As a child Jonathan Thomson asked his parents one of the most difficult questions you could imagine hearing from a loved one. Twenty years later he was playing in The Open. He tells Alex Perry his incredible story
If you didn’t know who Jonathan Thomson was before The Open, you certainly did after the dust settled on the Kent coast.
Thomson – nicknamed Jigger due to his boisterous personality as a child – was the recipient of one of the biggest roars of the week as the fans jammed in and around the huge grandstand behind the par-three 16th at Royal St George’s.
Thomson’s ball carried Bjorn’s bunker before grabbing the turf and diverting 45-degrees left and into the hole for what turned out to be the only ace of the week. For Thomson himself – and the hundreds of patrons in the neat observing area that incorporated the 10th and 16th tees as well as the 15th green – it was a case of reacting to the reaction.
“We didn’t actually see it go in,” he tells NCG. “The crowd went in three stages – it’s going in, it’s going in, it’s gone in. The guys I was playing with and my caddie went mental before I even knew what was going on.”
The last player to make an ace at that hole in The Open was Tom Watson, and it was also the scene of the first ever live televised hole-in-one, courtesy of Tony Jacklin.
“That’s pretty cool,” Thomson adds. “Though I’ve had two holes-in-one in my career so far and I’ve not seen either of them go in. Hopefully the next one I’ll get to see.”
The ace vaulted Thomson inside the cut line and with a chance of making the weekend on his major championship debut. But as anyone who has had a hole-in-one will tell you, it’s hard to compose yourself for the remainder of the round. For Thomson, with so much on the line, that was where his right-hand man came into his own.
“We embraced the whole experience walking down 16, and then walking off 16 the crowd were still going mental.
“But when we got on the 17th tee my caddie said, ‘Right, come on, refocus. We’ve got a job to do.’ He was unbelievable.
“I hit a great shot down 17 then a great second shot and holed the putt for birdie so that made the trip down 18 a much nicer experience.
“Look, without the hole-in-one it could have been a completely different story – but why not make it with a bang? It was just awesome.
“Picking up three shots in two holes made the whole scenario a hell of a lot easier and a lot more comfortable but all I was thinking was, ‘What has just happened there?’
“It is something I will remember for the rest of my life, that is for sure.”
For Thomson, he’s just grateful to be playing golf, let alone in The Open. At the age of seven he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia that would rob him of his prime development years.
“I’ll never forget it. The first thing I asked my parents was: ‘Am I going to die?’ It was a pretty harsh one for my parents to have to answer at that moment in time.”
Thomson was in and out of Sheffield Children’s Hospital for the next five years, where he would undergo intense chemotherapy. His mother, Sarah, gave up her job to care for him full-time.
“There is no way you can describe the feeling to someone who hasn’t been through it,” he explains. “It’s just brutal. They’re poisoning your body to try and kill the cancer – for four-and-a-half years in my case.
“And it’s not just the years of chemotherapy, it’s the aftermath as well.”
“It took me at least another four years to even start becoming a man,” Thomson adds. “I was 13 years old with a child’s immune system.
“I had to have my baby jabs again, and I was picking up bugs at school that other kids had when they were much younger.
“That was a really hard thing to deal with – knowing you’re in remission and thinking everything’s going to be back to normal, but it’s years and years really.
“I was becoming a teenager but really I was miles behind the pace.”
No longer able to play contact sports – “As a kid I was really good at football” – Thomson turned his full attention to our beautiful game.
His dad, Nigel, was a caterer at Rotherham, and that’s where the obsession began. The Thomson family were connected to the club at a time Danny Willett – a future Masters champion – was the World No 1 amateur, while attached pros were enjoying Challenge Tour success.
“I would miss school to go and watch these guys practice,” Thomson confesses. “I had my set of clubs so I’d be hitting a few balls here and there.
“But the reality was the treatment made me weaker and my bones more brittle – and golf is a non-contact sport. I always liked being outdoors and in the fresh air – I was never really into video games or anything like that.
“Golf took my mind away from the cancer. After the treatment it was just golf, golf, golf. It became an addiction. I don’t know, I’m obviously mad because it’s a crazy game.”
Thomson turned pro in 2016 and, using money his girlfriend lent him, entered the Glenfarclas Open on the EuroPro Tour. Rounds of 63 and 69 were enough for a two-shot victory and he used the £10,000 winner’s share to pay off debts and credit cards.
