Golfer Tom Kidd: Early British Open Winner, Club Innovator

Golfer Tom Kidd
Tom Kidd was a golfer of the 19th century and one of the lesser-known British Open champs ever. But he did, in fact, win the Open Championship ... and he just might have invented grooves on irons.

Full name: Christopher Thomas Kidd

Date and place of birth: 1847 or 1848 in St. Andrews, Scotland

Date and place of death: January 16, 1884 in St. Andrews, Scotland

Biography of Tom Kidd

Kidd is one of the least-known major championship winners in golf history, so little-known that the exact year of his birth isn't even certain.

But he was born in the "home of golf," St. Andrews, at a time when professional golf barely existed and the first Open Championship (played in 1860) was still more than a decade away.

He grew up on the links (what we call today The Old Course) and became a caddie, same as his father. His father also being called Tom, they were sometimes called "Young Tom" and "Old Tom" to differentiate them. (The nickname has not stuck with young Tom Kidd in a historical context because of the far, far more famous Old Tom-Young Tom, father-son pair, the Morrises.)

By the early 1870s, Kidd was establishing a reputation as a long driver of the ball. This was an era when 200-yard drives were long drives, and Kidd routinely outdrove his competitors by significant amounts.

He also became known as a fancy dresser, both on and off the golf course. While playing golf, Kidd commonly wore "colorful silk waistcoats," according to author Kevin Cook in his book, Tommy's Honor (affiliate link). Cook described Kidd as "a jut-jawed powerhouse" who "wore his side whiskers so bushy the wind ruffled them."

Cook related of Kidd's penchant for fancy dress:

"Kidd was a dandy. On Sundays he dressed 'like a peacock,' one St. Andrean wrote, 'with tall hat, blue socks, lavender trousers, yellow kid gloves and a cane.' He sports a silk top hat he called his 'Whar-ye-goin' hat, so splendid it made people ask what destination could be worthy of such a hat."

Kidd did not play any of the first 12 Open Championships, all of which took place at Prestwick. But he was starting to show up in newspaper accounts of "challenge matches," the one-vs.-one or two-vs.-two matches arranged by local golf enthusiasts, and which featured payouts to the participating golfers and large amounts of wagering by the locals. Kidd frequently partnered Davie Strath.

In an 1872 match, Kidd and Strath defeated Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris in a 36-hole match by seven strokes. A contemporary newspaper account of that match called Kidd "a young professional of much promise" and noted that Kidd "far exceeded his opponents in driving, his long swipes being much admired" (as recounted in the book The Soul of St. Andrews: The Life of Old Tom Morris by W.W. Tulloch).

Kidd Wins the 1873 British Open

The 1873 Open Championship was played, for the first time, somewhere other than Prestwick: at Tom Kidd's home course in St. Andrews. Twenty-six golfers entered, the largest field to that point.

"Kidd's prodigious drives sailed past ponds that (Jamie) Anderson ... and even Tommy (Morris) couldn't carry," Cook wrote in Tommy's Honor.

They played 36 holes in good weather, but the scores were terrible. Kidd, the winner, carded a 91 for the first 18 holes. He "improved" to an 88 for the second 18, finishing at 179 and winning by one stroke over Jamie Anderson. Kidd's Round 2 88 was the best score of the tournament.

What happened? While the weather was fine on the day of the tournament (all 36 holes were played in one day), the weather had been awful in days leading up to the tournament. The Old Course was covered in puddles and mud, and in those days golfers did not get to move a ball out of "casual water." Balls that found water or mud were simply hacked out.

Kidd's 179 total is the highest winning score ever from the era of 36-hole Opens. But he will forever be known as the first British Open winner at St. Andrews.

Kidd also was the first winner to receive the Claret Jug as the Open trophy. The Claret Jug was commissioned for the 1872 Open, but wasn't ready in time. So it was presented for the first time in 1873, to Kidd.

Kidd played in only four other British Opens, the last in 1882. He tied for eight in 1874 and was fifth in 1879.

He died in 1884 of heart-related issues, only in his mid-30s, leaving a widow and two children.

Did Tom Kidd Invent Grooves on Irons?

Something that helped Kidd win the 1873 Open: The night before, to help his golf ball stop on the greens, Kidd etched rudimentary grooves into the faces of his iron clubs. This imparted backspin, which Kidd knew would help his ball stop, rather than hop forward and roll off the backs of the St. Andrews greens.

So does Tom Kidd deserve credit as the inventor of grooves on golf clubs? No, and yes.

First, understand that grooves developed in the same way that dimples on golf balls did. Early golf balls were smooth (or as smooth as ball makers could get them stitched together). But early golfers noticed that when scratches or other imperfections appeared on the ball cover, the ball achieved more lift. That inevitably led to "imperfections" being built into the covers of golf balls — indentations, lines, bumps, raised patterns — as golfers experimented. Eventually dimples emerged.

In the rough conditions present in 19th century golf, the clubfaces quite easily became scratched or dented or otherwise defaced. Sometimes, golfers noticed, that rougher surface would actually help, as when a golf ball landed on a green but stopped quickly (due to backspin).

It is known that by the early 1850s Allan Robertson was scoring the faces of his wooden-headed clubs. So Kidd did not invent the concept of "grooves" (which were commonly referred to as "ribs," or "ribbed clubs," in those early days).

But he definitely was the first golfer to, by design, play the Open Championship with irons that he had intentionally grooved to help him better control his shots.

The book Golf Facts Figures and Fun (affiliate link) by Ed Harris notes that Kidd's "club face(s) were described as being 'suitable for grating nutmeg'" at that 1873 Open.

In The Scottish Golf Book (affiliate link), authors Malcolm Campbell and Glyn Satterley include a timeline, in the 1873 entry they write, "Tom Kidd uses first ever deliberately grooved club in the Open."

And in Tommy's Honor, Cook writes that "Kidd's tactics were nothing new, though purists considered it unsporting."

In a book published around 50 years later, Andrew Kirkaldy, another 19th century golf pioneer, was still complaining about how grooves changed the original nature of the game.

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