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The Life of Tom Morris
Chapter II - Allan Robertson


AT the time of the death of this great golfer, whose name is still a household word in St Andrews, and whose shade is still frequently invoked on its famous links, the Dundee Advertiser said he was "the greatest golfer that ever lived, of whom alone, in the annals of the pastime, it can be said that he was never beaten." He was, no doubt, the best-known golfer of his generation, and it may with truth probably be asserted of him that he never allowed himself to be beaten, for he was jealous of his reputation, and was somewhat reluctant to play any match that might put his laurels in dispute.

He came of a golfing family. His grand-father, Peter Robertson, was a professional golfer and ball-maker who died in 1803. His father, David Robertson, was a redoubtable player, and also ball-maker. Mr Carnegie, the then laureate of golf, wrote of him:

"Davie. oldest of the cads,
Who gives half-one to unsuspicious lads
When he might give them two, or even more
And win, perhaps, three matches out of four
Is just as politic in his affairs
As Talleyrand or Mettenich in theirs.

He has the state-man's elements, 'tis plain.
Cheat, flatter, humbug - anything for gain;
And, had he trod the world's wide field, methinks,
As long as he has trod St Andrews Links,
He might have been prime minister or priest,
My Lord, or plain Sir Dai'id, at the least."

And after his death:

"Great Davie Robertson, the eldest cad,
In whom the good was stronger than the bad;
He sleeps in death! and with him sleeps a skill
Which Davie, state-manlike, could wield at will:"

Again:

"Sound be his slumbers! yet if he should wake
In worlds where golf is play'd, himself he'd shake
And look about, and tell each young beginner,
I'll gie half-ane nae mair, as I'm a sinner."

He lived until 1836.

Allan was born on 11th September 1815, and took to golf as readily as a duck to the water. He naturally succeeded to his grandfather's and father's business, and his chief employment was ball-making and match-playing, his prowess and success at the latter being such that Carnegie wrote:

"He leaves a son, and Allan is his name.
In golfing far beyond his father's fame;
Tho' in diplomacy, I shrewdly guess
His skill's inferior and his fame is less."

Balls, before the introduction of gutta-percha, were made by stuffing stout leather cases with feathers, a process which I shall describe in a future chapter. The price at which they were sold was almost prohibitive to all but fairly well-to-do men. The turn-out, of course, was as nothing compared with the present output.

When Tom Morris was working as an apprentice in Allan's shop, it was in 1840, 1021 balls; in 1841, 1392; in 1844, 2456 balls.

It was not until 1850 that Allan took to making balls from gutta-percha.

Mr Charles Anderson remembers seeing Allan taking his first swipe with a gutta. He was following a match of Allan's when he told old Bob Kirk to tee one for a trial shot. Allan took a full swing, deliberately topped the ball, and remarked in pretended disgust, "Ach, it winna flee ava." "Flee, d--n ye," cried out old Bob, "nae ba' cud flee when it's tappit."


Allan Robertson

It was as a player that I chiefly remember him. His great golfing reputation, together with his real kindness of manner and many admirable qualities, made him a hero to a youngster like myself. His wonderful feats I was never tired of chronicling.

How well I remember him, his wife, and his house and shop his going in and out of the Club-House, his matches on the links. After all these years I see quite vividly the little, almost squat, yet lithe figure, the pawky, round, be whiskered, humorous and smiling face, and his short neck, loose red jacket, with a handkerchief sticking out of one pocket, bending to hole out with his neat and deadly little putter, or swiping from hole to hole with "The Doctor," as he called one of his most serviceable clubs, which he would use through the green. How fond he was of his favourite clubs, the "Sir David Baird," a present from that worthy gentleman; his Thraw cruck; the Fryingpan, a broad-bladed iron, which he used in a bunker; and his deadly cleek in approaching. How sweet to a young boy his kindly words of encouragement: "Stick in, my little mannie, ye'll be a gowfer yet." How very pawkily he managed his matches, playing with his opponent if he thought it expedient to do so, and just "snodd'n him at the burn" the hole before the last. With what wile and cunning he would, of purpose, heel or draw a ball with the object of getting round a hazard, which he thought it too great a risk to attempt to carry. He would, quite unknown to his adversary, pretend to spare a ball, or put extra power into his shot, so as to deceive his opponent as to what the shot required. Again he would sometimes audibly ask for the wrong club if his opponent had the advantage of playing first and how he would chuckle when he saw his somewhat treacherous wiles successful, and his opponent suffer by landing in a bunker, the sight of which he was wont to say appealed to the higher feelings of humanity. No wonder old Tom is alleged to have said of him: "An awfu' player, Allan, the cunningest bit body of a player that ever handled club, cleek, or putter. A kindly body, wi' just a wealth o' sly, pawky fun about him."

Who will forget who saw it, or who has heard the story of it told on the spot, the match with a good many wagers on it which he and Mr Erskine Wemyss, of Wemyss Castle, played against Willie Park and Mr Mastic, M.P.? Within two holes of the second round Allan and Mr Wemyss were I down and only 2 to play. Campbell of Saddell was in glee. He was backing the likely winners.

