A New Look at Old Tom Morris and His Beard

A New Look at Old Tom Morris and His Beard

Bearded Golfing Great, Old Tom Morris at age 39  (1860)


Reading “Of Beards and Men” by Christopher Oldstone-Moore, puts into historical perspective a number of famous bearded figures, including athletes. While Oldstone-Moore does not discuss golf or it’s bearded and mustachioed heroes of the 19th century, my lifelong interest in golf has prodded me to look again at Old Tom Morris, his beard, and his times. I do this fully relying on Oldstone-Moore as a guide and pulling from my own casual familiarity with golf history.

Before starting I must say that it strikes me now that given the groundbreaking nature of Oldstone-Moore’s book and the fact that he didn’t address the game of golf or golfers that these may be the first words ever written that look at beard history to better understand golf history and vice versa. I invite others, particularly golf historians, to pile on.

A bearded Old Tom Morris, or Tom Morris Sr., (1821-1908), is shown above at the age of 39. The name Old Tom was most likely given him to distinguish him from his son, the golfing great, Young Tom Morris. The most famous photographs of Morris show him with a full white beard, perhaps inadvertently concealing the real reason for his beard, a subject we shall explore below.

First, a very short biography. While today he is not widely known, it is not an exaggeration to say that Old Tom Morris was perhaps the most influential figure in the history of golf. He was not only a great player, but a clubmaker, greenskeeper and golf course designer and many golf historians consider him to be golf’s first professional. He was was born in St. Andrews, Scotland, the “home of golf” and the site of Major Golf Championships to this day. Morris won four Open Championships (1861, 1862, 1864, 1867) and is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

To begin to put Morris and his beard into historical perspective, we must understand that the overwhelming norm for Western Civilization since the time of Alexander the Great has been shaving, not beardedness, something that makes intuitive sense to us Americans. More novel for us, is the idea that there were periods of beardedness sprinkled here and there. But novel or not, it is smack dab in one of those periods, the beard movement of the 19th century, that we find our subject, Old Tom Morris. And it wasn’t only in Britain and Europe that the movement took hold. President Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman are only two of the more famous men who wore beards on this side of the Atlantic.

So why then do we have no bearded American golf heroes? The answer is timing. Golf came to America just a little late. If it had come just a couple of decades earlier our first heroes would probably have looked more like Morris and less like the clean shaven, immaculately groomed and dressed Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen.   

To get an idea of what those few years or decades meant to perceptions of golf and the beard in America I share this story, first told in “GOLF Magazine.”

The scene was the 2012 British Open, played at the very place where Morris was born and later became a pro, The Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland. David Duval, the 2001 Open Champion, showed up sporting a very daring (for that time) goatee that drew a considerable deal of attention. Among those that took notice of Duval’s whiskers was the king of golf himself, Arnold Palmer, the man credited more than any other for the popularization of golf, charging onto the golf scene in perfect sync with television and right into the living rooms of thousands and thousands of adoring fans. Hitching his pants, swaggering, smoking and playing a style of aggressive golf that no one had ever seen before, Palmer was a sensation and is credited until today by all professional golfers for the ascent of the sport, the lofty purses, and the growth of the game. So, when Arnie speaks, people listen, period.

Well, the always immaculate Palmer took a look at Duval’s chin and with the great authority that only Palmer has, told Duval that beards and golf just don’t mix. Talk about tough spots and bad lies! It’s hard to imagine what Duval must have felt. Apparently he fell silent and didn’t know what to say. Fortunately for all the beards on tour now, Duval was saved when a friend directed Palmer’s attention to some very old photos and portraits on the wall. They were of the great golf heroes of the 19th century, chief among them, the fully bearded Old Tom Morris. Palmer graciously conceded the point, Duval breathed a deep sigh of relief, and the new era of bearded golfers was spared an untimely demise.

A portrait of Old Tom Morris that hangs in the clubhouse at the Old Course in St. Andrews 

A portrait of Old Tom Morris that hangs in the clubhouse at the Old Course in St. Andrews.

