The Open

The greatest Open shot

Words by
Josh Coles and Dan Davies
The greatest Open shot

It’s difficult to overstate just how impressive Young Tom Morris’ third shot was on the first hole in the 11th Open Championship. “In my honest opinion,” says Stephen Proctor, golf historian and author of Monarch of the Green, a biography of golf’s first superstar, “it is without question the greatest hole ever played.”

At 19 years of age, Young Tom Morris was already a two-time Champion Golfer of the Year. In September of 1870, however, he was in particularly sparkling form. In the build up to the tournament, the talk in the towns of Prestwick, Musselburgh and Tommy’s native St. Andrews was all about whether he’d be able to win for a third time in a row and keep the Challenge Belt. It was a feat his father, Old Tom Morris, had failed to pull off. The prospect of history being made aroused excitement and ensured Young Tom’s rivals were even more desperate to stop him.

An enormous amount of money was being wagered by the nascent golfing community on the outcome. The ‘Boy King’ had become something of a celebrity not only in Scotland but south of the border where his tours of England’s first golfing outposts, courses such as Westward Ho!, Blackheath and Hoylake, ensured that London’s gamblers also wanted a slice of the action. Young Tom’s exploits were also being covered in newspapers, some of which started to offer shot by shot coverage of his matches. 

In 1870, the layout of the course at Prestwick, the host of the first 12 Opens, was very different to the links that you play today. There were only 12 holes and no concept of par. Instead, the game’s first insiders spoke in hushed tones of the “perfect score”, which around Prestwick they’d calculated was 49. The idea of allowing for two putts per green was still way into the future. 

By today’s standards, the course of 1870 would seem rugged to say the least. The grass on the greens was similar in length to modern day fairways whilst the fairways, or the nearest approximation to them, were certainly not mown. 

More than 150 years ago, players teed off on the first hole at a point some 200 yards west of the current first tee and closer to the beach. The hole measured a monstrous 578 yards and played to what is now the 16th green. It would be long using modern equipment, but with the clubs and ball of the age, six was considered to be the par, or a score the game’s best players would be happy with. 

His ball set off low and in the direction of the target. A few seconds later, a cheer rose from around the green

In addition to its length, Back of the Cardinal, as the hole was known, contained the threat of “Goose Dubs”, a  marshy, swamp-like area approximately 170 yards from the tee. Players laid up short, leaving themselves two flat-out shots with their longest clubs to have any sort of chance of getting near the green. The second shot was partially blind, offering no sight of the fairway. Players relied on the reaction of spectators to gauge the quality of their attempts. 

With hickory clubs and gutty balls, the outer limits of distance for the game’s finest exponents was somewhere between 180 and 200 yards. Tommy was long, producing a low, running ball flight that helped him master the links. He was also renowned as being the best putter of the era, known for hitting long putts and instructing his caddie to “pick it out of the hole, laddie” before the ball had even dropped.

The day of the championship dawned clear, warm with a light breeze, perfect conditions for golf. Three rounds of Prestwick’s 12 holes were to be played by the 17 players in front of the unusually large galleries, drawn from all walks of life, who thronged the links. 

Tommy walked onto the first tee and landed his drive short of Goose Dubs, a perfect layup. He then hit another superb shot over the scrubland onto the fairway to leave himself 200 yards to the hole. What happened next would have certainly deflated his opponents, despite coming so early in the tournament. 

Morris Jr reached for his cleek, likely for the third time on the hole, and swung with all his power. His ball set off low and in the direction of the target. A few seconds later, a cheer rose from around the green, one that was loud enough to be heard across the course. Tommy Morris had holed his third shot, on the first hole, for a three. What we’d now call an albatross. After one hole of the first round of the Open, the tournament was effectively over. Young Tom would go on to complete his first 12 holes in just 47 shots, two under what was considered perfect. Not Par but perfect. 

Two more rounds of 51 left him 12 shots clear of Bob Kirk and Davie Strath in second place. Morris Jnr was crowned The Champion Golfer of the Year and given the Challenge Belt for keeps after winning it for the third time in a row. He’d achieved something that had been beyond his father, and in doing so had struck what we believe to be the greatest shot in the history of the Open.

1st place 47 51 51: 149