The short career of young Tom Morris has been turned into a film.
Which is why, at long last, a film has been made. “Tommy's Honour,” based on the book by Kevin Cook, the former editor of America's Golf Magazine, opened the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June last year. Directed by Jason Connery – yes, son of Sean – and starring Peter Mullan (“Sunshine on Leith”) as Old Tom and Jack Lowden (“War and Peace”) as Young Tom, the movie charts the often turbulent relationship between the two men, both four-time Open champions.
“We have some very authentic Scottish voices in the main roles – there will be no giggling in the audience when they hear the accents,” says Connery with a smile. “I hate those terrible television commercials in America with ‘Old Tom' telling us to ‘go play.' I want people to look beyond that ridiculous caricature and really know the story of what Old Tom and Young Tom accomplished.
“Besides, this is not just a golf movie. There is a decent amount of golf in the film but the game is just a backdrop to these people's lives. They had a passion for golf, of course. And it is exciting because it was the beginning of the sport we know today. But it is an incredible story over and above that, a multi-layered tale.”
Importantly, authenticity was all but guaranteed in the golf scenes. Jim Farmer, honorary professional to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, was enlisted to help both men make swings redolent of the late 19th century. No easy task.
“A characteristic of that period was a massive pivot, a big lift of the left heel as the club moves to the top and a very long backswing,” says Farmer, a former PGA Club Professional champion. “Everything was exaggerated, a
bit like John Daly or Phil Mickelson swing today in terms of length. That produced a massive down cock in the hickory shafts they used to propel a ball that basically didn't want to fly. A well-struck shot would carry only 160170 yards.
“All of that required incredible timing and hand-eye coordination. Young Tom must have been an amazingly gifted individual. A shot hit off the nose or neck wouldn't go anywhere; the sweet spot was only about half inch around.
“The grip too was very different from today. But the guys hadn't played much golf and so hadn't developed bad habits. They were pretty good pretty quickly. Actors are good at adapting to things.
“Young Tom also had a distinct putting method. He addressed the ball off his right toe and almost brushed his toe as he moved the putter back and through. Putters then had flat lies – which didn't suit him – so he had to invent his own way.”
Lowden - who played another Scottish sporting icon, Olympic gold medallist Eric Liddell, on the London stage - was certainly grateful for Farmer's assistance. Although a native of the Scottish Borders, the 25-year old star was all but a beginner as far as golf was concerned.
“There are a lot of intangibles involved in looking like a real golfer,” he says. “But it was nice to interpret it in my own way. We had no footage of Young Tom. There are only photographs. And that allowed me to interpret how he might have acted as he played.
“Plus, the photographs look like they have been posed. So we had nothing of him in mid-swing. I didn't have to approach each scene as a period piece. When you think like that, all life flutters out of it. I was able to just think of it as a game of golf.
“Young Tom was the first guy to get appearance money. And he was the first guy to say, ‘I’m worth something.’ He understood that people were coming to see him. I read a quote once that said, ‘every new idea starts as a blasphemy.’ And that was Tommy all over.
“I spent a lot of time at my local driving range. The hardest part was not sliding my right hip outwards instead of round and back on the backswing. I can still remember the lesson when that clicked. Also difficult is that there are a lot of moving parts, much more than they have today. But it was great fun. Young Tom had such a colourful swing.”
There is more to this story than golf, however. Only around 20 percent of the running time is actually on-course footage.
“There's a deep father-son relationship going on,” says Connery. “There is a class-war aspect too. And the tragedy of what eventually transpires. That's a lot to cover. The contrast between Jack and Peter is brilliant. They are both wonderful in their own way, but so right for the characters they play. There is a great energy in the onscreen relationship.”
Connery was also careful not to create morally incorruptible or superhuman characters. The last thing such a nuanced story needed was even a whiff of Brigadoonlike nonsense.
“These were working-class men who had a passion for the game,” continues Connery. “They slotted in-between people who were lower
class and those who were upperclass because everyone wanted to watch them. Upper-class folk could afford to take a few hours off to play a game. But the lower classes could not. So the crack golfers in the middle had a chance to make enough money that they could still play.
“Young Tom was the first guy to get appearance money. And he was the first guy to say, ‘I'm worth something.' He understood that people were coming to see him. I read a quote once that said, ‘every new idea starts as a blasphemy.' And that was Tommy all over.
“Tom was different and didn't really understand at first. But Tommy got it. He went out and played against an archer and figured out that a quiver for clubs was a good idea. He was ahead of his time in so many ways.
“The film's perspective though is from Old Tom. He is telling the story. So we really get a sense of him. By the end of the movie we get why he needs to tell this tale – because of his unfortunate element in it. He had much to do with how the tragedy unfolded.”
Ah yes. There is, of course, no happy ending to “Tommy's Honour.” Perhaps the most widely known aspect of Young Tom's life is its
tragic end. He passed away on Christmas Day 1875, a short time after his wife, Meg Drinnen, died giving birth to the couple's first – but her second – child. Drinnen had a bastard son (who lived only a few months) before she moved to St. Andrews. That a so-called “fallen woman” should then marry someone of Young Tom's celebrity was, by the puritanical standards of the time, something of a scandal.
“The relationship Tommy had with Meg was not based in economics,” explains Connery. “It was based in love. Meg was looking for someone to take care of her. Back then, a woman who had a child out of wedlock was named and shamed in church. That meant sitting on a stool in front of the congregation while the minister told everyone you were a whore.
“The baby she had before Young Tom was alive for only four weeks. So this was a woman who had been through some shit. When Young Tom comes along it's not like she looks on him as Prince Charming. It was more like, ‘what do you want? I don't need you.'
“Tommy's death was a combination of things: His depression after his wife's death and his drinking. There was a knock-on effect. He died of an aneurism in his lung, which filled with blood. He choked to death. But it wasn't helped by his drinking.”
The last words though, belong to Lowden.
“One reason I liked the script was that, on paper, Tommy was the young guy who wanted to reinvent his world,” he says. “And Tom was the older head trying to hold him back. But it was almost as if Tom knew Tommy was right and was secretly rooting for him to push boundaries. Tommy was never going to be one for doffing his cap to the captain. But he knew his duty. And that's the way we have tried to play it. The contrast between the two has been fascinating to portray.
“They were both working-class. Tom was never allowed in the clubhouse. And we play with that. So even though, on paper, Tom was against too much change. I think secretly he was cheering his son on. So much of the drama in this film is off the golf course. Our duty was not make a good or a bad golf film. Our duty was to make a good film that has golf in it.”
They have done just that.
A view of the gravestones for Old and Young Tom Morris in the grounds of St Andrews Cathedral.