In My Opinion

The Early Golf Designers:
The Real Golden Age
by Melvyn Hunter Morrow

January, 2008

I am rather concerned to read that some people (who perhaps should know better, although I expect they are seeking additional publicity) are questioning and criticising the original golf course designers; questioning their involvement and their skills. Many articles and comments have been posted on the internet i.e. The concept of “designing” a golf course would have been alien to the likes of Old Tom Morris. The game’s initial courses were often ’18 stakes on a sunny afternoon’ where golf pros like Morris would simply determine where to place the hole within an interesting piece of property. Nothing was moved or altered, over time the naturalism would start to subtly change.

This statement, alone, shows nothing but pure contempt for those early geniuses in particular, Old Tom Morris. ËœA sunny afternoon’, that alone conveys their total ignorance and arrogance of the man and the history of the game. Before making statement along these lines perhaps a detailed research should have been undertaken into the courses Old Tom “designed or modified”. Most of his critics have never seen, let alone, listed his courses, so how on earth can anyone make such unbelievable, general statements?

Why are some so contemptuous when we learn that our early designers were able to design a course, say in the morning, and then play an initial game in the afternoon? Their arrogance is unbelievable, yet how many fathers play ball or chip a golf ball with their sons when out for the day on some rough land. Of course it is possible! If you read about Old Tom, he often stated that in a year or so the course with continuous play, had the makings of being a good course. Let’s not forget what these early designers worked with, mainly Links courses. To view an early example of a links site all one needs to do is look at the video on

To some, the early course designers were not real designers, just Green Keepers; the idea that they could design a course and play it in the afternoon is comical. Yet the early courses had mainly been Links courses. Looking at Askernish Golf Club, it is indeed possible to stake a course out and have a rudimentary game to see how the course will play. Inland courses are a little more difficult to assess, but let’s not forget that in the mid 1800’s Scotland had thousands of sheep – over the preceding 50-80 years the land was cleared of people for grazing of sheep. The land set aside for golf (in those days) was rough corners of the countryside – exactly ideal for sheep, so the ground would be well cropped and nourished. So, again, it would be possible to mark out a rough course and play it. I am very keen on our history. It has the ability of explaining many things, but, regrettable, in our modern age we have very little time, or even reason, to want to remember, believing perhaps, that evolution has made us superior to our forefathers. A highly ridicules and arrogant assumption, but that, they say, is progress.

The early designers were pioneers; they developed the game, helped laid down the rules, experimented and standardised the courses from bits of waste land adjacent to the sea, encouraged the average man to form clubs and participate

in what was a sport for the Landed Gentry.

I believe, with the financial and mechanical limitations they worked with, the outcome was nothing short of spectacular. A real Golden Age; they set the standard which to this day, has not been matched by any modern Architects, even with all the aids at their disposal. Many believe the Golden Age was later, but I disagree, the later designers had it so easy. The Sport by the first quarter of the twentieth century had already been developed, many clubs had expanded, had the financial resources generated from a growing memberships and could afford the later designers. Their work was straight forward, to design a course; yet when working on existing courses most chose to leave many of the old fairways and greens untouched, perhaps just including minor changes, new bunkers or perhaps increase the lengths and add new Tee positions. This era was more Classical than Golden.

By all means question their involvement, voice an opinion, but back it up with facts. It is down to those who wish to question or deny the involvement of the likes of Old Tom Morris, Tom Dunn, Willie Fernie, to name but a few, to prove their case. They cast doubt over our legends with impunity, yet when challenged they ignore the questions; they make statements that this contemporaneous article in X, Y or Z magazine confirms their opinion. But when you read their source article, you realise that it can be interpreted in various ways.

There has been much made about Old Tom’s involvement at Westward Ho (Royal North Devon), comments made, Ëœthat there was a course before Old Tom visit in 1864′.There are reports of his visit to improve the course after the R&A’s recognition of the Club. However, what these critics don’t mention (as it does not back up their point of view), was that Old Tom was involved for some 4 week in 1860, invited down from Prestwick to design a new course for the Gossop family. Yes, there was a course before 1864, but it was an Old Tom design. So comments, Ëœwas not by Old Tom’ are totally inaccurate. It also casts doubts on their comments, and perhaps we should all question the depth of their previous research.

Old Tom is the most prominent of the early designers. I have found over 90 clubs/course having a connection with him, and the list is growing. I have been able to confirm that Machrie course on Islay was not by Old Tom. The 18 hole course he designed is now closed (due to the demise of steamers visiting the island around WW1). His course was Uisguintuie Golf Club, Islay. There are four course on the Isle of Man by Old Tom, Douglas (which moved, but is now back within a mile of Old Tom’s original site), Castletown, Ramsey and King Edward Bay. Lahinch is another site his critics say he did, Ëœnot do’. Yes, he was not involved in 1892, but he did attend a few years later and modified the course with the work being supervised by McKenna. Let’s not forget that Old Tom in the mid 1890’s was in his mid 70’s.

I believe the main problem, as in all things, is to get everybody to understand the original question i.e. did Old Tom design the virgin site at Lahinch? Answer is No. Did Old Tom design a course at Lahinch? Answer is Yes. He was not the original designer, but he suggested modification to the course. The word Ëœdesign’, encompasses many meanings, but if you modify a course you will affect the original design.

To modify, make minor changes, add Turf Dykes, bunkers, plant shrubs/trees etc, etc, changes the nature of the original design. In my club/course list, I have tried to confirm Old Tom’s actual involvement from surveying the land, modifying or extending the course to re-design or being the original designer. There are many clubs that received a design from Old Tom but the land acquisitions fell through. There are also reports that Old Tom offered advice on parts of a course when he called in on the way to another venue (Panmure springs to mind – he received no fee as it was a favour to a friend). To move any argument forward, we all need to be singing from the same hymn sheet, or, at the very least, understand what we are trying to sing.

