The format was foursomes, the wager £25. The venue was the North Berwick Links in East Lothian, Scotland. On September 4, 1875, Old and Young Tom Morris of St. Andrews played 36 holes against Willie and Mungo Park of Musselburgh. Four of the best players in golf, going head-to-head in a public money match they cared deeply about: none of that would happen today.
Not only was the match exciting, but it marked a turning point in history. For reasons having little to do with what happened on the course, the golf world would never be the same afterwards.
If you’re into golf history, you’ve probably heard a few different renditions of this story. Here’s ours.
In the years leading up to the match, Young Tom Morris—or Tommy—had emerged as the dominant player in the game. Between 1868 and 1870, as a teenager, he won the Open Championship three times in a row. His performances in 1869 and 1870 were Tiger-in-2000-like blitzkriegs: he won those Opens by 11 and 12 strokes, respectively. When the tournament was next held in 1872, he won it again. A four-time champion by the age of 21.
His father, Old Tom, had four Open victories of his own, not to mention three decades of renown as either the second-best (behind Allan Robertson) or the best golfer in Scotland. By 1875, however, he was well into his 50s, and his form had dipped. His short putting was shaky. While he and his son still made a formidable pairing, the public had come to regard the elder Morris as a drag on the younger.
Though less spoken of today, the Park brothers were fierce, brilliant competitors. Willie Park, Sr., won the inaugural Open in 1860 and traded championships with Old Tom for the next several years. His brother Mungo was a superb player, though he had put his career in golf on hold to spend two decades at sea. Not long after his return to land, he beat Tommy by two strokes to win the 1874 Open at the Parks’ home course, Musselburgh Links.
Between them, the four contestants in the 1875 match at North Berwick had captured 12 of the first 14 Open Championships.
And they didn’t exactly get along. In an 1870 match between Old Tom and Willie Sr. at Musselburgh, controversy erupted when locals began interfering with Tom’s shots. The referee halted play, and Tom headed to a pub. Willie ignored the stoppage and completed his round. The next day, Tom finished with the referee present, technically winning, but the match was later voided.
In 1874, the Morrises lost to the Parks in a £25 foursomes contest, also played at North Berwick. The stage was set for the 1875 showdown.
What we now know as the West Links at North Berwick Golf Club began in 1832 as a six-hole course. In 1868, the club added three holes, including an early version of the Redan. This nine-hole links was the venue for the Morris-Park matches.
It was—and remains—a captivating place. In 1891, after the West Links had expanded to 18 holes, Horace Hutchinson wrote that he doubted there was “a fairer green” anywhere else in the world of golf.
“The whole northern side,” he went on, “is girt by a blue sea murmuring on a yellow beach…. Over the water lies the coast of Fife, far enough away to seem fairer than it is; out of the water rise rocky islets, the Lamb and Fidra, and the great Bass Rock, with its myriad gannets. The links are closed at the east end by the town, with a picturesque fishing harbor. When there is a nasty cross wind, and the match has gone beyond redemption, it is often soothing to watch the brown-sailed boats deftly making for the narrow gate of the little haven.”
An illustration of the West Links at North Berwick from Horace Hutchinson's 1891 book "Famous Golf Links"
A beautiful setting. Four masterful players. And a scent of antagonism in the sea air.
These days, the trip from St. Andrews to North Berwick takes about two hours in a car. In 1875, it was a journey of several hours involving multiple trains and a ferry. On September 1, Tommy left his very pregnant wife Margaret at home and traveled with his father to the other side of the Firth of Forth.
At 11 AM on September 4, the crowd grew so large at North Berwick that a gallery rope, a recent innovation, was used. The atmosphere became rowdy. At times, as the newspaper The Scotsman delicately put it, spectators “[gave] expression to their sympathies in a not very becoming way.”
Early on, Old Tom found some magic in his putter, and the Morrises went four up after 18 holes. But the Parks closed the gap during the next two loops around the links. On the 34th of 36 holes, Willie drained a putt from “fully a dozen yards’ distance” to square the match. Tommy returned the favor on the 35th, holing out from 25 feet. The Morrises were one up with one to play, and after halving the final hole, they collected their winnings.
What happened in the ensuing hours has gathered layers of lore over the past century and a half. According to Kevin Cook’s 2007 book Tommy’s Honor, the first of the fateful telegrams came into Old Tom’s hands just before the crucial 35th hole. The contemporaneous Scotsman newspaper, however, reported that the younger Morris himself received the telegram after the match. It announced that his wife was “seriously ill and requesting that he should get back to St. Andrews with all possible haste.”
A resident offered to sail the Morrises directly across the Firth of Forth, back to St. Andrews. As the yacht left the harbor, another telegram arrived. Tommy’s wife had died, and their son was stillborn.
Six days later, Willie Park, Sr., won the Open Championship at Prestwick. The Morrises did not attend.
Tommy began drinking heavily. On Christmas Day, 1875, he died, likely as the result of a ruptured artery. Generations of Scots have maintained that he succumbed to a broken heart. Others say he drank himself to death. Either way, Tommy was 24 years old, already the finest golfer the world had seen, and gone.
The next decade of Opens would be dominated by new names: Jamie Anderson, Bob Ferguson, Bob Martin. There would not be another golfing superstar until Harry Vardon broke out in the mid-1890s. So in retrospect, the Morris-Park match at North Berwick in 1875 looks like both the culmination and the conclusion of golf’s first great competitive age.