The history of the Father & Son Tournament at St Andrews

17th January 2019

The roots of St Andrews’ famous Father and Son Tournament are steeped in the mid to late 19th Century.

Pioneer of the professional game, Tom Morris, was born in St Andrews in 1821 and began his golfing career by hitting corks weighted with nails around the town’s streets. After finishing school aged just 14, his father arranged for him to meet esteemed ball-maker and caddy Allan Robertson and he was taken on as an apprentice. Robertson taught him how to play the links and Morris started caddying and playing matches, with the pair winning a series of foursomes matches together. In 1851, Morris moved to Prestwick where he took up the role of greenkeeper at the local golf club, designing and constructing a 12-hole course over the links.

Fierce rivalry

In 1861, he gained revenge on Willie Park at The Open after losing the inaugural tournament in a playoff to his opponent a year earlier. The following year, Morris went on to beat his rival again, this time by 13 strokes - a record winning margin that stands to this day, and he took the belt for a third time in 1864. Shortly after he moved back to St Andrews as custodian of the links for the R&A, by which time his son Tommy was showing similar talent to win a match in Perth against local prodigy William Greig and net the prize of £15 – a princely sum in those days. He also achieved the unbroken accolade of the youngest golfer to contest a Major at the age of 14 years and four months when he played in the 1865 British Open.

In 1867, Tommy followed that up with victory in a professional event at Carnoustie. In the same year he competed in The Open, which his father won at the age of 46, and he remains the oldest winner to this day.

The young challenger

But a year later it was Tommy himself who lifted the belt, setting two course records in the process. He retained his title the next year and became the first man to win the Championship in three consecutive years, beating Davie Strath by 12 shots. There was no Open in 1871, but Tommy was victorious again in 1872, with his name the first to be inscribed on the new silver Claret jug. He remains the only man to win four straight Championships.

Tommy was said to have swung the club with a flourish and a dash, the likes of which had never been seen before. He hit the ball hard, using the rut iron, a club with a very small, lofted head that most players carried to get the ball out of ruts or rabbit scrapes, to great effect, floating the ball up to the flag using a range of approach strokes. Tommy also brought a new attitude to the game: one that might be described as self-confidence bordering on arrogance.

In 1875, the father and son teamed up to beat Willie and Mungo Park in a four-round contest at North Berwick, winning on the final green. But their joy was short-lived as they received a telegram on completing the round telling them to return home immediately as Tommy’s pregnant wife Margaret was ill.

Tragic ending

When they arrived in St Andrews harbour though, to their horror, they were told by a messenger that Tommy’s wife and child had both died in childbirth. Tommy himself died soon after in his hometown of St Andrews before the year was out.

Talk in St Andrews is that he never recovered from a brutal challenge match, against Arthur Molesworth, played in November over six days of bitter cold, with high winds and snowfall. 

Men armed with brooms and shovels had to clear the St Andrews greens of snow on the Saturday, and on the Monday and Tuesday morning there was still three inches of snow on the links, with some drifts of up to two feet.

A monument of Tommy in tweeds and a Balmoral bonnet addressing a ball stands against the south wall of the graveyard at St Andrews in memory of the young golfer.   His father, though, went on to contest 19 more Open Championships, playing his last in 1895 aged 74, shortly before his death in 1908 after falling down a flight of stairs at St Andrews’ New Golf Club. In total, both father and son won the game’s oldest Major four times each.

The Morrises remain golf’s most iconic founding father and son – Tom known for his longevity in the game, and Tommy for his precocious style and talent.

The Father and Son Tournament, held in honour of Tom and Tommy Morris, is in its 18th year and continues to attract golfing families from around the world, from as far afield as the US and Australia and New Zealand. Tom worked extensively on the design of St Andrews’ Old and New Courses and Carnoustie – three of the four venues for the 72-hole event held between April 13 and 18. The fourth venue is Kingsbarns Golf Links. On the Old Course, Tom built the current first green across the Swilcan Burn and widened the 18th green, as well as transforming the greens. He was also responsible for the initial design of the New Course and he redesigned and extended Carnoustie to 18 holes.

Find out how to enter this year's 72-hole Father Son tournament at St Andrews here.