Earlier, I quoted an article on the web ËœThe concept of “designing” a golf course would have been alien to the likes of Old Tom Morris and the writer went on to say, Nothing was moved or altered. This statement is just totally untrue; result of non existence research. To start with let’s look at the Old Course at St Andrews, modified by Old Tom for nearly 40 years, wide fairways, improved bunkers, new and modified greens, to name but a few design features. Still saying nothings altered? Well, what about installing turf dykes (still to be seen at Tarland & Pwllheli)? Perhaps to prove the point about research and history, let’s look at what happened at the Princes Golf Club. A 6,300 yard course was designed in 1891 on land at Croydon Road. Due to the nature of the land the site was massively redeveloped, costing many thousand of pounds. Swamps drained, tons of soiled moved, also filling of gravel workings. The Greens were never made to modern USGA standards – in fact were constructed to hold water during dry summers. Old Tom was never against change; he led the way with the Gutty Ball. He was a very experience golfer and using his vast knowledge as a Green Keeper it was logical that he would design courses. Understanding his designs, his modus operandi, his courses, and perhaps one may learn and understand why he was, and still is, regarded as the father of our modern game of Golf. Old Tom retired aged 83 years old when the Haskell ball started to appear. He understood its potential impact never being against improvements in technology.

Later designers just designed and built courses (and some pretty good courses at that). But our modern game of golf was built by those early golfers and designers. The most prominent was Old Tom as Keep of the Greens at St Andrews; 4 times Open Champion, father of Young Tom, another 4 times Open Champion. He did most to bring golf to the ordinary man. Rather than criticize him, we should remember his life’s dedication to the sport we all love. Also let’s not forget a comment by the Australian author, Paul Daley, in his interview on March 2001 (note the underlined section) that others gained credit from Old Tom’s work:-

‘Old’ Tom … now this is difficult. To quantify the amount of links that he designed, co-designed, remodelled, or merely advised upon, is anyone’s guess – but it is vastly long. It has been noted that some designers more in need of publicity gained credit for his work. How good was he? Probably pretty good in his day, given the era and equipment. What Machrihanish must have been like in the days when ‘rabbity’ turf prevailed and the greens could induce a fit of vertigo. But again, nature was the key player then.

Old Tom was an exceptional early designer, he wrote the manual. Without him, I wonder if Ross would have played golf, let alone started designing courses. Would we recognise golf as the international sport it is today without his input? No! I do not think we would. So why do we tolerate these statements. After all, they are about trying to persuade others of your opinion, based upon questionable research. I am of course totally biased, being Old Tom’s great-great grandson, but I have tried to view all my research with an open mind.

The most remarkable part of Old Tom’s life is how he affected all those that came in contact with him – his brother, George Morris, his son Jack; Charlie Hunter who trained under Old Tom at Prestwick; Charles Blair MacDonald who had a locker in Old Tom’s shop; Horace Hutchinson, friend and travelling companion (understood to have been with Old Tom when designed Askernish in 1891); Harry Colt who spent summers in St Andrews in the 1880’s; William Herbert Fowler a regular visitor to St Andrews & R&A; John Sutherland and Donald Ross who studied under Old Tom; Alexander Herd, from St Andrews; the list goes on. Even Tom Simpson, Old Tom’s biggest critic, admired the 4th at Dornoch & maintained most of Old Tom’s routing and greensites at Cruden Bay. Also in Simpson’s book Design for Golf (1952) he included 5 of Old Tom’s holes out of 18, for his ideal 18 hole course; Royal North Devon 5th & 16th; Prestwick the 17th and St Andrews 14th & 17th. Presumably he did not realise they were Old Tom’s.

A point of interest is Brora G C. I have contacted them on numerous occasions but was always ignored until December when I received a reply advising me that they have no record of Old Tom in 1891. They maintain to be a James Braid Course, which is indeed true since 1923. I had found a few sources, and I believe there are another 5-6 mentioned on the internet that said Old Tom was the original designer. I have passed on my information to allow the clubs to investigate their early history. The interesting point is that James Braid travelled north by train, walked the course, made suggestions, and returned south on the next train. Admittedly, the course was existing, had been played for 32 years, so have no problem with this statement, or, for that matter, with James Braid. It just goes to prove that a design or modification for a course can be achieved quickly and simply as Old Tom had done a couple of decades or so, earlier. The years will ultimately confirm the quality of the original concept.

In the past, I have pondered over a design problem for days, and sometimes never come up with a solution that I felt was ideal. I may have resolved the issue, but inwardly I was not relaxed; my design felt unbalanced. However, there were times when the design was completed before I’d left the meeting; all just fell into place, giving an inward warmth of satisfaction (perhaps even smugness). The point is, once you understand your topic there is no reason why one’s inward eye cannot quickly produce a workable concept. Old Tom may not have been a well educated man, but he understood his sport, the land, and the need to keep costs down. He had the ability of reading the land, predominately the Links. When he moved inland, Turf Dykes may have appeared to be an ideal solution to mirror the unevenness of the links as well as adding an additional challenge to the golfer.

I would love to run a test/competition with say, 6 architects, giving them half a day to lay out a 9 hole course on rough, virgin, links land, and then have a team of judges play it in the afternoon. It would, I believe, test them to the core – also be an interesting exercise for golf course architecture. Do you think any would be up to the challenge – with only pegs & wheelbarrows and of course on a Ëœsunny afternoon’?

Those that met the Old Man of Golf benefit all of us to this day. Oh yes, 2008 is the Centenary of his death (24th May). If you are golfers please raise a glass on Saturday the 24th of May 2008 to celebrate his life.

The End