In Review: Stephen Proctor’s Monarch of the Green

It was Christmas 2008, and Stephen Proctor was heading home to Florida. In order to make the flight from San Francisco more tolerable, he entered a bookshop, hoping to find something that would make those tedious five hours fly by.

He did a double-take as he scanned the shelves and caught sight of Kevin Cook’s Tommy’s Honour, published in June of that year. His heart sunk.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” says Proctor who had spent the last couple of years researching for his own biography of Tommy Morris, Old Tom’s eldest son and arguably the greatest golfer of the 19th century. “I had no idea Kevin’s book existed, and I immediately assumed I’d been wasting my time.”

Monarch of the Green

Proctor, a longtime newspaper man who’d spent 23 years at the Baltimore Sun and who was now Managing Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, purchased a copy and had read it cover to cover by the time the plane touched down in Orlando.

“I was in shock,” he says. “It was a pretty niche subject, so to have two books documenting much the same thing, appearing at roughly the same time, wouldn’t have worked.”

Proctor, however, found some solace in the fact that his own Monarch of the Green, which he had been envisioning since he first visited the Auld Grey Toon in 2006, was distinct enough for him to forge ahead as planned.

Cook’s highly acclaimed volume dealt for the most part with both father and son, and their relationship. It also, quite legitimately given how much research Cook had obviously done on the habits and culture of the day, used a fair amount of literary license. Really, it did a superb job of setting the scene and giving one a picture of life in St. Andrews during the mid-1800s.

No two writers/authors are the same, however, and that wasn’t going to be Proctor’s style. He took a far more pragmatic approach, but with skillful storytelling was able to prevent Monarch of the Green from becoming a dry regurgitation of the facts.

It was obviously every bit as painstakingly researched as Tommy’s Honour, but woven into the story either side of detailed accounts of young Morris’s incredible playing accomplishments is informative, lovingly written comment that lends color to the book, making it every bit as compelling as Cook’s.

I say “lovingly written” because, during the years of study, Proctor clearly fell for Morris, which is to say he not only grew fond of his hero and his story but, when all the results were in, believed he was one of the most significant figures in the game’s history, if not the most. Because we have no video footage of either Morris swinging a club, and because we are prone to believe the early days of professional golf involved a motley bunch of ragtag miscreants and heavy drinkers, we tend not to give them their due. We can never fully appreciate how good they were.

Proctor, however, very ably convinces us young Tom was a giant on the links, equally as talented as anyone that came after him—Ballesteros, Hagen, Jones, Nicklaus, Woods, etc.

Proctor positively drools as Morris moves from one incredible performance to another—his three successive Open victories at Prestwick, which culminated in what was probably his greatest ever tournament when he played the 36 holes of the 1870 championship in a scarcely believable 149 strokes, rightly get the most attention—but he saves his best, most moving and poignant writing for Morris’s tragic death, on Christmas Day 1875, at just 24 years old.

That Proctor arouses such powerful emotions (if you don’t shed at least a couple of tears, you make the Grinch look warm and fuzzy) is a clear indication of how close a bond the author formed with his subject over the years, and you can well imagine him struggling to write the haunting pages that deal with Morris’s passing.

Laced into the Tom Morris Jr. story are enlightening passages concerning the evolution of the game’s equipment—in particular, the ball and the development of professional golf which not only became extremely popular among 19th century Scottish sports fans, but also began to earn a level of respectability thanks to Tommy’s brilliance.

Thirteen years after the idea for Monarch of the Green first formed, 11 after the awful moment when Proctor saw Tommy’s Honour for the first time, six after beginning to write, and four after finding a publisher willing to take a chance on an unpublished author, the book was finally released, enabling readers to form a clear picture of just how great and important a player Tom Morris Jr. was.

Proctor is now working on a second, as yet untitled, book—an analysis of the impact Morris Jr. had on the game. “It will explore how golf came of age at the turn of the 20th Century,” he says.

If it’s even half as engrossing as his debut effort, it will be another weighty addition to the game’s library.