Tommy’s Honor: No links golfer’s education would be complete without it
As I write this, I’m two weeks into my most excellent two-month Scottish adventure. So I’m still hungrily gobbling up any morsel on the history of the game—especially the pure links variety of it—I can find. In that context, Kevin Cook’s masterful double biography of Old Tom Morris and his golfing prodigy son Young Tom is the equivalent of a four-course meal.
It’s also sustenance on a blustery day when, alas, hands-on golf is not on the agenda.
What’s so special about this book?
If you’ve ever wondered how the modern game came to be, especially as it relates to the emergence of the golf professional, this book would be a wonderful way to get up to speed quickly.
Cook begins with a brief summary of the game’s earliest beginnings in the auld country in 1057 to the formation of the first golfing societies in the early 1800s. Then he fully engages with his subject matter, beginning with the birth of Old Tom in 1821 and carrying through in full detail until the death of the game’s patriarch in 1908. In between, he tells the heroic and tragic story of Young Tom (aka Tommy), who rose to stardom while still a teenager then died in his sleep at just 25.
How does it read?
Absolutely fascinating. As most people who’ve played the game for any length of time, I've had a limited awareness of the Morrises and the impact they had on the Old Course and St. Andrews. For example, I'd known that Old Tom had a hand in designing several of the top-rated links in Scotland, including my personal favorite, Machrihanish. But to be honest, the image in my mind was likely shaped more by an overblown caricature—like the comic version of Old Tom portrayed in the current run of GolfNow television commercials in America—than historical reality.
Cook sets the record straight in prose that’s both thoroughly researched and fully engaging. There is tremendous depth here, probably more than a casual or non-golfer will be willing to wade through. But there is also drama and palpable human emotion that keep the story moving forward. Along the way, you gain a deep appreciation for the unadorned game they played, the harsh living conditions they endured and the lasting legacy they imparted. The two Toms are now real human beings to me, in ways that would not have been possible if Cook had not written this book.
Case in point:
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.
I’m in Scotland. Before I head home, I will stand on the first tee of the Old Course, where the two Toms once stood. But when I absorb the above, it’s almost as if I’m there already. Almost.
As a reader, you simply can’t ask for more than that.
Where can I buy it?
For expediency’s sake, I downloaded the Kindle version via Amazon. But when I’m back home, I plan to secure a hard copy to add to my very modest (but growing!) collection of golf books. If you love golf, in particular the game’s history, you owe it to yourself to follow suit.
Is it worth the price?
With hardcover copies available for as little as $12 (paperback and electronic version even less), it’s a complete no brainer. To paraphrase the GolfNow’s Old Tom, “Go read!”