California Literary Review

Tommy’s Honor by Kevin Cook

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June 11th, 2007 at 8:32 pm

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Tommy’s Honor: The Story of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, Golf’s Founding Father and Son
by Kevin Cook
Gotham, 336 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

Golf’s First Masters

The initial glory days of golf, a time when the ancient sport first came to prominence, began in the 1850s on rough-hewn links courses that wound and snaked their way through gorse, heather, sheep and rabbit droppings, grass as stiff as iron and sand dunes along the rugged coasts of Scotland. Several of the first layouts, St. Andrews among them, lay far to the north of London along the North Sea, farther north than Moscow. On blustery days winds howled, sand blew in sheets across the courses and hail was not uncommon. Sea gulls screeched just over head.

St. Andrews began as basically seaside wasteland that was home to the wandering sheep and hordes of rabbits that tunneled everywhere. Sheep wallows eventually became sand traps and the first greens were nothing more than somewhat level overgrazed patches of grass that were often covered with the residue of the feeding rabbits. Pin placements were sticks with cloth tied on them and stuck in the ground. Clubs were usually long limbs of heather or gorse that had knobby growths on the ends that served as club faces. Balls were sewn pieces of leather stuffed with feathers known as “featheries” – to be sure a most primitive game.

Into this climate stepped Tom Morris who made a marginal living making the featheries, fashioning improved clubs with hickory shafts and persimmon heads and caddying for the wealthy elite membership of the St. Andrews club. These were members who had little ability and virtually no concept of how to play the game. They’d hack around the 18 ragged holes then retire to the hundreds-of-years-old granite club to smoke their pipes, swill large quantities of gin, claret or whiskey and eat enormous amounts of beef and mutton. Morris would scuffle for money matches often mixing pros or “cracks” as the rich sports called them with the amateur members. If Morris won he might make two or three pounds and be glad for the payday.

In Tommy’s Honor author Kevin Cook has done a wonderful job of not only capturing this chaotic class system in golf 150 years ago but also the living conditions in Scotland during this period.

The book, often written in a style much like that of a novel, shows a wild era when one Scottish town’s champion challenged another while “golf fanatics” hooted, spat at the golfers, and kicked the featheries (later hard rubber spheres made from gutta percha) into bunkers. This was the dawn of professional golf, the precursor to today’s enormous money, highly visible, big-time PGA extravaganza. It is also the tale of golf’s first heroes.

Cook, the former editor in chief of Golf Magazine, has covered the venerable game for twenty-five years. He’s an award-winning writer whose fiction was featured in Golf’s Best Short Stories. Cook’s written for Golf Digest, Golf, Sports Illustrated, GQ and Playboy. He lives in New York with his wife and three children.

Tommy’s Honor recounts how Old Tom becomes first the greenkeeper at Prestwick where he lays out the course’s first twelve hole circuit and then at the R&A (Royal and Ancient as St. Andrews is commonly called in Scotland) St. Andrews where he turns a tattered course into the gem that closely resembles the links of today. A devotedly religious man, he wins the Open (the British Open is known outside the U.S. as simply the Open and is the oldest of the four major tournaments that include the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA) four times. Morris grew up a stone’s through from the most famous course in golf. But as the years passed a challenger to his dominance appeared – his son, Young Tom Morris, who at seventeen became the youngest player ever to win the Open Championship. Young Tom went on to win three straight and retired the leather and silver belt that was awarded the winner at that time. This has since been replaced with the silver Claret Jug.

Despite all of these father-son triumphs, Old Tom is to become close acquaintances with tragedy as the years roll by.

Young Tom, at the peak of his success and now living the good life, is married to a devoted lass who is pregnant. He is revered as Scotland’s greatest golfer. He lives in a fine home in the best part of town. He’s making good money playing the game he loves. He is close with all of his family. Life is good. But while he and his farther are out of town playing a money match word arrives that his wife is in labor and that he should return home immediately. No trains are available for hours so the Morris’s finish the match, which they won, then sail home on the yacht of a local golf fanatic. Just prior to sailing, word arrives of deadly tragedy, but word is withheld from young Tom to spare him even further anxiety and grief during the all-night voyage. On arrival he is informed that both his wife and son died during birth. Stunned, Young Tom draws into himself and begins to sulk and drink, though he does manage to pull himself together for one final, brutal match in the November cold before dying himself within months of his tragedy. Old Tom endures this and the deaths of his wife, grandchildren, daughter and son-in-law. Perhaps his devout faith carries him through his sorrow and loneliness well into his eighties, or perhaps his devotion to the game, the need to tell the world of his son’s greatness and his devotion to St. Andrews kept him going until his accidental death.

“Old Tom was found in an unconscious condition,” reported the St. Andrews Citizen. It was mercifully quick.: He cracked his skull at the bottom of the stairs and never woke up. But perhaps Tom had time for a last blink of thought. An eighty-six-year-old man falling in the dark. He might have seen the links in the late-day sun that casts shadows over every bump and makes the land look like water. He might have seen his son again, a brave boy knocking in a putt to beat his Da and then flinging his putter straight up. Whatever Tom believed his sins to be, he had lived the last thirty-three years of his life in Tommy’s Honor.

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