The Wilder The Better Tom Shaw No. 25

The Wilder, the Better

British photographer Tom Shaw sees the game in a different light

Tom Shaw was stressing. The sun was rising over the English countryside, but the light wasn’t ideal for a traditional photo shoot. He was wandering the scruffy golf course, searching for the right way to present the game to his editors back in the U.S. Finally, he realized he had to stop fighting what was in front of him. “I figured I needed to embrace this bad light,” Shaw says. “I love the morning light and evening light as much as anyone, but we get such weird weather over here. You can’t just fill a magazine with those kinds of stylized pictures. I started to think, ‘What can I offer as a difference?’”

He steadied his camera and found his inspiration: a cow making itself quite at home on the green. The course was on what the English deem “common land,” areas open to the public that house anything from parks to golf courses to livestock.

“I figured people would love that,” Shaw says. “They’d go, ‘What? Why is there a cow on a golf course? And why is he leaving a cow pat right on the green?’”

Shaw’s uncommon way of looking at the world has made him a singular figure in sports photography. Over three decades, he has traveled the world covering sports for Getty and spent 15 years as the English national cricket team’s official photographer. In 2017, he made the transition into golf with a shoot of the iconic North Berwick Golf Club for The Golfer’s Journal No. 1. He has since become TGJ’s primary U.K. photographer while picking up more golf work for the R&A.

His gradual shift to golf should be no surprise. Shaw grew up in the south of England, then moved to Scotland when he was 12. He fell in with an “artsy” group of friends who spent weekends hiking and climbing all over the Scottish countryside. He began taking his camera with him, capturing images that still captivate him.

“I’m really attracted to sports that are formed from the natural world,” Shaw says. “Golf appeals to me because of how it sits in the landscape. I think it’s just the vastness of being outside. I’m always trying to get that across in my work. The wilder, the better.”

The Wilder The Better Tom Shaw No. 25
A young rugby player, shot in the depths of a dark and very muddy winter. It was cold, wet and pretty grim, but her passion for playing made for a lovely portrait.

It’s this worldview that allows Shaw to have some unconventional takes on a few golf standards. Like his tricky relationship with St. Andrews. He’d much rather brave a sideways wind at Machrihanish Dunes than march out with the phalanx of photographers at an Open Championship.

“[St. Andrews] is a really hard course to get anything out of,” he says. “I think it’s because it’s pretty flat, save for a few little humps. It’s also on the east coast [of Scotland]. It doesn’t get the weather they have on the west. It doesn’t get the drama that you get there, and the great big dunes. On the west coast my eyes light up all the time because I’ll get some brutal weather.”

Shaw is also not a huge fan of drones. While he has used them to great effect, his training as a young photographer without drones has made him skeptical.

“Sometimes [drone shots] can look spectacular, but there’s an otherworldliness to them,” Shaw says. “I could never do a shoot and then just deliver a set of drone pictures; they might illustrate a place well, but I don’t think you’d feel your way into the golf course. It becomes quite cynical, the drone stuff. What I’m generally looking for is a feeling. For how the hole, the tee box or the fairway work together. I’m looking for layers—three, four, five of them—and how they sit with each other. It sounds like a weird thing. But I can see it.”

The Wilder The Better Tom Shaw No. 25
This horse, Superstition, belongs to British eventing rider Harry Meade. I had always wanted to photograph a horse in the style of 18th-century painter George Stubbs.
The Wilder The Better Tom Shaw No. 25
When I was with the English cricket team in 2011, I persuaded their sponsors to let me shoot a picture that resembled an old masters painting. (I wanted to make an image like da Vinci’s The Last Supper, but they felt that was too religious.)
The Wilder The Better Tom Shaw No. 25
Rosapenna—just the most wonderful place in the northwest of Ireland—where the pictures almost shoot themselves. Here we are in the soft late-evening light, with the gentle waves, the Old Tom Morris course and the hills of Donegal. Why would you want to be anywhere else?
The Wilder The Better Tom Shaw No. 25
Darren Clarke and the Ryder Cup in 2016, shot for Standard Life Investments when they were a global partner of the event. I was lucky to shoot three Ryder Cups for them, working with all the captains. The effort these guys put into choosing and managing the teams is incredible—just one part of what makes the Ryder Cup one of the most exciting events to cover in world sport.
The Wilder The Better Tom Shaw No. 25
Tom Shaw
The Wilder The Better Tom Shaw No. 25
I was shooting a commercial in the Mercedes Formula One factory, and this lad’s job was to paint everything from small parts to the chassis of the cars. The F1 factories are so secretive that you are barely allowed to look at or photograph anything, and certainly not allowed to touch.
If you know Machrihanish Dunes, then you understand how wild and remote the place is. When TGJ asked me to go there in midwinter, I thought they were crazy. The sun rises about 9 a.m. and sets about 3 p.m., and often it’s raining, so you hardly ever see it anyway. But this day was perfect: enough sun to light the place up, and scattered rain to add a bit of interest. I love these days; the sunlight dances across the landscape and creates a lovely depth to the pictures. Great course, brilliantly crazy time of year to go.
The Wilder The Better Tom Shaw No. 25
A commercial shoot for a rugby clothing brand. We felt it best to take a women’s team, let them have a full practice session and then photograph them afterward.
The Wilder The Better Tom Shaw No. 25
I have worked with the R&A on its coverage of the Open for the past few years. I am part of a great team of photographers, all bringing a different aesthetic. The photo manager gives us the freedom to show the game in the way we want to, and for me that is using the landscape and looking for wider images that involve the crowds.

I’m also tasked with the winner’s portrait after the trophy presentation. I love doing them, as the scene is total chaos: After shooting the final hole, we have the Claret Jug presentation, and then it’s off to grab the studio lights and laptop and head to the locker room to set up for the portrait. Usually that shot is very simple, but the 150th Open at St. Andrews was unique. The clubhouse is quite small, but there were hundreds of people inside, including British royalty.

Fortunately the upstairs restaurant wasn’t open, so I set up by the window under a lovely painting of the Old Course. Cam Smith came in and had only about five minutes to pose for a picture, so I had to work quickly. I felt that sitting down would be best because it would make him feel more relaxed; he hadn’t stopped since starting his round. He took a few seconds to look at all the names etched into that trophy—a rare moment of calm on an unforgettable whirlwind of a day.