Authors: Kevin Cook
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Published by Gotham Books, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Photo on photo 1 courtesy of the University of Aberdeen
Photos on photo 2, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12, 14, and 15 courtesy of the University of St. Andrews Library
Photos on photo 3 and 4 courtesy of the Hobbs Golf Collection
Photo on photo 7 courtesy of the Howard Schickler Collection
Photo on photo 9 courtesy of Stepdance.com
Photo on photo 13 courtesy of Brian D. Morgan
Copyright © 2007 by Kevin Cook
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Beneath the sod poor Tommy’s laid,
Now bunkered fast for good and all;
A better golfer never played
A further or a surer ball.
A triple laurel round his brow,
The light of triumph in his eye;
He stands before us even now
As in the hour of victory.
Thrice belted knight of peerless skill,
Again we see him head the fray;
And memory loves to reckon still
The feats of Tommy in his day.
—from “Elegy on Tom Morris, Jr.”
Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, 1876
The links at St. Andrews in the nineteenth century.
he wind came off the North Sea, pushing sand and bits of straw over grass-covered dunes to the links. The wind smelled of seaweed. It hurried past the sandstone clubhouse and ran uphill to the Morris house, where it slipped under the door and stirred the embers of last night’s fire.
Tom Morris gave his son a mild kick on the backside. “Wake, Tommy.”
The boy twitched. He was thirteen and slept like a paving stone. After another kick he stretched and yawned. “What time is it?”
“Tea time.” His father, the early riser, had already rekindled the fire, boiled water, and filled two cups. Tommy was stretching and rubbing his eyes as the old man put a cup and saucer in his hands. Outside, a cock crowed. Tommy sat up and sipped his black tea. It was bitter and scalding, hot enough to numb the tip of his tongue. Next came a chunk of oatcake, dropped onto the saucer as his father bustled past.
Tom Morris threw open the door to the street. His reddish-brown side-whiskers caught the day’s first light. He was forty-three years old, with teeth the color of pale ale and a dusting of white in his beard. He rubbed his callused, veiny hands together as the breeze tossed motes of ash around the room, dropping ash on the Championship Belt on the mantel and on Mum’s untouchable china dishes in their rack on the wall. “Chilly,” he said. “We’ll have stingin’ hands today. Stingin’ hands.”
Tommy smiled. His father loved to say things twice, as if repeating something could double its import. “Aye, aye,” he said, amusing himself. “Stingin’ hands.” His father didn’t hear a word. He’d pulled his cap on and stepped into the wind, leaving the door flapping open behind him.
“Wait,” Tommy said. But the old man would not wait. Tommy gulped his tea, pulled his boots and jacket on, stuck the oatcake in a pocket, and clattered out the door with his father’s clubs under his arm.
His footfalls echoed down Golf Place, a double row of dark stone houses. No one else was awake. Any caddie or gentleman golfer who was up at this hour would be hung over, cradling his headache in his hands and wishing he had died at birth. The links were empty except for gulls, crows, rabbits, a mule tethered to a post by the stationmaster’s garden, and Tom Morris, now joined by his panting son.
Tom examined his six clubs—driver, spoon, two niblicks, a rut iron, and a wooden putter—and selected the driver. He took a pinch of damp sand from a wooden box by the teeing-ground and built a small sand hill—a tee—for his ball to sit on. He took his stance and waggled his club at the ball as if to threaten it. “Far and sure,” he said.
Tommy had heard the old motto a thousand times. He was supposed to repeat it, to say “Far and sure” before the first swing just as golfers had done on this spot for centuries. He was tempted to try something new, to blurt “Long and strong,” or “High and mighty!” But he held back. His father might take offense, might turn into one of those stern Old Testament fathers he was starting to resemble. So Tommy mumbled “far’n’sher” and watched the old man draw back the driver to start the slow, clockwork swing that all St. Andrews golfers knew, laying the hickory shaft almost flat across his shoulders at the top, starting down slow as honey and then whipping the head of the club through the ball, which took off toward the white flag in the distance.
Tom squinted as he followed its flight. Nodding, he reached into his jacket for his pipe and pouch. He tapped a few tobacco leaves into the pipe’s bowl, lit a match, and breathed blue smoke. Mum detested that smoke but Tommy loved it, the sweet reek of his father. Tom stood five foot seven, a bit above average for a Scotsman of his time, but in Tommy’s eyes he loomed larger. Tom Morris was the Champion Golfer of Scotland. He was the hero of St. Andrews, the only man who could beat the golfing brutes of Musselburgh. He was official keeper of these famous four miles of turf, the links of St. Andrews. Beloved by all men—excepting jealous golf professionals, several red-coated gentlemen of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, and the Musselburgh brutes—he was a pious churchman who was not above joking and drinking with foul-smelling caddies. Tom Morris was these great things and one more: He was the one golfer Tommy was dying to beat.
