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Following in the footsteps of pioneers at St Andrews, the home of golf

The bridge across the Swilcan Burn on the Old Course is at least 700 years old. Photo/Alamy
It was early July when I visited the old university town of St Andrews, but the Scottish weather was anything but summery. Occasional shafts of sunshine gave way to rain and hail that battered the town on the North Sea coast of Fife.

Hot it was not. I considered buying a polo-neck sweater from a well-stocked golf shop called Auchterlonies – until I saw the price. I briefly thought of snuggling up to a latte in the Northpoint cafe near the university, the place where Prince William reportedly first laid eyes on Kate Middleton. But I was looking for the hallowed markers of Scottish golfing royalty rather than traces of the House of Windsor.

After some searching among the many gravestones of local dignitaries and notables in the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, I located the memorials to Old Tom Morris and his son, aptly named Young Tom Morris. The father’s is a slab of weathered stone, set into the ground by the eastern perimeter wall. The son’s, a couple of metres away, is a dark bronze statue in startling relief against a white marble arch. Kitted out in jacket and tie and crowned with a tam o’ shanter, he’s addressing a ball and ready to strike. His tragic early death, states the inscription, was “deeply regretted by numerous friends and all golfers”.

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To call the Morrises golfing royalty may seem extravagant, but father and son won the British Open eight times between them from 1861 to 1872. The younger Tom was just 17 when he first won the Open in 1868 – that record stands – and the next year he scored the tournament’s first hole-in-one. The Morrises’ exploits are documented in Tommy’s Honour, a 2016 film based on American sportswriter Kevin Cook’s 2007 book.

In the early days, the Open was played at Prestwick, 50km southwest of Glasgow, on a 12-hole course designed and maintained by Old Tom (three rounds were played in one day). The first championship attracted eight players, even though there was no purse: the prize was the Challenge Belt, made from red morocco leather and featuring silver panels of golfing scenes by Edinburgh silversmiths James & Walter Marshall.

Tom Morris, father. Photo/Getty Images

Old Tom became greenkeeper at St Andrews in the 1860s, making it into an 18-hole course (with seven double greens and four single greens) and it staged its first Open in 1873.

Young Tom hit long and straight, but a drive of 165 yards (150m, though they didn’t use that obscure Continental measurement) was a cause for celebration in those days.

Golfers mostly played with gutties, undimpled balls named for the gutta-percha, a rubber-like sap from the Malayan sapodilla tree, from which they were made.

They were a far cry from the multi-layer balls of space-age materials that pro golfers now routinely smash 300m. Likewise, today’s powerful graphite shafts were as unforeseen then as Dreamliners and smartphones: clubs had hickory shafts with rudimentary heads in wood or grooveless iron and imparting backspin was virtually impossible.

The fairways were typically so crude that a special club called a rut iron was used to play the ball from cart marks. It won’t be in Lydia Ko’s bag. Her driver and hybrids whack the ball onto surfaces probably superior to the average greens of the 19th century.

But one thing the Morrises, father and son, shared with modern pros was a will to win. Young Tom also had a flamboyance and dashing self-belief to rival later greats, such as Henry Cotton, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods. He was the first golf superstar, insisting on appearance money, and ruffling traditional feathers by betting on his victories. Thousands of spectators flocked to his challenge matches, sometimes attended by correspondents from the major dailies in London, a 700km train trip away.

Tom Morris, the younger, wearing the British Open Belt. Photo/Getty Images

Old Tom died at 86 in 1908, after falling down a flight of stairs at the clubhouse at St Andrews, the course he’d tended with rare skill and vision for almost 40 years. He owed his longevity to plenty of walking, a lifelong fascination with golf and the region’s bracing winds – though the weather did not confer a similar advantage on his son.

Young Tom, still grieving over his wife Margaret’s death in childbirth in September 1875, played a match in November over six days at St Andrews. It was so cold that the snow had to be shovelled off the greens. His win earned him and his backers more than £100, equivalent to around £11,000 ($21,000) today, but he died on Christmas Day, aged just 24. The cause of death is not known with certainty, but historians agree it was probably cardiovascular – an embolism or aneurysm.

A few yards from the clubhouse at St Andrews is the British Golf Museum. A mere £5 gave me access to everything a golf nut could possibly want to know about the British Open and golf in general. There’s a larger-than-life bronze of Old Tom in the foyer but I prefer the museum’s portrait of the great man against a background of heath and heather. He was 75 when he played his last Open at St Andrews in 1896 and his funeral procession stretched the length of the town’s South St.

The museum’s top floor has a cafe and restaurant, with panoramic views over the course. As the sun and showers competed, there were plenty of golfers wrestling with the windswept complexities of the fairways, greens and bunkers. It costs: depending on the season, a round on the Old Course is between $170 and $360 – and another $95 (tip extra) for the advice of a professional caddie, essential for players new to the course – but tee times are booked solid.

For a keen golfer with a sense of history it’s money well spent to play on the home turf of golf, following in the giant footsteps of Old Tom and Young Tom.

This article was first published in the January 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.