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Money Players
Kevin Cook
July 18, 2006
In 1872, Royal Liverpool staged the richest tournament in early golf history. The question: Could anyone beat Tommy Morris?
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July 18, 2006

Money Players

In 1872, Royal Liverpool staged the richest tournament in early golf history. The question: Could anyone beat Tommy Morris?

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In the�35th year of Queen Victoria's reign, the golfers of Royal Liverpool decided to give Scotland a run for its money. They were businessmen who'd made fortunes turning their rusty port town into England's "maritime metropolis." Now they wanted to put their club on the map by holding the grandest professional event ever seen. Their course in Hoylake, England, was no gem, but that didn't matter. The men of Royal Liverpool knew that a record-setting purse would lure what newspapers called " Scotland's golfing celebrities." Even then the way to a golfer's heart was through his pocket.

The best players--the world's first golf professionals--were all Scots. Most of them supported themselves by caddying for highborn gentlemen. In 1860, when Old Tom Morris and seven others met for the Challenge Belt that evolved into the Open Championship, respectable folk were appalled to see the professionals sipping whisky from pocket flasks and spitting on putting greens. Several golfers, because they could not read or write, signed the players' register with an X.

In those days the Open's first prize was �0. All the champion got was the Challenge Belt, a red-leather strap festooned with silver plates, and the right to call himself Champion Golfer of Scotland. By 1870 the Open winner also got �8, the price of a tweed suit. Two years later the merchants of Liverpool reckoned they could top that. To bankroll their Grand Professional Tournament they raised �103. The tournament's purse of �55 would dwarf the Open purse of �12, with �48 left over to pay for travel expenses and lavish dinners for the golfers. The Scottish pros took fast trains south to Liverpool, where horse-drawn coaches carried them across the Mersey to the links.

The graybeard in the field was Morris, who tended the St. Andrews links for the Royal & Ancient Golf Club. Fifty years old, his bushy sideburns meeting at his chin, Old Tom earned �50 a year from the R&A but often played money matches for twice as much. His greatest rival was Willie Park, a mutton-chopped tough who took out newspaper ads daring any man to play him for �100. Park had once humiliated another pro, beating him while hopping on one foot. He and Old Tom were joined by 14 other players, including Bob Andrew, known as the Rook for his beady-eyed resemblance to a crow, and Davie Strath, whose nervous manner was an odd match for his syrupy swing. But they were supporting players in a cast led by the current Champion Golfer of Scotland, the one newspapers called primus inter pares--first among equals. Today he is often called Young Tom Morris to differentiate him from his father, but in his day everyone called him Tommy.

A leonine figure in a tailored suit and a silk tie, Tommy Morris was 21. He had a mustache and flowing brown hair that showed reddish highlights in the sun. One of the few professionals who wasn't also a caddie, he'd been 17 when he surpassed his famous father as a player. Soon he surpassed everyone else, winning the Open in 1868, '69 and again in '70. In '69 he had made the first ace in Open history. The following year, on Prestwick's 1st hole--a 578-yard monster where 6 was a good score--Tommy holed out for a 3 that left one of Park's fans grumbling, "It's no' golf at all, just miracles." His third straight Open victory, a 12-stroke runaway, entitled him to keep the Challenge Belt. At that point tournament officials threw up their hands and canceled the 1871 Open.

Stepping down from his carriage at the Royal Hotel, a stone box with the Irish Sea at its back, Tommy saw the links--a patchy waste nibbled by rabbits, with a horse racing track running through it. He had won an informal tournament there the year before. Now he joined the others for a long, loud dinner hosted by barkeep John Ball, whose son would win the 1890 Open. Ball kept the drinks flowing while the golfers sang and toasted bonny Scotland. Before they knew it, the sun was up, harsh as a headache.

Sixteen players�gathered in front of the hotel on Tuesday morning, April 25, 1872. According to a newspaper story (now a faded clipping in the club's archives) the Grand Professional Tournament would be "a rare treat to those who have never had an opportunity of seeing the 'far and sure' strokes of the leading professionals."

Tommy Morris teed off first. On the backswing he brought his whippy, hickory-shafted driver so far behind him that he almost lost sight of the ball. He swung hard; impact was a clack like a cue ball hitting another billiard ball. His drive took off, clearing a corner of the racetrack. Like everyone else he played a gutta-percha ball, made of rock-hard rubber from Malaysia. In cold weather a gutty might split at impact (you played the larger chunk); this one stayed whole and carried about 180 yards, a long poke. Tommy set off after it, trailed by more than 100 spectators in a light rain.

The 1st hole was 440 yards of sandy turf and marshland pocked with reeds. The wooden rails of the racetrack were in play. So was the track itself: You might find your ball in a hoof print. Tommy struck a low second shot to safe ground, knocked an iron to the green and rapped in the putt for a 4. The terms birdie and par were still unknown, but 4 was effectively a birdie. Nobody would beat 4 on that hole that day.

The 2nd hole ran along a hedge. The racetrack's railing cut the fairway in half. Tommy's drive was "successful," according to the English sports journal The Field, but his next shot "went into a ditch which caused a bad stroke." His recovery veered out-of-bounds, and he made 8 on the hole--the first sign that the champion might struggle that day. To use Tommy's own expression, it was not his "day oot for stealing long putts."

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