Not to humble him, never that, but to be more like him. Not as a rival, but more like an equal. More like a man. Tommy was nearly as tall as his father, and suspected he would soon be stronger. And the more he grew, the more he believed that a boy needs to make his own name in the world. He needs to be more than his father’s caddie.
With such thoughts in his head and the scent of tobacco in his nose, Tommy took the driver from his father’s hand. He took a pinch of sand from the box, knelt to make a sand tee for his ball, and then stood tall, waving the driver back and forth. His swing was short and fast: Bang! Tommy’s drives didn’t always go straight, but a few went farther than his father’s. This one sailed past the other ball before it bounced near Swilcan Burn, the brook that curled past the putting-green.
Tommy was thrilled. How many lads could hit a ball so far? How many grown men could?
His father was less impressed. Long or short didn’t matter so much to Tom Morris. Position mattered. Tommy’s drive was long, but too far to the left. Tom checked his pocket watch as he set off toward the green. A minute later he was hitting again. Without a word he took the wooden niblick from Tommy and slapped a low approach that the wind could not catch. His ball cleared the burn by a safe five yards and rolled to the back of the green.
Tommy faced a harder shot. There was no easy play from the left side. The only way to stop the ball near the hole would be a high, soft pitch, the opposite of the usual approach. But no one attempted such shots with the shallow-faced clubs of the day. Tommy had tried hitting shots from flat ground with his rut iron, a lofted club made for lifting a ball out of cart or wheelbarrow ruts. He found that he could make the ball drop and stop. Not every time—you had to strike it just right or you’d foozle the shot. But when it worked, the ball came down like a snowflake.
He waggled the rut iron. His father looked surprised—Tommy liked seeing that. He drew the club back, keeping his hands high, then yanked them straight down, chopping the rut iron’s heavy head into the turf. He grunted; dirt flew.
The ball squirted along the ground, bouncing before it splished into the burn. He dropped the rut iron. Damned useless stick. He lost the hole.
His father moved to the second teeing-ground a few yards away. There was no sandbox here; you fished a bit of sand from the bottom of the hole in the first green. Tom Morris fashioned his sand tee, then pulled his driver back over his shoulder—
—and whipped it smoothly to the ball—
. But this ball flew low. It was a scalded cat, a near-miss that skipped along the ground. On dry days a scalded cat would run out of sight, but this one kicked up dew and stopped only 120 yards out.
Tommy took his pinch of sand from the bottom of the first hole, made a perch for his ball. His father watched him take his stance. Was he aiming for Cheape’s Bunker? No sane golfer tried to clear that crater, not without a gale at his back, and the wind was across. Tom shook his head—the boy was his own worst enemy.
But Tommy had a plan, and a picture in his mind. He remembered all the rounds he had played with his father, not the friendly foursomes but the singles, one against one. They were all losses. At home the old man was kind, even tender. He tucked Tommy into bed every night and they prayed together.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
But there was no kindness on the links, where Tommy was beaten again and again, leaving him to dream of the day he would win at last. A day when he told the ball to duck into the hole and down it went. A day when he willed the ball to curve in flight and it curved. Now he used that dream image to picture his next shot. Pulling the driver back with his right elbow high, he brought it down and sent his drive on a beeline for Cheape’s. In mid-flight the ball curved to the right as if it knew where to go.
Sheer willpower may have helped, but so did something more tangible: the spin Tommy applied with a swing that went from high and away from his body to low and closer, toward his left foot. That sidespin gave the ball a gentle arc from left to right, and his drive landed safely to the right of Cheape’s Bunker, leaving him a clear shot to the green.
“Well played,” his father said.
Praise from Tom Morris! That alone made this a good day. And it might get better yet, for Tommy had a secret: He was learning to make the ball curve at will.
They played fast, as always, with Tom checking his pocket watch. He hated spending more than two hours to play eighteen holes. As he marched down the fairway he would reach over and take a club from Tommy, who carried the clubs under his armpit. Within seconds of reaching his ball Tom began his clockwork swing and dispatched the ball on a low, straight line. He knew every cranny of the links and always took the safe route, trusting opponents to make more mistakes than he did.
Tommy played a bolder game. He was strong—the only boy his age in town who could topple a full-grown cow, not that his father would allow mischief like cow-tipping if he knew of it. On the links, Tommy swung hard and took chances. If a high-risk shot failed, he would try again. And again. He was more than fearless. He was a joyful golfer, a boy who could laugh at a terrible shot and swing harder at the next.
His ball had found a level lie near Cheape’s Bunker. The ball was a dull white gutty, made of gutta-percha, the sap of a gum tree in Malaysia, a far corner of the Queen’s vast empire. Hard as rock, it made a loud click at impact, like a billiard ball hitting another. This one clicked and climbed like a rocket as he slammed it toward the putting-green. With a chip and a putt, he won the second hole. The match was even, one hole apiece. This was match play, the usual way of keeping score. Total strokes didn’t matter; each hole was a separate contest, and whoever won the most holes won the day.
