Book Review: Tommy’s Honor – The Story of Old Tom and Young Tom Morris, Golf’s Founding Father and Son
Author: Kevin Cook
The most surprising thing about Kevin Cook’s tale of the Morris [photopress:tommy__shonor.jpg,full,alignright]family, the individuals largely responsible for pushing golf into the modern era, is that it was so long in coming. Sure there have been other biographies, but nothing in recent years and nothing seemingly as complete as Cook’s exhilarating account of the rise of Tom Morris and the stunning success of his son, the Tiger Woods of his generation.
Most know the basics of the story. Tom Morris begins his career making golf balls with Allan Robertson, as the game slowly emerges from a Scottish hobby limited largely to St. Andrews. Morris falls in love with the game, becomes its greatest player and a force within golf, crafting the layout at Prestwick, working as “keep of the greens,” and eventually moving back to St. Andrews, where he and Robertson turn its links into a version close to what we play today. Eventually he has a son (there is actually a sad tale about the first Tom Jr., and a second son born with physical challenges) and it is Young Tom that eclipses his father’s accomplishments and brings the game into the mainstream.
Cook utilizes newspaper accounts of the day and social history to add fascinating detail to the story. Though not utilizing the same dialogue that author Mark Frost has added in books like The Greatest Game Ever Player, Tommy’s Honor still has a first-hand feel, and the detailing of bets both on and off the course give a clear path for the rise of the professional game of golf.
The detail of Morris’ time away from St. Andrews, a period of his life when he devised a routing for Prestwick Golf Club and raised the course into the limelight as the host of the Open Championship, is particularly fascinating. Prestwick, in many ways, is as important to the game of golf as the Old Course, and Cook’s detail of its creation and the early tournaments it held is enlightening and compelling. Having played the course in recent years, I found I could still relate to many of the accounts, though the current version of Prestwick only has a handful of holes in common with Morris’ creation.
What really makes the book a page turner, instead of simply another overwrought and dull historical tome, is the characters. Surely Young Tom, a superstar who refuses to be limited by his class or put in his place despite being the son of a greenskeeper, is remarkable. His ability and willingness to push social limits because of his abilities as a golfer makes him appear as a precursor to the modern professional athlete, and his success and fame makes him the Tiger Woods of his era. One is amazed at the sheer volume of his accomplishments in such a short life.
But it isn’t limited to the Morris family. Though not as fully developed, others — Willie Park, Allan Robertson, Willie Dunn, and the Strath family — are central figures in the rise of the game in Scotland and England. The stories of battles on the links with the Morris family taking on the Dunns or Parks, are epic, not just for the golf, but also for the involvement of the fans (who would take partisan roles, moving balls and generally involving themselves in the matches) and the weather (snow would not limit play, making modern pro golfers look decidedly less tough).
Tommy’s Honor isn’t perfect. Some details, especially relevant historical and social context, is unnecessarily repeated from chapter to chapter. It slows the narrative and gives the sense the book could have used a tighter edit. And while these repetitions are distracting, they thankfully don’t overwhelm the story.
Nonetheless, this an important book for anyone who wants to understand the growth of the game, its expansion from a provincial pastime to a national sport, and the rise of the individual professional within it. Tiger Woods may have appeared on the pro scene in 1997, but what Cook makes clear is without the Morris family, there development of the modern game of golf may have taken a very different path.