Old Tom Morris' Spirit (and Descendants) Live on at Old Course
E-card No. 4
Friday night, July 17, 2015
St. Andrews, Scotland
Right on the 18th hole, along a lane called The Links, there’s a brown-and-white sign that reads TOM MORRIS, and it marks the spot where Tom Morris, winner of the 1861, ’62, ’64 and ’67 Opens and for 39 years the Old Course greenkeeper, had a golf shop. It is still a shop, although today one goes there to buy, as they say in the trade, “soft goods.” Above the shop is an apartment where Old Tom’s great, great granddaughter, Sheila Walker, a retired medical school librarian, lives. At High Noon, and by previous arrangement, we met in her tidy garden behind the shop. There was a little rectangle of perfect grass at its center.
“Do you inherit the green thumb from Old Tom?” I asked. The madam before me was a patrician, white-haired woman in pearls and a cashmere sweater.
“We call it `green fingers,’” she said. “I suppose I did.”
Sheila Walker is in her early 70s, trim and vibrant, and she manages the garden without help. I asked her for her grass-growing secret.
“Every year, I go to the beach and pinch some sand and spread it on the grass,” she said. “Old Tom had an expression, `Mair san’.’” Whatever ailed your course, he felt, could be cured by pouring more sand on it. If the modern Old Course had an architect, it was Old Tom.
Miss Walker showed me the shop and remembered the smell of molten lead that filled it when a dozen or so men were still working in it, making golf clubs, in the late 1940s. When I admired the distinctive font of the shop’s shingle, she noted with pride that it is an Art Nouveau design to which she had a particular attachment. She has never played the Old Course—she putts but otherwise gives the game a wide berth—but she has been in the Royal & Ancient clubhouse on many occasions. She is an authority of her family’s history, and she makes a careful distinction between known fact and conjecture.
She told me earlier that she was worried about a planned film, to be directed by Sean Connery’s son, Jason, about the lives and times of her great, great grandfather and his son, Young Tom, who won four Opens himself. She is worried that it will turn legend into fact.
Young Tom died at age 24, four months after his wife and newborn child died in childbirth. It is often said that he died of “a broken heart.” I wondered where that fell on the fact-legend divide.
“Do you believe that?” I asked.
“Absolutely, I do,” she said.
At that point, we’re on the small, crowded lane in front of the shop, with an unobstructed view of the 18th green. Sheila was admiring how well the Old Course had drained from the morning’s heavy rains. She told me about the large number of skeletal remains that had been dug up under that green, under Old Tom’s supervision. It had been the site of a mass burial after a cholera outbreak. A man she knew from her schooldays happened upon her and I said goodbye.
Later that afternoon, I was in the ancient cemetery that abuts a cathedral ruin where Old Tom and Young Tom are buried. Red roses flattened by the rain rested on slabs of rock. I fell into a conversation with a gent gathered there named Dr. Jim Morrison, a retired general practitioner from a small village near Aberdeen. We talked some about the Donald Trump course in Aberdeen, which he thinks is spectacular. “You stand on some of those back tees and look at the holes and it’s like looking through the wrong end of a binocular,” he said. He had less praise for the course’s owner. He described being at a reception for locals that Trump had organized. Miss Scotland, a beauty pageant winner, was in the room. "Trump calls out to her, 'Miss Scotland, come over here,'" Dr. Morrison recalled. That might play in New York, but not in Aberdeen.
Shortly before 10 p.m., I found myself in front of Old Tom’s shop again, as Tom Watson concluded his long run of Open play, which included, as every Scottish schoolchild knows, five Open wins and nearly a couple more. Watson took three putts from just off the home green, in the gathering darkness and through a chilly wind. The lane was filled with spectators who applauded with some lust for the old champ. Watson was nothing if not appreciative. He never won on the Old Course, but he did something better—he lost there once, to Seve in 1984, and he took the defeat with admirable grace and a stoicism.
Moments later, I saw Watson’s wife, Hilary. I pointed to a second-floor window above Tom Morris’s old shop.
“Do you see the white lamp shade there?” I asked.
“Yes,” Hilary said.
“Do you see the white-haired lady with the binoculars next to it?” I said. “That’s Old Tom Morris’s great, great granddaughter.”
Old Tom had four Opens. Young Tom had four. The other old Tom—Toom Watson—has five. And there was Sheila Walker, taking it all in.
“Oh, my,” Hilary Watson said. “Isn’t that something?”
Night fell on St. Andrews.