They halved the next two as the wind picked up, humming in their ears. Neither golfer spoke much. Tommy won the fifth hole when his father left a three-pace putt a yard short. Everyone knew how Tom Morris struggled with short putts. “You’d be a fine putter, Father,” Tommy needled, “if the hole was always a yard closer.”
Tom smiled. The boy had spirit. But the boy was a long way from winning the day. In fact this was golf the way Tom liked it. Outdriven and outplayed for five holes, he was only one behind with miles to go.
Gray clouds turned red as the sun climbed over the sea. When a low cloud began drizzling, Tommy reached into a jacket pocket, where he kept a lump of pine tar to aid his grip. He found the tar as well as a slick, blackened oatcake, the breakfast he had stuck in the wrong pocket. He tossed the oatcake over his shoulder for the crows to gag on.
At the sixth hole, called “Heathery” due to its rough, weedy putting-green, both players lay two and had thoughts of chipping in for three. Tommy often joked that this green was more brown than green. In spots you could see bits of the seashells that gave the hole its traditional name, “Hole o’ Shell.” On a windless day you could hear shells crunch under your boots. Putts didn’t roll here, they bounced. Tom had no trouble bump-and-running his way to a four while Tommy two-putted for a frustrating five, the same five any club man could make with four gouty swings and a lucky putt.
The High Hole was where Tom loved to tell of the Great Storm of 1860. Waving his arm toward the beach, he relaunched the tale of Captain Maitland-Dougall, recalling the day when the Captain stood poised to compete for the medals of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. But a tempest rose up! Winds and five-yard waves capsized a ship in the bay. Ten men dragged the town’s lifeboat across the links to the raging surf, but who would lead them? Captain Maitland-Dougall! Dropping his clubs, he left his fellow golfers behind and leaped into the lifeboat, taking the stroke oar himself. A dozen sailors were saved that day, many pulled from the maelstrom by Maitland-Dougall himself. When the Captain had rowed the lifeboat safe to shore, he returned to the links. Wet as an otter, his arms like lead weights, he took up his clubs and won the gold medal with a score of 112.
Finishing his story, Tom Morris looked as proud as if his own niblick were the stroke oar.
Tommy was, as ever, amazed by this story. A hundred and twelve? That was worse than straight sixes. He was no admirer of his father’s bosses, the club men in their red golfing jackets, calling themselves Captain this and Major that, wagering tens and scores of pounds and then swinging and missing. “God save Captain Maitland-Dougall,” he said, shaking his head at a winning score of 112.
Tommy won the High Hole but lost the eighth when his father rolled in a putt for a deuce (and tipped his cap). The eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh holes were where the course reached the top of its shepherd’s-crook shape and doubled back toward town. On the evil eleventh, Tommy’s tee shot met a sudden gust of wind, struck the face of the Hill Bunker, and slid straight down. No one could save three from there. But his father took three putts (and Tommy tipped his cap). They halved the hole. The boy was still two holes ahead.
From the twelfth teeing-ground they could see the town’s old towers. To the west was the Eden Brae, a grassy slope that leaned down to the mudflats where the River Eden fed into the sea. Fisher-women toiled down there, moving through acres of mussel-scalps a hundred yards out, gathering mussels for their men to use as bait. A wrack-picker shoved a wheel-barrow along the sand, heading for the corner where the tides brought great tangles of wrack—seaweed—that would fertilize gardens all over town. As a rule, the golfer and the wrack-picker eyed each other warily, each thinking the other a fool for doing the world’s dullest chore. But like everyone in town, this straggle-bearded wrack-gatherer knew Tom Morris. He looked up and waved.
Tom waved back. He took a deep, bracing breath of salt air and turned from the brae to the work at hand. He tossed a blade of grass to gauge the wind, then hit a modest drive, straight as a telegraph wire. It was easy to spend strokes on the way in. He spent carefully, tacking his way through the next three holes, giving Tommy every chance to stumble. Which Tommy did on the long fourteenth, hitting a spoon that rolled into the Hell Bunker. Three swings later he rose from Hell with his face pink, hot with shame. His advantage cut to one hole, he was dying to make up for his blunder. And so, after a clean four on the fifteenth hole, he did exactly what his father expected at the sixteenth: He took the bold line off the tee, smacking his drive up the right side along the railway tracks. It was the wrong play. You could make three that way—or seven or eight. But sometimes the wrong play works. Tommy’s drive landed two hundred yards out, hopped, and stopped just shy of the tracks. Safe by the length of a thumb. From there he hit a spoon to two-putt distance and the hole was his. That made him dormy: Leading by two holes with two to play, he could not lose. His father’s only hope was to win both of the last two holes to salvage a half, a draw.