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Willie Park, Sr, pictured here at Prestwick in 1960 after becoming the very first Open champion. Park recorded a two-round total of 174 to beat Tom Morris by two strokes; a group of early professionals (opposite) with Park sitting on the far left



Roger McStravick profiles Willie Park, Sr – winner of the very first Open Championship, but a player who never enjoyed the adulation that his rivals – men like “Old” Tom Morris and Allan Robertson – received.


orn in Inveresk, near Musselburgh in Scotland on the 30th June 1833, Willie Park, Sr has gone down in history as a controversial figure who threw down challenges to the greatest players of his day and often beat them, with huge bets being waged on him winning. This controversy was fuelled, we are led to believe, through aggressive self-promotion. Although match play was the standard form of the game in the mid 1800s, one that drew small, respectful crowds, it was said that Park’s persona could transform these gatherings into excited throngs of thousands bustling to see him play - running after his ball to see where it lay. But what is the story behind the myth?

with a battered old 2-iron, legend tells us that Willie played with an old shinty stick, with which he often beat the club’s best golfers. He had a natural born skill.

Golf As a Way of Life Park saw a new horizon for himself, outside of the backbreaking farm work. His passion was golf and he knew he could make a good living from it. He had a superb touch on the greens but it was with his driver that he gained most respect. He was a very, very long hitter of the ball. As the legendary Allan Robertson said, “He frichtens us a’ wi’ his lang driving.” According to reports from that time, Park sometimes played matches using only one hand and standing on one leg. He lost only once. In another he played all his tee shots off the face of a watch. The watch face was scratch free at the end of play. He was a true showman and knew how to draw in large crowds, who were excited by his style, flair and deft skill on the course.

Working the Land

Old Golf Images

During his early years, Willie had a tough life. He was one in a family of ten, with five brothers and four sisters. His father James was an agricultural labourer. By 1851, the Park family had moved to Linkfield Rd opposite Musselburgh Links golf course near Edinburgh, sometimes referred to as the cradle of golf. It was this move that really opened up Willie to the game. After a day’s work in the fields, following in his father’s footsteps, Willie would spend his late summer evenings on the Musselburgh links learning the game. Just like Seve Ballesteros who started his golf 52

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Park had a superb touch on the greens but it was with his driver that he gained most respect. He was a very, very long hitter of the ball. In a bleak Victorian world of black and grey, Park was a refreshing dash of colour.

The Grand Matches

Old Golf Images

An oil painting of Park, which dates from the 1870s; one of the grand matches that took place between Park and Tom Morris (opposite). This one shows Park (on the far left) and Morris (putting) at an event held at Leith Links in Edinburgh 54

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Willie Park Snr, like all the best artisan golfers of his era, worked as a caddie for the gentlemen golfers. Although he later set up his own ball and club making business, he made his best money from challenge matches. Having beat everyone locally including the great Willie Dunn, Park sent countless challenges to Allan Robertson in St Andrews in the 1850s. Robertson was the perceived “Champion of Golfing” in Scotland (and thereby the world), but Robertson was not interested in playing him. He had all to lose and nothing to gain. Willie’s skills were not ignored though.

The wealthy men of Edinburgh and Musselburgh realised that they had a thoroughbred in their midst – a player that could, once and for all, challenge the dominancy of the St Andrews golfers. We are told that Park, tired of having his challenged rejected, brazenly turned up at the autumn meeting of 1854 in St Andrews and challenged face to face the greatest golfers of the day, Robertson and “Old” Tom Morris. In all likelihood, it would have been his financial backers pushing him to do this. As much as Park wanted to beat Robertson and gain the Champion Golfer moniker, he could not realistically have done so on a scale that would be recognised publically, had he not have had wealthy gamblers behind him. The timing of Park’s arrival and confrontational challenge in St Andrews at the R&A’s autumn meeting, when Morris and Robertson’s backers were also in town, was no mere coincidence. Nevertheless, his arrival was a surprise. Neither Morris nor Robertson were minded to play against the upstart. However as a token gesture, a match was set up with George Morris, Tom’s elder brother. It was not comfortable viewing for the Morris clan. After losing the first eight holes in a row, George Morris is said to have cried, “For the love o’ Gode gi’e me a hauf!’. Tom had to step in to save the family honour. On the 19th October 1854, Willie and Tom squared up against each other for £50 a side over two rounds. Although the morning round was halved, Willie won the second round convincingly, by five holes with four to play. If Park thought that beating Tom Morris would mean that the press would herald him as the new heir to Robertson’s throne, he was sadly mistaken. The papers and the public were very comfortable with their St Andrews heroes and were not quick to warm to anyone upsetting the applecart. Park and his backers however knew where the good money matches were. Partnering gentlemen, Park played against Morris several times in doubles. He also played with him as a partner but legend is that they never won a match as a pairing. They also played together just for the fun of it with no money exchanging hands, with each sharing victories.

