Newsletters  | Mobile


"Everything falls apart, Father," Young Tom Morris whispered to himself, kneeling alone on the eleventh green of the St. Andrews Old Course—at that time, the town's only course—late on the night of Christmas Eve, 1875, tears streaming from his eyes in the cold North Sea wind. Of all the course's wind- and rain-blasted putting surfaces, it was this one that he'd watched his father, Old Tom Morris, the Royal and Ancient's legendary "Keeper of the Green," do the most battle with over the years, the surrounding dunes forever attempting to reclaim it. Old Tom had finally imported special grasses from Holland to knit the dunes down; any hole cut in the green, however, was inevitably even more difficult to maintain, what with golfers all day taking up handfuls of sand along with their balls in order to mount them for the next shot on the twelfth tee.

"That's why you should always get a late starting time," Old Tom liked to say. "Because by the time you get to eleven, Tommy, the hole's the size of your balmoral bonnet."

Young Tom reached down with the powerful yet supple hands that had already won him, by age twenty-four, four Open Championships, to reset the special metal cup that his father had devised, the very first of its kind. Looking back across the links' low-humped fairways, he could see the amber glow of gaslights and the familiar, stately outline of the Royal and Ancient clubhouse, the members undoubtedly chatting and toasting one another within. Directly across, overlooking the home hole, was the tiny gabled roof of his father's club- and ball-making shop, closed up and dark for the holidays. From the shop's back door, Young Tom traced in his mind the route along the worn stone passageway that led to the family cottage at Six Pilmour Links. He knew his mother and father would still be sitting up there by the fire and the light of the Christmas tree candles, eagerly awaiting his return, and he thought now of life's strange twists: How it is that extreme events, good and bad, can so warp time . . . Can make a man of twenty-four already so much older than his own parents.

"I could die tomorrow," he told himself, the passion that had made him such a fierce opponent on the golf course briefly rising up in him again, his coat collar flung defiantly open, his flush cheeks craving the cold even as it bit cruelly at his badly ailing lungs, "and know that I've somehow already outlived and outloved everyone."

No one actually saw Young Tom Morris out on the links that December 24, 1875, the last night, it would turn out, of his short life. No one on record at least. Local newspaper accounts in the days after his lifeless body was found on Christmas morning in his room at Six Pilmour Links have him returning directly home around 11 p.m. after a private dinner party in town with friends. He is said to have visited for a time with his invalid mother before bidding her and Old Tom good night, and then retiring to bed "in his usual good health," according to one paper, and "in cheerful spirits," according to another.

Still, Young Tom had to have known differently. He'd have wandered out across the links to the eleventh green that night, I believe, for the very same reason that he'd have made a point of visiting with his mother before going off to bed: the sort of last-minute tying up of loose ends that those who sense and even court their own imminent death often feel compelled to do. Only three-and-a-half months earlier, he'd lost both Margaret, his wife of just under a year, and their son in childbirth, and with them his will and spirit, turning his life's remaining days into a series of parting shots, ones that the man with "the heaven-sent touch," as Old Tom often described it, was shaping as assuredly as he once did his delicate and deadly chip shots.

Legend has long held that Young Tom Morris died that night of a broken heart. It is, however, the sort of notion that many of us have by now come to dismiss as being merely a romantic conceit. Indeed, according to his St. Andrews Death Registry certificate, even the postmortem examination conducted at the time by one John Wilson Moir, M.D., determined the cause of Young Tom's death to be a "pulmonary haemorrhage"—essentially a burst artery in his right lung. And yet the more I learned in the course of my visit to St. Andrews this past autumn about the brief life and times of the greatest golfer of his and, some would argue, of any era—walking in his footsteps; haunting his haunts; staring into the faraway gaze that marks nearly all of the photographs one sees of him on the walls of the town's restaurants, pubs and inns—the more it occurred to me that there may, in fact, be no contradiction at all between the medical and the mythical versions of Young Tom Morris's premature demise. That both, in the end, are true.

People do, indeed, die of heartbreak. A number of recent studies have shown that a person with a perfectly healthy heart can suffer a fatal arrhythmia or another potentially lethal form of cardiac or pulmonary dysfunction due to the kind of deep emotional trauma that Young Tom Morris experienced that late summer of 1875. As I discovered while researching my book A Man After His Own Heart (Crown), long after modern science had seemed to sever the heart for good from all of its former associations with our emotions, that very science has now brought us back around to the fact that our biology is not nearly so neatly bifurcated as all that; that there is an ongoing and very subtle to and fro, or conversation, between the brain and the heart. Our so-called pump, it turns out, the very entity that allows us life, seems to take that life and its various upheavals quite hard, to take them, well, very much to heart.

As for Young Tom Morris, it could be said that he was slated from the outset for a life of extreme upheaval, both triumphant and tragic. It goes beyond the explosive alchemy of his genetic inheritance: the great physical prowess combined with a very sensitive nature, a fragile disposition that, as I would learn, is a longstanding and still apparent Morris family trait. There was, too, the bittersweet legacy of his first name. Standing over the Morris family plot one misty gray afternoon in the ancient churchyard at the north end of St. Andrews, the gulls swooping above the cathedral's massive and long-ago hollowed-out eleventh-century shell, the North Sea crashing against the town-harbor pier directly below, I noticed on the Morris family tombstone bearing the date of Young Tom's death a "Thomas" before him. Young Tom was named not just after his famous father but also after his dead older brother, the first Young Tom Morris, who died in 1850, at age four, a year before the famous Young Tom Morris was born.

And whether or not he was honored or haunted by his parents' decision to try their dead son's name again on him, one could certainly be forgiven now for entertaining the notion of a "Tommy" curse in the Morris line. Adjacent to the tombstone Young Tom's parents erected for both of their ill-fated Tommys is one that Young Tom's sister, Elizabeth, placed for her son Tom, who died at age two months, in May of 1876, just five months after Young Tom was found dead in the cottage at Pilmour Links. And lying with Young Tom's wife, Margaret, is their stillborn son, whom they had been planning to name Tom Morris III.

Yet right up until that awful September 11, 1875, the fates couldn't have seemed more perfectly aligned than they'd been for golf's first true prodigy. He was born in St. Andrews in April of 1851, a particularly propitious time for both golf and the theretofore dreary, insular, North Sea town that golf's increasing popularity and refinement was just then helping to resurrect. New railroad lines were beginning to unite all of Scotland's previously isolated linksland courses. The tools of the game were showing drastic advancements as well. The ill-shaped and breakable featherie balls—small, sewn leather pouches stuffed to bursting with hatfuls of goose down—were now giving way to the more durable and sure "gutties," molded and increasingly standardized spheres of gutta percha, the tarlike sap of the Malaysian rubber tree.


Sign Up

Connect With Travel + Leisure
  • Travel+Leisure
  • Tablet
  • Available devices

Already a subscriber?
Get FREE ACCESS to the digital edition