy.

In today’s world of stadium courses and stimpmeters, of root zone analysis and USGA-spec greens, it beggars belief to think that little over 150 years ago, golf courses were rarely designed and barely cared for. Whether at Kinghorn, Gullane or Montrose, the game’s pioneers played to green sites selected at random for their naturally close-cropped grass, or out of bunkers positioned by sheep, whose grazing exposed the sand beneath the turf. 

It was into this world that Thomas Mitchell Morris was born, in St Andrews, Fife in 1821. A gifted player, he would go on to win four Open Championships before passing the torch to his precocious son Tommy. But after Tommy’s tragic death at just 24 in 1875, Old Tom increasingly turned his attention to what would prove to be golf’s Big Bang, driven by the advent of the cheaper ‘Gutty’ ball, and building the courses to cater for it. Here he would prove himself an innovator and a visionary, introducing architecture, strategy and playing-surface conditioning to the game as he went.

His efforts ensured the game would leave its raw, arbitrary roots behind and grasp its opportunity to enter the mainstream. In the year of Old Tom’s birth, there were no more than a dozen golf clubs or societies in existence; by 1908, the year of his death, there would be around 2,500.

Sadly, though, be it through the march of technology, changes in playing philosophy or even coastal erosion, so much of Old Tom’s work is now lost. His original designs of Muirfield and Royal County Down are today unrecognisable; other great courses, like Lahinch and Prestwick, offer fleeting glimpses of his genius and style, Machrihanish, Bridge of Allan and reborn Askernish a little more. Old Tom is still there if you know where to look… and don’t mind the odd ferry journey.

In the beginning
Tom Morris began his life in golf as an apprentice to Allan Robertson, whose abilities to prise cash out of the game either through Featherie making, caddying, hustling or ‘keeping the green’ marks him out as golf’s first true professional. Morris assisted when Robertson built 10 holes at Carnoustie in 1842, but his career as a creator of golf courses didn’t really begin until he was appointed keeper of the green at a new golf course in the west of Scotland, called Prestwick, in 1851.

When he first set eyes on the ‘course’, Old Tom saw little more than 50 acres of wilderness. Out there in the chaos of duneland and waist-high grasses, heather and broom, were scattered some knee-high flagsticks, towards which the club’s members shot randomly.

The course Old Tom painstakingly created may have had crossovers, multiple blind shots and only 12 holes, but it undoubtedly pioneered a new age of course upkeep and design.

Up to this point, hazards and obstacles were commonly dictated by the landscape and appeared randomly along the playing lines, with green sites at the mercy of natural growth. It was Morris who grasped that the terrain could be harnessed for drama, strategy and challenge, that by grooming the turf he could control surface quality… freeing him up to place the greens wherever he wanted them.

The result was a layout that was able to make maximum use of the natural gifts the landscape bestowed. “The course went dodging in and out amongst lofty sand hills,” wrote amateur champion and occasional design accomplice Horace Hutchinson. “The holes were, for the most part, out of sight for the approach, for they lay in deep dells among those sand hills. You lofted over the intervening mountain of sand, and there was all the fascinating excitement, as you climbed to the top of it, of seeing how near to the hole your ball may have happened to roll.” 

Maybe the best example still in play comes at Old Tom’s second hole, now the 17th. Here, he sited his green under the shadow of the massive Alps dune, booby-trapping the blind approach with the equally blind Sahara bunker that, to this day, continues to catch out golfers who relax on seeing their approach carry the summit.

Prestwick would also be the lucky beneficiary of groundbreaking greenkeeping practices, devised by Tom. It was here that he discovered the awesome power of top-dressing greens with sand, though legend has it this was a happy accident; after spilling a barrowful on the 10th green one year, he was delighted to see the emergence of a tight carpet of grass the following spring. He also used free railway sleepers, abandoned by the Glasgow and South Western Railway, to shore up and reposition the bunkers.

Old Tom’s work at Prestwick ensured the course had become the envy of Scotland… and even at the Home of Golf itself. Consequently, in 1864 the R&A offered him the chance to return home as the club’s professional and Custodian of the Links. St Andrews may have been home to the Royal and Ancient game, but Old Tom had ensured that Prestwick was where the modern game began. 

The time capsule: Askernish
Today, Prestwick is a typical Old Tom Morris course in that only bits and pieces of his original layout remain. Over the years the course has been altered and extended to eliminate crossovers and match the challenge to the modern game. Turn up to the course tomorrow and you will play just four holes – 2nd, 3rd, 13th and 17th – broadly as old Tom laid them out. In all, six of his original greens are in play.

It’s a familiar theme. Take Cruden Bay, a beautiful Highland course Old Tom created in 1898. A comprehensive redesign in 1926 by Tom Simpson means only wisps of the original remain, like the dramatic angled green at the par-5 6th, the elusive and well-protected green at the 7th. Old Tom’s ‘Punchbowl’ green at the 14th is reminiscent of the par-3 5th at Lahinch – itself one of the few holes to survive subsequent redesigns. Consequently, distilling the true nature of Old Tom Morris’ design is a confounding and thankless task. 