A Grand Match The building up of the rivalry and the dramatic way in which challenges were brazenly thrown down, would have been the work of the manipulative HKGOLFER.COM

backers, who would have been looking to hype up the game, improve the stakes and ultimately make more money from their “horse”. Nevertheless, Robertson and Morris’ backers ignored public challenges for a “Grand Match” time and time again. So Park’s gentlemen duly upped the stakes. On the 11th October 1855, in the week before the St Andrews autumn meeting, they placed a new advert in Bell’s Life. In this, Park offered to play anyone in a match over the links of St Andrews, Musselburgh and North Berwick for £200. This was serious money. The huge sums whetted the appetites of the heavy gambling St Andrews elite. Suddenly they had lots to gain, which was worth far more than an artisan like Robertson’s pride. Morris and Robertson were duly lined up against Park and Willie Dunn. This was to be the greatest of the greatest playing each other. There was incessant chatter in the press before the match and the crowds flocked to see the battle of the St Andrews “Invincibles” versus the Musselburgh contenders. In the end, the St Andrews team won by two holes but the backers from each corner knew that this was a winning formula. Park’s backers demanded once again for a proper HKGOLFER.COM

Grand Match. In 1855, Tom Morris’ backers finally acquiesced. Morris and Park agreed to play for £100. The date was set for April 1856. There would be three rounds of golf on each of the Musselburgh, North Berwick and St Andrews courses, finishing at St Andrews on the 10th May. Park won by 6 holes. The Earl of Wemyss, one of Morris’ backers and a prominent member of the R&A, immediately instructed Morris to issue an immediate challenge for another match. This started in St Andrews on the 26th October 1856. Park won again. Dunn’s backers pushed him forward for the challenge too but he lost easily to Park.

Unsung Hero With all the wins, Park would have rightly expected some adulation, some recognition that it was he who was now the best. It did not come. News of his victories was never deemed as newsworthy as a Morris or Robertson win. If the match, which was being covered daily in The Scotsman or Fifeshire Journal seemed to be going Park’s way, the final rounds were not covered in the press. Park must have been frustrated at the consistent naming of Morris as the champion and he, forever the Musselburgh contender. Sadly, Park never got a chance to play Robertson. News came in September 1859 that Robertson, at the age of just 43, had died of jaundice. HK Golfer・MAY 2013


Eight turned up and quickly manage to offend club members and their wives with their ragged clothes and poor manners. One spent the night in the drunk tank. The tournament was to be played over three rounds of the 12-hole Prestwick links course. There was no prize money. The winner by fewest strokes for this was a stroke play championship, would earn the beautiful Challenge Belt, which was made of rich red Moroccan leather and ornate silver plates decorated with golf scenes and the Prestwick coat of arms. It cost £25 and was paid for by members of Prestwick. It was described as “the finest thing ever played for.” Tom Morris, as designer of the course and Keeper of the Green at Prestwick was the betting favourite but Willie had other ideas. In windy conditions on Wednesday, 17th October 1860, Park became the first Open champion with a score of 174, two shots better than Morris. This was the same year that Abraham Lincoln ran for president. Park won the Open title again in 1863, 1866 and 1875 and was runner up to Morris four times.

The Twilight Years

In windy conditions on Wednesday, 17th October 1860, Park became the first Open champion with a score of 174, two shots better than Morris. The Birth of the Open Championship

Old Golf Images

The great triumvirate of their day: Willie Park, Sr, “Old” Tom Morris and Allan Robertson seen here in 1855, five years prior to the first Open Championship 56

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This left a gaping hole at the very top of golf. Who was going to be the new official champion golfer? Major James Ogilvy Fairlie decided to create an Open challenge in 1860 after the autumn meeting at Prestwick to settle the matter. The Prestwick club duly sent a letter from Fairlie to St Andrews, Musselburgh, Perth, Aberdeen and six other Scottish towns plus Blackheath in England.

Park’s final Open win also came at Prestwick. In the first seven years of championship he had won or finished second on six occasions. He won countless matches and made a decent living from it too. He opened a golf shop in North Berwick in 1870 before moving the shop back to his hometown Musselburgh in 1875. Willie played his final Open in 1883 at Musselburgh, the year before his son Willie Park, Jr won his first Open. His health started to suffer after he turned 50. In his final years Willie became the elder statesman in the Musselburgh club, working in his shop, making clubs and selling golf balls. Whilst Old Tom in his later life played with nobility and Prime Ministers in St Andrews, Park played with whomever he could get a game with. Where St Andrews thrived and grew, with acres of land to swell into, Musselburgh’s 9-hole links suffered, with no room for expansion. Park died on the 25th July 1903, aged 70. Park’s funeral was in contrast to the huge crowds of noblemen, gentlemen, press and public that came to Morris’. Instead, it was a small private family affair. At the time of his death Tom Morris was in Edinburgh having his portrait painted for the R&A club. Willie Park, Sr wowed the crowds like no one before him. In his prime, he was like an early-day Greg Norman, albeit with hickories and dressed in tweed. He should never ever be forgotten. HKGOLFER.COM