The legacy of golf lives on in this graveyard of champions in St. Andrews

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Most people jumping over graveyard walls are up to no good. Not Jim Nantz.

The legendary CBS announcer is standing with a group of people in the cemetery of the cathedral ruins in St. Andrews, one of the most ghost-fraught towns in Great Britain. He’s just a hundred yards from the Haunted Tower where the White Lady resides. And it’s midnight.

All this to read the gravestones of Thomas Mitchell Morris and his son, by flashlight.

“In 2000, we were hours away from Tiger completing his career Grand Slam,” he says. “History would be made, and what better place to connect the present with the past than standing at the foot of their graves and remembering the founding fathers of the sport.”

As much as ghosts, there are sprits in St. Andrews. The overriding one is the spirit of golf, which Nantz and every golfer who comes here feels. But when you enter the gates – or jump the stone wall – of the cemetery on the eastern side of town, the feeling cuts to your bones. That is why Nantz has since continued this tradition during each Open played at the Old Course.

Allan Robertson
Allan Robertson

The history of golf is buried here overlooking the North Sea; however, calling it the graveyard of golf is misleading. If not for the people whose relics reside under this turf, there would be no game as we know it.

In all, eight Open champions are buried here. And that doesn’t include the man whose burial in the graveyard started the whole thing.

That is Allan Robertson, the world’s first professional of note. He came from a long line of Robertsons who were feathery ball makers in St. Andrews, but Allan branched out by also becoming a clubmaker, course designer and untouchable player. In 1858, he was the first golfer to break 80 on the Old Course, and in either matches or tournaments, he was nearly unbeatable. His prowess brings to mind Tom Weiskopf’s saying about Jack Nicklaus: he knew he was going to beat you, you knew he was going to beat you, and he knew you knew he was going to beat you.

Then, Robertson died in 1859. He was 44 years old. His tall, obelisk gravestone features a distinguished relief image of him peering from the top with the words:

HE WAS GREATLY ESTEEMED

FOR HIS PERSONAL WORTH

AND FOR MANY YEARS

WAS DISTINGUISHED AS THE 

CHAMPION GOLFER

OF SCOTLAND

The vacuum left on the country’s links was so large that his death created The Open. And the family that filled that empty space lies in rest just 30 yards away from Robertson.

THE FOUNDING FATHER OF GOLF USHERS IN A NEW ERA

Tom Morris Sr. began working in Robertson’s shop as an apprentice, and they teamed for success after success in the big-money challenge matches of the period. They famously went their separate ways in business after Morris tried and liked a new type of ball on the scene: the gutta percha. Robertson saw this new ball as a threat to the traditional feathery he made. It was. Morris wouldn’t be one to shy away from innovation.

In 1860, a competition was staged to determine who should follow Robertson as holder of the title “Champion Golfer of Scotland.” Morris was the favorite for that first Open held on October 17, 1860 at Prestwick Golf Club, where he was the greenkeeper at the time. Instead, Willie Park Sr. from Musselburgh bettered him by two strokes. The championship was played again the following year with Morris winning. He successfully defended in 1862 by 13 strokes – although against a tiny field, it was a major championship record that stood for 138 years. Additional victories followed in 1864 and 1867, but his reign came to a sudden end at the hands of someone he knew well.

Morris’s son, Tommy, was golf's original protégé. One year after his father won at age 46, Tommy captured his first Open at age 17. He won again the next year ... and the next. Three titles in a row meant the red-leather challenge belt that had been played for annually, was his permanently. With the Champion Golfer of Scotland settled, a new prize was needed. Musselburgh and The R&A joined Prestwick in contributing funds to restarting the championship with a new rotation of courses and the creation of a new trophy. Thus, the claret jug and The Open coming to St. Andrews was a result of Tommy’s success.

One man's guide to St. Andrews, Scotland

Young Tom won again in 1872 for four in a row – a record that’s never been duplicated – although the claret jug wasn’t ready to be presented. His name would be engraved later as the first on the silver trophy. It was his last title. In 1875, his wife and child died during childbirth. Just three months later on Christmas morning, his father found Tommy dead in his room. Officially, the cause of death was a pulmonary hemorrhage. Unofficially, it was a broken heart. He was only 24.

After Tommy’s death, more than 60 clubs contributed to fund one of the most famous headstones for any sportsman. Designed and built by noted sculptor John Rhind of Edinburgh, it was erected three years later with several hundred people attending its unveiling. The memorial stands approximately 10 feet in height with an intricate carving of Young Tom about to stroke a putt. Reverend John Tulloch, principal of the University of St. Andrews, wrote the following that was engraved:

DEEPLY REGRETTED BY NUMEROUS FRIENDS AND ALL GOLFERS

HE THRICE IN SUCCESSION WON THE CHAMPION’S BELT

AND HELD IT WITHOUT RIVALRY AND YET WITHOUT ENVY

HIS MANY AMIABLE QUALITIES

BEING NO LESS ACKNOWLEDGED THAN HIS GOLFING ACHIEVEMENTS

It was one of many heartbreaks for his father. Before his own death in 1908 at age 86, Tom Morris Sr. buried his wife, all five of his children, and both of his children’s spouses.