So the 2005 discovery of a ‘lost’ and unmolested Old Tom course at Askernish in the Outer Hebrides would appear to be the perfect opportunity to shed some light on his design principles. But even here things are not straightforward. A lack of reliable documentation means that both the course’s discoverer, golf course consultant Gordon Irvine, and its architect, Martin Ebert, admit to a certain amount of guesswork in recreating the Old Master’s work. “However,” says Irvine, “the fairway corridors are unmissable because the dune system is so strong either side.” 

“We know Old Tom prioritised green sites,” adds Ebert. When you are not able to move earth, identifying the most interesting green positions is an essential first step. The dramatic topography at Askernish suggests a series of such locations where it is not hard to imagine Old Tom would want to place a green.”

The course’s 2nd green has a huge spine running across it, splitting the front from the back; the 4th green is raised, though runs away from you at the back; the 9th green is perched on a ridge that runs diagonally across the line of play and away from the golfer; 10 and 16 have more severe movement than you will ever have seen on a green. Each one is challenging, infuriating, enchanting. Play the course and it’s easy to conclude he got a lot more right than wrong.

“I think what Askernish shows us is how adept Tom was at using the natural land to its best advantage,” Ebert continues. “Even our finest links courses have been changed by man or softened by top-dressing over the years; but at Askernish you know you’re walking on the original, dramatic topography, and Old Tom clearly enjoyed using it.” 

“But also what we can see here, and in much of Old Tom’s work, is golf designed for matchplay,” Irvine asserts. “It is rarely considered how much strokeplay – the modern game – has influenced course design. Today, the game is played by a fraternity worrying about its handicap; if a club feels a hole is ‘unfair’, they will change it. But at Askernish, the landscape is so raw and muscular that rub-of-the-green forms a big part of the playing experience. For Old Tom, a hazard was a hazard and you took your punishment, however severe.

“In some respects, Askernish echoes all those lovely, quirky putting greens you’ll find in every Scottish seaside town. They were set out on a piece of ground that was fun, and people putted for fun. Old Tom’s golf was a game of ball and turf, and bringing out the excitement and chance when the two interacted. 

“Try to keep a score at Askernish and you’ll resent its extreme contours. But go head-to-head against someone and you might just find yourself relishing the opportunity to hole the putt that sees you win a hole with a 7.”

Home: St Andrews
Back at his native St Andrews, Old Tom set about improving the course just as he had done at Prestwick. On this unique out-and-back layout, the greens had already been widened by Robertson to allow two pins and improve the flow of play; but the fairways hadn’t. This led to the extraordinary yet frequent sight of a four-time Open Champion up to his ears in the whin bushes, hacking away at the vicious, barbed wilderness. 

While widening the fairways may have been born out of necessity, it did allow Old Tom to shape and manage the famous alternative playing corridors that characterise St Andrews – tight, rewarding line up the right or safer, tougher route into the middle of the course. A happy accident it might have been, but it’s a strategy that is now commonplace in modern golf course design.

Old Tom could have altered St Andrews. Instead, respecting its natural swales and ability to deliver the game he fell in love with, he did not, choosing only to resite greens at the 1st and 18th. Consequently his role on the course was much more greenkeeper than architect. He stopped cattle grazing the course, repaired the fairways, top-dressed the greens continually and found clay piping of exactly 4.25in, the new standard set by the folks across in Musselburgh, to line the holes. In a truly progressive move, he even bought in hardy grass seed from Holland to tame the course’s notoriously poor putting surface at the 6th hole, still called Heathery.

Old Tom’s position at St Andrews provided enough latitude for him to create an extraordinary portfolio of golf courses that included Royal North Devon (1864), Royal Dornoch (1886), Nairn (1887), Portrush (1888), Royal County Down (1890), Muirfield (1891), Lahinch (1894) and St Andrews New (1895). Indeed he was still laying out courses in the year of his retirement, 1904, when he was 83. But, even as he was creating Kirkaldy, someone with Old Tom’s instinct for wind direction must have sensed the future; already the rubber-cored Haskell ball, some 20 yards longer than the gutties he had been designing for, had been used to win an Open. Golf’s extraordinary growth ensured his crossover holes were becoming dangerous; there were even frequent tales of balls colliding in mid-air. Many of his designs were doomed before they had seen even a decade of play.

This was, though, a period that would cement Old Tom’s role as a mentor as well as an innovator. His work inspired Charles Blair MacDonald, who had a locker in Tom’s St Andrews shop, to head to America and build its first courses in Chicago and New York. Tom’s creation of Dornoch inspired a local lad called Donald Ross to sail to the US in 1899 and build more than 500 courses there, his most famous – Pinehurst No.2 – contriving Dornoch’s naturally perched greens. AW Tillinghast found a kindred spirit in Old Tom after paying homage to him in his later years, and would go on to design Winged Foot, Baltusrol and Bethpage. 

But perhaps it was Augusta National creator Dr. Alister MacKenzie, whose severe, sloping Augusta National greens could perhaps be the ultimate homage to Old Tom’s work, who understood him the best. “No professional since his time,” he wrote in The Spirit of St Andrews, “has ever grasped the real sporting spirit of golf architecture like he did.” We can give thanks to MacKenzie that, while Old Tom’s courses may have almost died out, their spirit lives on.  

Click here to discover six Old Tom Morris Classic designs.

Nick Wright