Golf Superstars  by Rosemary McKittrick

 Photo courtesy of PBA Galleries.

Old Tom Morris liked to tell the story of the first British Open in 1860.  It seems eight players showed up to play golf.  One had spent the previous night in jail nursing a hangover.  Several others signed the register with an “X” because they couldn’t read or write.

He was legendary in golf history, its first superstar.

A motley crew, the golf host handed out matching checkered jackets for the group to wear and they looked more like lumberjacks than golfers. 

Tom came in second at the first British Open behind Willie Park.  Park was a local who grew up swinging a golf club carved out of a tree branch.  Tom followed up his loss by sweeping the Open in 1861, 1862, 1864, and 1867. 

He was legendary in golf history, its first superstar.  The golf great grew up in St. Andrews, Scotland, and understood the turf as well as the game better than most.  He played in every British Open until 1895. 

His son Tom Jr. won the Open, at age 17, in 1868.  The father-son finished 1-2 in 1869, with Tom Jr. placing first.

Back then fans were part of the game.  They cheered and booed.  They stood in greenside bunkers watching the players putt and bumping them as they swung.

During one match a bystander kept kicking Tom’s ball backwards.

“This isn’t golf,” he said as headed off the course on his way to the pub.  He sat nursing his whiskey as the crowd howled.

It was Old Tom who modernized the game.  He moved golf from bumpy pastures to smooth green courses with 18 holes. He shaped 69 courses, 52 of which are in Scotland.  His courses include Muirfield, Prestwick, Carnoustie and Royal Dornoch.  And he did it without a bulldozer.

Tom started out as an apprentice to greenkeeper Allan Robertson.  Robertson was considered by most to be the first golf architect at St. Andrews.  He shaped the centuries-old course.

It seems Tom parted company with his mentor Robertson in 1850 over golf balls.  Apparently, Tom ran out of “featheries” one day while playing a round and switched to a new “gutta percha” ball he found on the course. 

The problem was Robertson was a “featherie” craftsman who didn’t appreciate competition.  Not to mention the fact that the gutta percha ball soared farther than his own balls.

Tom left to play at Prestwick, the site of the first Open Championship until 1864.  Then he returned to St. Andrews as the “Custodian of the Links” until his death in 1908.

On Feb 18, PBA Galleries, featured the famous photograph of Old Tom Morris in a bunker at the St. Andrews Links in Scotland.  The circa 1900, 12 inch by 9 ¾ inch, photogravure from the Library of John M. McClelland Jr. sold for $1,920.


Book; “Tom Morris of St. Andrews: The Colossus of Golf: 1821-1908”; first edition; signed by authors; $780.

Steel Engraving; “The Golfers: A Grand Match Played Over the St. Andrews Links,” hand-colored; 1850; 25 inches by 36 inches;  $4,200.  

Mug; three-handled; ceramic; Lenox; filigreed sterling silver rim; painted scene features man about to chip the ball; pre-1900;  $5,100.

Bone China Plate; golf scene; blue painted; stamped Doulton Burslem; 12 ¼ inches diameter;  $10,200.             

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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