Old Tom Morris may have died 102 years ago, but his spirit rages on in golf historian, actor and St. Andrews native David Joy. When not writing books about his favorite sport, the 61-year-old Joy channels Old Tom, appearing with eerie precision as the mythic “keeper of the greens” at dinner parties and in his one-man show. As the Open returns to Old Tom’s old stomping grounds, we caught up with the golf pioneer and found him, among other things, surprisingly spry for a 189-year-old. (Note: These responses are best read in a gravelly Scottish brogue.)
Old Tom, it’s an honor to finally meet you. You won four Opens, all in the 1860s. How has golf changed the most since you played?
In my day, the Old Course was a khaki color with a suspicion of green. Now it’s like a billiards table. It’s not really a links course if you’re able to aim directly at the flag, like they do today. And there was no money back then. Today, you win a million dollars. But I knew Open winners who also had to work as caddies.
You played with featherie balls and hickory shafts. What’s your take on today’s high-tech game?
I was a clubmaker as well as a greens keeper and course designer, and that was always my battle — technology vs. tradition. The game still struggles with it. But there are advantages. I hit it 170 yards with my longest club. Today, I would hit it 340 yards, right out there with Mr. Woods.
You were a champion golfer and drinker, right?
Aye, I enjoyed Black Strap stout, with a bit of whisky. It was the death of me. One day in 1908, I had one too many and mistook a door to some stairs for the lavatory, took a tumble, fractured my skull and died, three weeks short of my 87th birthday.
You’re very well-spoken for a corpse — sort of like golf’s Larry King. Who do you like to win this year?
This is the 150th anniversary of the first Open, so I favor someone from our side of the pond. I like that young Irishman McIlroy, who knows links golf.
In your prime, could you beat Tiger?
Not me, but Young Tom — may he rest in peace; he died at age 24 — was a phenomenal player. If you make Tiger wear the confining clothes we wore, then Young Tom would beat the ascot off him.
Did you say ascot or escort?
Sorry — I’m afraid I didn’t follow that scandal business too closely.
Then you might not have heard that Tiger used text messages to contact his mistresses. When you took a shine to a lass’s exposed ankle, how would you contact her? Morse code?
[Laughs.] No, I was no ladies’ man. I was 5-foot-5 with a face like an old leather pouch.
Just like Tiger’s girlfriends.
You said that, laddie, not me!
Of today’s living players, who would you like to tee it up with?
Arnold Palmer, because he’s so accessible. And Seve Ballesteros, who has that flamboyance. He reminds me of Young Tom.
Leave us with some 19th-century wisdom. What was your overarching golf philosophy?
Appreciate what happens between your shots. Enjoy the beauty around you — St. Andrews is the most beautiful place on earth — and the camaraderie, the common bond that brings you together with others. To me, camaraderie with others is more important than the shots.