"Hear Saddell say,
Now, by the piper who the pibroch played
Before old Moses, we are one ahead,
And only two to play a special coup!"

"Three five-pound notes to one." "Done, Sir, with you." The bet was taken by Mr John Blackwood. Alas! how black for Allan it looked, when, at the second last hole, Park had put Mr Hastie on the green, and Mr Wemyss had put Allan on the road, he had to play "two more." Fryingpan in hand, Allan studied the ground and the loft he had to make, the spot where he had to pitch. Hack and forwards from ball to hole he went, and then, while Daw, his caddie, whispered in his ear, "Ye can doo't, Allan," he played. The ball was pitched to the top of the footpath, ran down, and trickled into the hole.

Great was the applause. His opponents were so much discomfited that Mr Hastie ran past the hole with his putt, and Park was short. Allan and his partner won the hole. The match was all square and I to play. It was Allan's honour a lovely swipe from the tee. Park pressed - missed his ball - which was caught in the burn, and he and Mr Hastie lost the match by 1 hole. In addition to his original bets, Mr Blackwood had three of Campbell of Saddell's five-pound notes in his pocket.

Mr Blackwood at that time, or shortly afterwards, lived at Strathtyrum, and Mr Campbell, of Saddell, occupied the well-known house, "The Priory."

"Who will ever forget Allan," asked the writer in the Dundee Advertiser, "having once seen him? What Sir Hugh Lyon-Playfair has been to the city proper, has Allan been to the links of St Andrews. They have unwittingly been in close partnership. Sir Hugh renovated a rough, ruined street (sic); Allan had an eye the while to the improvement of the links. Sir Hugh attracted citizens, Allan, golfers. Ah! it was a magnificent partnership, and has done wonders. The analogy holds good between the two in other respects also. Who could do the honours of the links like Allan? He was as perfectly at home with the descendant of William the Conqueror as with one of the caddies. Without the least touch of servility, Allan could accommodate himself to everybody, and arranged everything on the golfing links with the politeness of a Brummel and the policy of a Talleyrand.

"We have asked, who that has once seen the champion golfer can ever forget him? Let us try to help the picture which every player will oft in fancy draw. Our scene is the St Andrews links on a genial summer day. Allan's house crowns the summit of the slope: down towards the sea the blue, beautiful sea lies the white Club-House, with its gravelled terrace. It is not yet eleven, that great hour of cause on the links. Groups of caddies are prowling about; a clash and rattle of clubs are heard as you pass the club-makers' shops. One or two golfers are putting idly at the starting hole with their burnished cleeks, trying some impossible putt, which, if they had only done but yesterday, would have put a very different finish on a certain match. Suddenly a golfer appears at the Club-House door: he looks about for somebody who is evidently lacking. 'Where's Allan?' The cry is repeated by telegraphic caddies right up to the champion's little garden. [Where the Golf Hotel dining-room now is.]

"A minute elapses, and down comes the champion in hot haste to the Club-House. He is, you will recollect, oh! golfer, not of much stature, compact, rather robust, indeed, with a short stoop, and short-necked. His face is pleasant to look at rather Hibernian indeed, with its habitual expression of drollery, which has almost given the stalwart golfer one or two dimples. He is dressed, as you must well remember, in his favourite red jacket, and carries a cleek (a pet weapon) in his hand. But now the match is arranged. Allan has evidently got to nurse an elementary golfer. It is a foursome Allan and his protege against two rather good hands. Remark how pleasant the little man is; no miss of his partner causes a shade to his habitual good-nature, and ten to one when the match comes in from their round, the new player swears by 'Allan,' and gives in his adhesion to golf once and for all.

"But it was in a grand match that the figure of Allan should live in the memory of all. Who shall describe his elegant and beautifully correct style of play? The champion was remarkable for his easy style, depending upon a long, cool swing, and never on sheer strength. His clubs were of the toy description, as the slang of the links hath it, possessing no weight or misproportion of wood. Indeed, in a word, Allan's game throughout was pure, unadulterated science.

No man perhaps so well united in his play all the bits of the game. Pretty driver as he was, we still stake our belief on Allan's short game, especially in quarter shots. And this was an important part in Allan's practice. He it was that introduced the deadly use of the cleek in playing up to the hole. [In the Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes Golf (Longmans, Green & Co.), a book that ought to be in every Club-House, Mr H. S. C. Everard says: "To Allan was due in a great measure the introduction of irons and cleeks for the approach to the hole, these shots having been previously played with baffing spoons." On this Mr Thomas Hodge remarks in the margin of his copy of the book "not correct": and in regard to another statement of Mr Everard's, Mr Hodge writes: "Quite incorrect Allan never played an iron through the green."] Previous to about 1848 or 1849, short wooden clubs, the baffing or short spoons, were used for this important stroke, both difficult and frequently inaccurate. But Allan employed the cleek to jerk up his ball; however badly it might lie, it was all the same; and this killing game, destructive to a certain extent to the green, is now all but universal.

