The history of the golf professionals

The early Golf Professionals

Little is known of the very early golf professionals.

They were probably men who were engaged to keep the links in good order and to make golf equipment, but we can only surmise.  

The first generally known professionals were the Robertson family at the Royal and Ancient Golf Golf Club of St Andrews around 1840.

At this time, given the game was growing in popularity, it was possible to make a living out of making and selling golf clubs and teaching clients how to play the game.

In 1851 Old Tom Morris of St Andrews, who had himself been taught by Robertson, was hired to design a course for the new Prestwick club on the Ayrshire coast south of Glasgow

Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, photograph taken around 1870-75.

Reproduced from Golf, official USGA Bulletin, July 1902, 

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The first Open Championship

In 1860 the Prestwick club staged a competition for golf professionals only, with a special red leather belt with silver clasps as the trophy. Eight golf professionals competed and Willie Park Senior of Musselburgh won with 174 strokes for three 12-hole rounds. 

There was no prize money for this first competition. It was held to determine Scotland’s best golfer, following the death the previous year of Allan Robertson, who had until then been recognised as the supreme golfer. He had covered the Old Course in 79 strokes in 1858, a score which was unheard of in those days. 

Although the Prestwick competition is now considered to be the first Open Championship to be held, there were complaints by some leading amateurs that they had been excluded from this first championship, so therefore it was decided that “on all other occasions until otherwise resolved shall be open to all the world”.

Willie Park Senior wearing the Championship Belt

From a very early sepia photograph

So the following year in 1861 the first truly Open Championship was held at St Andrews, won by Old Tom Morris. There were eighteen in the field including eight amateurs.

Old Tom Morris went on to win four Open Championships in 1861, 1862, 1864 and 1867.

The life of a golf professional in those days

A gathering of famous professional golfers at the Leith Links tournament in 1867

left to right: Andrew Strath, Davie Park, Bob Kirk, Jamie Anderson, Jamie Dunn, Willie Dow, Willie Dunn, Sr., A. Greig, Old Tom Morris, Young Tom Morris, and George Morris.

Source unknown

Old Tom Morris – Golf Professional

An account of Old Tom Morris’ upbringing and life will help to illuminate the life of golf professionals in those early days. 

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Old Tom Morris – early years

Old Tom Morris was the son of a weaver, and began golf by the age of ten, by knocking wine-bottle corks pierced with nails around the streets of the town using a homemade club These were informal matches against other youths and were known as ‘sillybodkins’.  

He started caddying and playing golf from a young age, and was formally employed as an apprentice at the age of fourteen to Allan Robertson, who ran the St Andrews Links and an equipment-making business. 

Old Tom  served four years as an apprentice and a further five years as a full time employee under Robertson

From the early 1840s, Robertson often chose Morris as his partner in challenge matches, which were played as foursomes, and which were the principal form of competition at that time. It was said the two never lost a team match played on even terms. The team became known as “The Invincibles”. (note that foursomes are known as “alternate shot” in the US). 

Allan Robertson, recognised as one of the first Professional Golfers at St Andrews, Scotland, about 1850

University of St. Andrews Library Photographic Archive

By his early twenties Old Tom was the second-best player in St Andrews, close to Robertson in golf skill, and won an informal match against him over the Old Course in 1843, but the two players rarely played seriously head-to-head. As Robertson’s employee, Morris was in an awkward position if he beat him too often.

Old Tom worked under Robertson at St Andrews until 1851, when he was dismissed on the spot after being caught by Robertson playing the new gutty golf ball.  

This was because Robertson had a profitable business making feathery balls, which was threatened by the emergence of the revolutionary gutty ball.

Old Tom – golf professional

Old Tom was then employed by Prestwick Golf Club, which was just starting up. At Prestwick, he designed, laid out, and maintained the course, ran his own golf equipment business selling gutties and clubs, gave instruction to players, and ran events. He was a very much one of the first golf professionals.

He was very involved in beginning The Open Championship in 1860, and in fact struck the very first shot in that event. 

He returned to St Andrews as green-keeper and golf professional in 1865, at a then generous salary of £50 per year.

He had been head-hunted by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, which formally passed a motion, in 1864, calling for his re-engagement, as St Andrews was then in very poor condition. He was tasked with correcting this decline. 

Old Tom Morris

Photograph c1880

He stayed in the post until 1903, a total of 39 years, and was kept on after this by the R & A at full salary. 

Old Tom’s club making business was established in 1867 by the side of the 18th green of The Old Course. The business continued to run during his lifetime and consistently created employment for six skilled craftsmen, one of which, Bob Martin, was a double winner of The Open Championship at St Andrews in 1876 & 1885. 

Old Tom worked as a green-keeper, club-maker, ball-maker, golf instructor, and course designer, as well as playing match and tournament golf. 

He kept working right up until his death, just before his 87th birthday, on the 24th May 1908.. 

He died after falling down a flight of stairs in the clubhouse of the New Golf Club in St Andrews. He is buried in the grounds of the St Andrews Cathedral, and his grave attracts thousands of golfers. 

The first time that prize money was offered in the Open was 1863, when £10 was offered, split between 2nd, 3rd and 4th places, with the winner retaining the belt for one year.

Old Tom Morris, playing a stroke

Photograph c1890

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The golf professionals progression to the modern day

In 1864 Old Tom Morris won the first Champions money prize of £6, a little removed from the 2013 first prize fund of £945,000 out of a total prize fund of £5.25 million. 

The role of golf professionals has changed dramatically since those days, but it was initially very slow progress.

A Professional Side at Sandwich in 1894.
Standing (from left to right): Willie Park, A. Simpson, A. Kirkcaldy, W. Auchterlonie. Sitting: J.H. Taylor, A. Herd, D. Rolland, W. Fernie.

They were there to play an Amateur Side consisting of A.Stuart, S. Mure Fergusson, John Ball, F.G. Tait. H.G. Hutchinson, Charles Hutchings, A.D. Blyth, H.H. Hilton.

From Horace Hutchinson’s book “Fifty Year’s of Golf”, published in 1919

Even in in the 1920s golf professionals were not allowed inside the clubhouses of the venues where the Open Championships were being played. Famous golfers such as Walter Hagen and Henry Cotton made mockery of the establishment for their stance at that time.

Walter Hagen famously parked the Rolls Royce that he had hired in the car park and changed his shoes in the car before teeing off in the Open Championship. He also refused to enter the clubhouse for the prize giving ceremony at Troon in 1923, in protest at him and his fellow golf professionals not having been allowed in during the championship itself. 

Things have thankfully changed for the better with golf professionals now being sporting heroes and very successful businessmen. 

In addition to the tournament pro, the golf club pro is also much respected these days, having become a key member of the club, in teaching the members, providing a golf equipment shopping service and offering valuable advice to the golf club committee or owners.

Next – Learn about the feathery golf ball and its influence on the history of golf club and golf ball design

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