April’s U.S. release of the independent film “Tommy’s Honour” caught my eye. I’m continually fascinated by how the athletic field and turfgrass management professions are seen by the public and portrayed in popular culture.
Old Tom Morris was a 19th century Scottish golfer known for his skill and for winning wagers placed on him by the gentry of St. Andrews, home of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. He’s widely credited as the “founding father of modern golf.”
I was most interested with Morris’ accomplishments and innovations to modern turfgrass management. He’s also known for his pioneering endeavors in “greenkeeping,” as it was called then. I was hoping to see how he was using early push mowers and how he was the first to begin sand topdressing on greens. I wanted to see how he designed and shaped the layout of over 70 golf courses in the mid 1800s. Since 1983, the Golf Course Superintendents of America has awarded its highest honor, the “Old Tom Morris Award” to “…an individual who, through a continuing lifetime commitment to the game of golf, has helped to mold the welfare of the game in a manner and style exemplified by Old Tom Morris.”
Alas, there was almost none of Tom Morris’ turfgrass acumen in “Tommy’s Honour,” save some pulling of bushes. Rather, this was a captivating father-son biopic within a class system still casting echoes in contemporary times. For golf fans, there are plenty of nuggets about the early game, like how blocking your opponent’s ball on the green was not only within the rules, but a routinely safe strategy. But even if you don’t love golf, this film is worth any turfie’s time.
The hero of “Tommy’s Honour” is Young Tommy Morris, Old Tom’s prodigal golfer son, playing partner and foil to Tommy’s rebellious efforts to leverage his talents into some upward mobility. Old Tom felt his son should know his place, inherit his father’s station in society, take the abuse from the people whom you help make rich, and be satisfied with the crumbs they throw your way — it could be worse. The gentry in St. Andrews quite agreed, scoffing “A greenkeepers son, acting as an equal.”
The film made me think about our industry’s long struggle to gain a due image as a profession, with all the responsibilities and benefits, in society and therefore the workplace.
Tommy Morris, like his father, was so good at the game of golf that he could have scratched out a living at it from the rich landowners. But unlike his father, Young Tommy leveraged his skills with the gentry. There were others who also played golf for money, so he didn’t invent professional golf. Instead his great accomplishment was how he moved the profession of golf upward in society. This kind of societal ascendance is rarely done by well-behaved, compliant people. “I don’t want to spend my days teeing-up gentlemen who think they’re better than me. Can you not see that?” an exasperated Tommy barks to his father.
It was Tommy’s prolific talent and ability to deliver when it counted most on the golf course that made a rise to professionalism possible. He had no backers to support his idea when he began, not even his father — who I believe secretly wanted him to succeed. His leverage came from his exceptional talent, so well-developed that those who would hold him down could no longer exploit him. And can’t we all learn something from that?
If we want to improve our station within our organization or even society, shaping a marketable level of talent within our field is how it is done. Build a body of work that can’t be ignored by those who profit from it and you’ll be treated better, even against the sometimes still stacked-cards of societal biases.
When Tommy announced to the chief stiff at the R & A Golf Club “Time for a new arrangement, sir,” he couldn’t lose. He’d get recognition and respect for his talents here, or very easily somewhere else.