Now, let’s take a closer look at beards and the historical setting that Morris came of age in, 19th century Great Britain. Oldstone-Moore explains in Chapter 9, Patriarchs Of The Industrial Age, page 174:

In the latter half of the century these political stereotypes were thrown aside, and beards became respectable and widespread. Men no longer grew out their hair to declare their political allegiances but instead to assert their individual and collective rights as men. It was not a matter of class or nation. All levels of Europeans and American Society were swept up in the new beard movement. Some prominent men were leaders in the new style, while others were slow off the mark.

He goes on to write about Abraham Lincoln, Louis Napoleon, Albert Smith, Walt Whitman, W.G. Grace and others in great detail, showing how they helped shape the new beard movement. W.G. Grace is actually covered in the next chapter, Chapter 10, Muscles and Mustaches.

I’d like to focus briefly on two of these men, Albert Richard Smith and William Gilbert Grace because they are perhaps the most likely to have had an influence on Old Tom Morris, as they were both enormously famous in Great Britain.

Smith was an adventurer, mountain climber and entertainer. As Oldstone-Moore writes:

Smith was successful because he appealed to the deepest aspirations of this era. To stand astride the frozen heights of Europe was the Victorian equivalent of slaying the dragon. Indeed, it was feat beyond the capacity of a medieval knight. In this way, his story (the performance of his story of his climb in the Swiss Alps called Mont Blanc) bespoke both heroism and progress. The eager crowds who flocked to Smith’s shows discovered to their great delight that the age of machines, factories and cities had not banished heroic manliness. On the contrary, there were new frontiers to cross and new quests to undertake. In Smith they saw the prototype of this modern manliness: independent, hearty, bold and bearded.

There can be no doubt that Old Tom Morris knew who Albert Smith was as Smith was arguably the most famous man in Great Britain at the time. It is easy to understand how a man such as Morris, who was helping to revolutionize the game game of golf and yet conquering the course himself in the wind, rain and cold of Scottish golf, would be find himself joining Smith in the new beard movement. It seems a perfect fit and so, we have new insight into Old Tom Morris and his beard, but let’s consider as well the likely influence of another man, the greatest cricket player of the Victorian age, William Gilbert Grace.

Oldstone-Moore introduces Grace at the start of Chapter 10:

Beards helped men of the nineteenth century recover their primal manliness. Facial hair affirmed the “natural” fortitude that entitled a man rule over his family and build empires. But hair alone was not enough to define modern man. As the twentieth century approached, European and American men also embraced athletic competition and body building, activities that, like beards, were physical proofs of virility. It stood to reason that a bearded athlete would emerge at this time as an icon of the ideal man. It also stood to reason that this sportsman would be an Englishman, because the first industrial nation also took first in its mania for game.

That Englishman was W.G. Grace who dominated British cricket, the most prestigious sport of the time for three decades, the 1870’s, 80’s and 90’s. Grace and his big full beard, were highly venerated in England. He was most famous for his bat and his ability to handle any sort of speed of bowls, and rack up great run totals. Perhaps something like England’s version of Babe Ruth, if you can imagine Ruth with a beard that stopped just above the K on his YANKEES uniform. Only Grace was surely a greater national hero than Ruth as he had the opportunity to represent England in international games against foreign opponents, defending the honor of the Empire.

I think you would agree with me, even with this brief review of the historical setting, that there is a very great chance that Morris identified with national heroes like Grace and Smith and saw himself as one of them. He surely identified with the beard movement on some level, at least at the level of fashion.However I suspect it might have been for deeper reasons - a real identification with the ideas behind the beard movement or a strong identification with the other bearded, more famous, heroes of his day. I say this because in his later years he kept his white beard even as fashion clearly favored the moustache, as evidenced in the picture below.

Old Tom Morris (seated far left) on 11 October 1894 at the New Luffness Competition.Old Tom Morris (seated far left) on 11 October 1894 at the New Luffness Competition.

So, what’s the truth? Was Morris a man of fashion or a man of ideas, identifying with the thoughts of the era that powered the beard movement. I leave the truth of the matter to the historians.  For me, I am happy to have gotten some insight into Old Tom Morris, his beard and the historical setting he grew it in as well as a new look at golf and beards and how they have met before as they meet again today.

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Thanks for reading and I please stay tuned for our next post, we shoot for Thursdays.