Old and Young Tom Morris
Old and Young Tom Morris

By most accounts, it didn’t outwardly affect him. Morris designed nearly 100 courses throughout the British Isles. He didn’t create the Old Course, but he molded and refined it in a way that nearly every shot players face, from then to today, is a result of his work. He was keeper of the green there for almost 40 years, discovering a method of putting sand on the links to improve the condition and firmness of its grass. Superintendents around the world utilize that process of topdressing now more than ever. He made clubs and ran the world’s most noted golf shop. He was the game’s biggest promoter and advocate. He was the most famous man in golf and laid the foundations on which everything in the game today is built.

Yet most remarkably, no one ever said a bad word about him. His grave marker solemnly states his name, date of birth and date of death. Nothing else was necessary.

THE WELL KNOWN, AND UNKNOWN, LEGACIES OF THE OPEN

As widespread and deep as Morris’ influence has been worldwide, in the late 18th century, those most directly impacted were in St. Andrews. Jamie Anderson was born on North Street (his father David “Auld Daw” was a noted caddie and greenkeeper) and began his trek through the golf business as a teen. He was an apprentice clubmaker for the legendary Robert Forgan and a caddie on the links, carrying the bag for Young Tom in some of his high-stakes matches, but his fame came as a player.

Anderson won The Open in 1877 at Musselburgh, 1878 at Prestwick, and 1879 at St. Andrews – three in a row and the first player to triumph at three different courses. When a 9-year-old from a nearby town saw him play, the boy became enamored with golf. James Braid went on to win five Opens, design hundreds of courses and earn election into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

There would be no Hall of Fame for Anderson. Struggling with ill health, he died in a poor house in 1905 and was buried back in the cathedral cemetery in St. Andrews with nary a mourner and no gravestone.

That absence became glaring to local golf historian Roger McStravick. “Tourists and locals were walking over the graveyard grass not knowing that Jamie was buried there,” he says. “I had to try to do something.” McStravick lead a campaign to raise £8,000 to give him one. “We received contributions from golfers all over the world, local clubs, The R&A, BGCS, and St. Andrew Pilgrim Foundation,” he says. In 2018, a headstone was finally dedicated, 113 years after his death, with Open champion Sandy Lyle even paying homage.

Jamie Anderson
Jamie Anderson

Anderson wasn’t the only Champion Golfer of the Year buried with no marker. Tom Kidd, winner of the first Open at St. Andrews in 1873, lies somewhere in the cemetery. On an oversaturated Old Course, he controversially etched grooves in some of his clubs to help control shots. After he won, he sold his gold medal to pay for his wedding, but died 11 years later.

Two-time champion Bob Martin also has no marker. He’s the winner of the strangest ending in major championship history, capturing his first in 1876 at St. Andrews in a playoff against no one. During regulation, Davie Strath was accused of hitting a shot onto the 17th green while others were still playing the hole, which was in violation of a rule that week. With a final decision on any penalty undecided, Strath refused to participate further. All Martin, a former assistant to Old Tom, had to do was to go around by himself to win the claret jug.

If McStravick has his way, they will have gravestones as well, but their situations are not uncommon. Many families don’t realize they have relatives buried in unmarked plots. The cemetery, as well as the entire grounds and cathedral, is managed by Historic Environment Scotland, but they are not responsible for gravestones or their upkeep.

Without even a simple marker, how do their legacies live on?

With his family’s headstone, Willie Auchterlonie can be recognized. He won the 1893 Open at Prestwick using seven self-made clubs. Two years later, he set up his own shop in St. Andrews that’s still in business.

Jack Burns returned to his hometown to play in the 1888 championship, and after review won by a single stroke when an R&A official noticed his total score had been added incorrectly.

Hugh Kirkcaldy was champion of the last Open contested at 36 holes in 1891. He died six years later at 29.

Those eight golfers are the champions of 17 of the first 33 Opens – all buried within a stones-throw of one another. Furthermore, the likes of Andrew Strath, Sandy Herd and Jock Hutchison aren’t even included – all Open champions whose lives were shaped by this ancient city and whose families have plots.

The irony is as thick as Scottish heather on a summer’s day. St. Andrews' influence on The Open and the game of golf starts where the principles responsible for it ended. In a graveyard.