"To return to Allan's great matches. His coolness was unique and almost miraculous. He was never known to funk or change his off-hand manner in the least. He was never beaten, proud epitaph. It is something to be the best in anything of all the world, and Allan stood confessed the model player. But it is not only as a golfer that Allan is to be deeply deplored. He was possessed of the best heart and kindliest feelings in the world. In the intricate dealings of the links, in the formation and playing of great matches, Allan was honourable, just and gentlemanly from first to last.

"Allan did much for golfing, both in and out of St Andrews. He had laid out capital links in various districts, and played thereon himself to the incitement of beginners."

The same writer goes on to tell us that up to the spring of 1859 "Allan was a hale, stout, little man, with scarcely the memory of an hour's illness. Temperate, too, in an uncommon degree, regular in his habits and enjoying daily exercise on the links; no one could reasonably foretell the rapid change that has taken him from us. In the spring Allan had an attack of jaundice, proceeding, we believe, from an abnormal state of the liver. He never rallied; and after six months' weakness he gradually sunk and died on the 1st of September. God rest him, noble golfer, excellent companion we will not easily see his like again."

The writer of the newspaper notice from which we have quoted so largely also says: "A new era is about to dawn on the golfing links; the old stars are paling; when will others arise?

Hugh Philp, who knew how to make a club, is gone; gone, too, fine Allan, who knew how to handle one."

This was written in 1859. Close on fifty years have elapsed since then, and Tom Morris, who succeeded Allan Robertson at St Andrews, is still with us. And he has seen all the wonderful changes that have come over the game. He has seen the marvellous spread of its popularity in England, in the Colonies, in America, and all over the world. He has seen the introduction of the rubber-cored ball. He is the friend of the new and mighty cracks, who are worthily carrying on the traditions of the game Vardon and Taylor, Braid and Herd.

Allan Robertson's club-box has now found a suitable resting-place at St Andrews. The St Andrews Golf Club have accepted it with great pleasure, and have given it a place of honour in their meeting-room a suitable inscription having been painted on it. A former captain, who has played golf at St Andrews for sixty years, told a correspondent lately that Allan belonged to this Club, which is now known by the name of the "St Andrews Golf Club," but was then called something else. The present name was appropriated after the original owner had become dignified as "The Royal and Ancient."

The inscription on his tombstone in the Cathedral Burying Ground is:

In memory of Allan Robertson, who died 1st Sept. 1859, aged 41 years. He was greatly esteemed for his personal worth, and for many years was distinguished as the Champion Golfer of Scotland."

Allan's record was made on the I5th of September 1858. In a round with Mr Bethune, of Blebo, he went over the course in 79 strokes the record for the time when, of course, the links were more difficult than they are at present.

The following are the particulars:

Out, 4 4 4 5 5 6 4 4 4 - 40
In, 4 3 5 6 4 5 5 4 3 - 39

Total, . . 79

At various times Allan has gone round the links at the following best selected number:

Out, 3 3 3 3 4 4 3 1 3 - 27
In. 3 2 3 4 4 3 3 4 3 - 29

Total, . . 56

Later on I shall discuss the question as to whether Allan Robertson or Tom Morris was the better player. It is enough, in concluding these remarks on Allan Robertson, to say that he was the greatest golfer of his day, the most outstanding figure and the most interesting personality on any links in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Dr M'Phersun writes: "I have seen Allan Robertson place his ball on a hang of the teeing-ground no sand being used then and half top the ball against the wind, producing a flight with a curve of concave form for a time till, swallow-like, the ball would rise for a little before finally falling. No man ever witnessed a prettier stroke than that. Allan was not a long driver; he had not the physique of Blackwell or Braid. But he never missed a ball: he consistently hit with perfect accuracy of execution."

And of Allan Robertson and his days it has been truly said: "The links at St Andrews were then much rougher than I have found them on subsequent visits. There was but one course and the same nine holes served for the outward as for the inward round. Each hole was marked by a small iron pin with a bit of red flag attached. The greens were 'in the rough' and the bunkers were in their natural state. If a player went off the narrow course of good ground he was at once landed in very rough country and the course at the ninth hole was all heathery and difficult across its whole breadth.

"Allan Robertson was then in the full maturity of his skill as a player, and I believe that his record of 79 was as creditable as the considerably lower scores of the present day. Not so much is the driving nowadays easier, as is the putting on the bowling-green-like putting-greens which are so much affected now. I have recollections of seeing Allan Robertson putting. How he calculated every little mound and rough bit of grass in a long and billowy 'putt' is still a subject of admiration. I may be heretical but I think putting then was a much more 'scientific' as well as more difficult, thing than it is now.

I have seen 'the champion' to whom I have referred hole long 'putts' on very uneven ground with a certainty which makes one speculate as to what he could have done on the present greens. Allan Robertson was a small but well-made man of about forty, with reddish side whiskers, wore an almost perpetual smile and a red coat when playing."


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