The Gift of Golf – Extract from MONARCH OF THE GREEN by Stephen Proctor

  07 Jul '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Young Tom Morris, born on 20 April 1851, was golf’s first superstar. Almost single-handedly he changed the way the game was played, and although his playing career was cut tragically short, his impact on the game continues to resonate today. In this extract from ‘Monarch of the Green’ we get a glimpse of the unique style that embodied Young Tom’s play, and propelled him to dizzying heights.

‘To write about Tommy Morris is a very brave thing to do. [Proctor] has been successful in bringing something new to the table. … An informative, charming book’

Through the Green

Young Tom tried to tear the golf course apart – and did it with a swaggering bravado that could have rubbed people up the wrong way. But Tommy had that rarest of gifts, a personality so winning that all sins are forgiven. Contemporaries remember his amiable qualities and his cheerful disposition in foursomes, even with gentlemen who played horribly. They tend to forget how his brash behaviour and bold frankness sometimes raised hackles in a class-conscious world.

Tommy’s approach to the game was fundamentally different from other players of his age. The only thing he did the same as everyone else was to hold the club in the palm of both hands. It would be a generation before Harry Vardon popularised the overlapping grip most golfers use today. In that age, nearly every leading golfer favoured a smooth, full, sweeping swing made at a leisurely tempo. Not Young Tom. He had a shorter backswing than his contemporaries and a furious follow-through that created a penetrating ball flight ideal for playing in Scotland’s windy conditions.

‘Tommy was the embodiment of masterful energy,’ wrote the Reverend William Proudfoot, who watched him play at St Andrews. ‘Every muscle of his well-knit frame seemed summoned into service. He stood well back from the ball, and with a dashing, pressing, forceful style of driving, which seldom failed, sent the ball whizzing on its far and sure flight.’

Tommy paid no attention to the universally accepted notion that it was unwise to press for more on a shot. He went all out on every swing, becoming the forefather of all the power players who dominate professional golf today. When he needed extra distance, he swung even harder, sometimes almost falling forward and often sending his Glengarry bonnet flying into the hands of an adoring fan. The crowd loved it, and so did Tommy.

Tommy came of age at a time when the gutty ball was creating new possibilities for how the game could be played. No player seized them as aggressively as he did. Young Tom’s go-for-broke philosophy and his genius for inventing shots was nothing short of revolutionary, setting a new standard of performance that would have to be matched by any player who hoped to compete against him. He was as groundbreaking in his age as Tiger Woods would be in another.

During the feather-ball era, golf had been played almost exclusively with long-nosed wooden clubs. They were made by splicing flexible hickory shafts to thin faces of harder wood like blackthorn or beech. Woods became the clubs of choice for the simple reason that a ball hit with an iron was likely to be reduced to a pile of leather and feathers. Most players used fewer clubs than golfers do today, between six and nine. Their clubs had different names, too. Golfers took their play club when driving from the tee and one of several spoons with more lofted faces for long shots from the fairway or rough.

Even for a short shot to the green over a bunker, players reached for a wood, a quirky club with a steeply lofted face that was called a baffing spoon. The only lofted iron most golfers carried was invented to deal with the reality that links were public areas where workmen in wheeled carts left deep tracks that presented a brutal hazard. Players used their rut iron to extricate balls from such impossible lies. On the green, golfers favoured wooden putters barely distinguishable from their other clubs, although some preferred to putt with a long-shafted, thin-faced iron that came to be known as a cleek.

By the time Tommy made his debut in 1864, the durable gutty ball left players free to discover new ways to use irons. The cleek, for instance, took on a role far beyond putting. It became the club of choice from the tee on short or narrow holes and from the fairway, too. In the hands of a skilled golfer, the cleek could be a deadly accurate weapon, lacing the ball on a rope towards the pin. Golfers must have loved them because when they posed for a portrait, players usually did so holding a cleek. The great British champion Harry Vardon expressed the sentiment best: ‘There is no shot in golf which gives greater joy – I am not sure that there is any which affords such complete satisfaction – as a well-hit ball with a cleek.’

Tommy set the tone for this transformation, inventing shots that would forever change the game. He began routinely hitting approaches to the green with his rut iron, taking advantage of its loft to create shots that sailed high and stopped quickly. Allan Robertson had been the first to try this. His swing was so precise – scientific, his admirers liked to say – that he could nip a feathery with an iron and plop it onto the green. Tommy perfected the shot, using his rut iron so deftly and so often that it became the forerunner of the niblick and later the sand wedge. Tommy also carried a short-shafted, straight-faced iron that he used in approaching particularly rough-hewn greens. Instead of putting from just off the surface, as most players did, Tommy would use his iron to pitch the ball a few feet and let it race into the hole. He had created the bump-and-run shot that is now an essential weapon in links golf. Creative and daring as he was, horrible lies held no fear for Young Tom. He seemed to relish them. Contemporaries marvelled at his powers of recovery, just as golfers of another age would shake their heads at the way Seve Ballesteros of Spain would make miraculous shots when all seemed lost.

It was, however, Tommy’s magnificent putting that truly set him apart. On most greens, he used his long-shafted, woodenheaded putter, standing upright with his right foot so close to the ball that those watching feared he might brush up against his toe as he drew the club back. He took great pains over every putt, long or short, and was all but invincible on the green, as Ferguson attested. ‘Any sort of putt appeared to be dead to him,’ recalled historian Everard, ‘and of the short ones he missed fewer than any player the writer has ever seen.’

In that respect, Tommy could not have been more different from his father, who endured years in which he had the yips and missed makeable putts so often that Tommy would needle him by saying, ‘Gin the hole was a yaird nearer him, my fawther wad be a guid putter.’ Old Tom’s reputation was such that when James Wolfe Murray, a flamboyant member of The R&A, jokingly addressed a letter to the ‘Misser of Short Putts, Prestwick’, it came directly to the Morrises’ front door.

With his hell-bent style and the shots he invented, Young Tom won by laughable margins and posted unheard of scores. By the age of 18, he had equalled the record score of 79 at St Andrews, and in the ensuing years there would be even more remarkable rounds to come. It wasn’t simply the scoring that struck fear into the hearts of other golfers. It was Tommy’s cocksure attitude – ‘Pick it out of the hole, laddie.’ Tommy’s intensity is palpable in nearly every photo ever taken of him. His is the fierce, almost arrogant stare of a player who never once doubted his supremacy, not even as a boy posing with his elders at Perth. All of this added up to a celebrity status previously unknown in golf.

Stephen Proctor is a prizewinning journalist and experienced editor of several large newspapers. He is an avid golfer and has spent the past decade studying the history of the royal and ancient game. Monarch of the Green is his first book. He lives in Malabar, Florida.

  • Paperback | Pub: 01 Jul 2021

    Shortlisted for The Telegraph Sports Book Awards Biography of the Year ‘A splendid new biography. How good was young Tom Morris? Stephen Proctor makes his case cogently. Young Tom Morris was one of the greatest of them all’ – Allan…

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