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Two sets of footballs pounded the weathered wooden planks of the North Berwick dock. The son first, a young man in a tam, whose untamed brown mustache matched the ruddy weave of his tweed jacket. A heavier, slower tread followed, the sturdy boots of the father. Golfers. Their loose clubs clattered onto the deck of a waiting fishing boat; golf bags weren't much used in 1875. They climbed aboard, and someone untied the mooring rope and threw it over the gunwales. Sun shot through the clouds of the short, early September afternoon, summer's end in Scotland, and the water sparkled on the Firth of Forth.
In legend, the son rowed alone across the wide bay in a tiny skiff. In truth, with a word and a look the older man procured the fastest sailing vessel in port for the hasty voyage north to St. Andrews. Old Tom Morris had clout. And he had a secret.
Earlier that day, a messenger had worked his way through the spectators at North Berwick links and solemnly handed a telegram to Mr. Morris, Sr. A big match was on: the Morrises versus Willie Park and his brother Mungo. Should Old Tom interrupt the competition to tell Tommy, his son and partner, the awful news? No. Tom Morris let the match play out; better to maintain the happy illusion for a few minutes more. Better to pretend that he and Tommy, the best golfer in the world, would still take on any comer for all the pounds and pence in Scotland. To pretend that shops would close when they played, wagers would be laid, and drink poured afterward in celebration or commiseration. That proud rivals like the Parks boys would always appear, each opponent an inspiration.
The Morrises beat Willie and Mungo, one-up. Then the father said, "We must go, Tommy. Your wife. We've no time for the train."
The ship slipped across the firth on its hasty voyage, and still Tom Morris did not reveal the telegram's contents. Perhaps he perceived a hidden brittleness in his son's strength, and suspected that the news would ruin him. Perhaps at that moment he himself felt the stinging remembrance of Tommy's older brother-also named Thomas-who had died at age four.
So Old Tom waited a while longer, playing away from trouble as usual. His calculating style had won him a life of employment in the game he loved, and four of the first seven Open championships. The limber shaft on his driver bent like a willow switch, providing snap to his cautious swing. He smoked a pipe. As he aged, short putts began to bother him mightily, and Tommy teased him about it: "If only the hole was always a yard closer, Da," Tommy said, "ye'd be a good putter."
The son followed him into the family business, but plainly he was not his father. He was even better. Eighteen-year-old Tommy entered the Open as a professional in 1868, looking like a boy-soldier from the just-completed American Civil War, unshaven, roughly dressed, and unimpressed. A tough customer was Tommy, always on the attack. He played chicken with bunkers and burns, the flamboyant, never-in-trouble style of the brilliant putter. "Dook!" Tommy would command as his ball rolled near the hole, and usually it dooked right in. And Lord, was he strong. As his contemporary Horace Hutchinson wrote, "Young Tommy Morris used to waggle his driver with such power and vehemence in his young wrists as often to snap off the shaft of the club close under his hand before he even began the swing proper at all."
Tommy won the Open in 1868, and the next year, and the next. In an odd compliment to his dominance, no tournament was held in 1871. Mr. Fairlie, the one-man band who ran the event, had died. No one burned with sufficient curiosity to reidentify the champion golfer of Scotland and the world--obviously, it was Tommy-so the Open took the year off. Besides, Fairlie had retired the victor's prize-a red leather belt with a big buckle, like a rodeo cowboy's. By prior agreement, anyone winning the event three times in a row got to keep it. Embossed on the silver clasp of Tommy's new belt were two bagless caddies, their gentlemen's clubs clamped beneath the armpit.
The Open resumed in 1873, with a cup for a prize this time, and Tommy won for the fourth consecutive time. The early Opens descended from the archery tournaments that had been held in Scotland and England for centuries, and the Morris men were Robin Hood and Robin Hood, Jr. Young Tommy and Old Tom even finished one-two in the race for the belt in 1868 and 1869. Glory days.
Now, abruptly, about to vanish.
"Tom did not tell his son that all was over till they were walking up from the harbour," recalled his pastor. "I [will] never forget the young man's stony look ... and how, all of a sudden, Tommy started up and cried, 'It's not true!' I have seen many sorrowful things, but not like that Saturday night."
Margaret, Tommy's young wife of less than a year-"a remarkably handsome and healthy young woman, most lovable in every way"-had died that afternoon giving birth to a boy. Another Tom Morris. The infant had also died.
Tommy never recovered. For the next few months he wandered the echoing stone streets of St. Andrews in a depressed trance. Golf held no allure. He'd never been a drinker, but now he drank. Induced to play with his father in a match against two aspirants at the end of October, Tommy fell apart. Four-up with five to play on their home links, the Morrises lost the last five holes, and the match.
Tommy played again in foul November weather, giving shots to a Mr. Molesworth. Rain and cold descended on them, and the champion built a big lead. But Molesworth would not quit the scheduled marathon until the last putt was holed, and Tornmy lacked the assertiveness to say "To hell with this." He caught a cold.
A week before Christmas he took the train to visit friends and pubs in Edinburgh, returning to St. Andrews after dark on Christmas Eve. Tommy scuffed the few blocks from the train station to his parents' narrow two-story stone house overlooking the green at the home hole. His invalid mother, Nancy Bayne Morris, was still up; they chatted for a few minutes. Then he called good night to his father and retired. At ten o'clock on Christmas morning Tom went to wake his son. But Tommy never woke.
Due to the suddenness of his death, the pathologist at the Cottage Hospital in St. Andrews performed an autopsy. "Burst artery in the right lung," he announced, but probably it wasn't that simple. Modern physicians surmise that depression and whiskey had compromised Tommy's immune system. The air cells in his lungs, the alveoli, had likely become hard and inflamed. He had pneumonia, in short, and couldn't breathe. Depression reduced his body's ability to fight the infection.
Yet none of the arid medical explanations contradicts the myth of Young Tom's passing: he died of a broken heart.
From the Hardcover edition.