But it isn’t zeros on a cheque that drives Thomson’s ambition.
“Money makes the world go round and obviously it’s nice when you earn a lot of it – but the reality is, as a performer, as a professional golfer, you don’t want to be just thinking about that.
“You ask this to 100 other players and there will be some guys that say money is driving them forward, but as athletes and professionals you want to become the best you can be.”
Since that first career win, Thomson has done his time on the mini-tour circuit and the Challenge Tour and, in the months preceding the pandemic, was getting chances at the top table – including a payday just shy of six figures thanks to a tie for second at the Made in Denmark.
With the world about to change forever, it was a welcome injection to the bank balance.
“This past 18 months has been torturous money-wise because we didn’t play. We didn’t have a status on the European Tour then playing pretty much a full season on the Challenge Tour for next to nothing.”
But the shining light in all that was Open Qualifying and a chance at playing in a major.
Thomson had been on a miserable run in the build-up, missing five cuts in six Challenge Tour starts. But as we know in this game, the record doesn’t always tell the whole story.
“The reality was I’d been playing some great golf,” he explains.
The week before Open Qualifying, Thomson opened with rounds of 68 and 65 at the Open de Bretagne. He went on to finish tied-17th. “I got myself in contention but then I didn’t make a crack at it over the weekend and build on that momentum,” he adds.
“But even though I missed a few cuts, I knew deep down I was playing well – and sometimes that’s just the fine margins of golf. It shows just how cruel the game can be.”
He finished second at Hollinwell, now his home club, to book his spot at Royal St George’s.
“When I qualified, well…” he starts before trailing off. “We went through all the emotions, my family, myself…”
He composes himself once more.
“Playing in a major is what I dreamed about on my deathbed.”
Then it was all about preparation for The Open. Thomson went back to France to play in the Le Vaudreuil Challenge – won by Marcel Siem, another player who would go on to become a cult hero in Kent – but missed the cut. He wasn’t concerned.
“I said to myself, ‘Hang on a minute, you are playing great. You need to realise that you’re playing great.’ The Open was the first time this year I was allowed my team there – the Challenge Tour had a very strict bubble system in place where at times I wasn’t even allowed a caddie – and we did a very very good job of keeping the mindset of it being just another event.
“I’ve played in front of big crowds so that wasn’t really an issue. The issue was making sure we treated it and prepared for it like a normal week.
“But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was absolutely bricking it on the first tee. They’re all great emotions to have. I don’t care what anyone says, you speak to the big boys and they still get nervous – they’re just better at dealing with it because they do it more often.”
At almost six-foot-10, Thomson became the tallest player to ever tee up in one of golf’s big four. Events that week mean you can start making up your own records – tallest player to ever make the cut at a major and tallest player to ever have a hole-in-one at a major were bandied about – but Thomson keeps a light-hearted manner about it.
“I ignore it – it just gets boring,” he says with a smile. “Yes, I’m tall. Yes, I’m the tallest golfer to play in a major. I’ll embrace it. Everyone else is embracing it – certainly the Americans – but it’s not something that I want to define me down the line.
“It is what it is. I am tall and it’s great – but it’s certainly not great when I’m trying to get into aeroplane seats.”
Thomson’s eagle-birdie-par finish on Friday meant a spot alongside Lee Westwood on Saturday before teeing up with American Harris English – whose performance in Sandwich moved him into the world’s top 10 for the first time – for the final day. He would finish in a tie for 53rd at one-over-par.
“It was all a bit of a whirlwind, but it was great and it’s got me a lot of publicity, but in regards to confidence levels I played the weekend with two of the best players in the world and held my own more than comfortably and that’s massive going forward.”
Forward to the PGA Tour?
“100%,” he answers without even thinking about it. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t the dream because the golf out there suits my game – certainly more than the European Tour does.
“It’s just a case of me and my team figuring out how we’re actually going to get there, what’s the easiest way, and what’s the best way.
“I’ve started to see a lot more consistency in my game and made some quite difficult decisions – changing everything from coach to equipment manufacturer.
“I just want to be the best I can be in trying to get my tour card, gain consistency, and compete week in, week out.
“It’s a lot tougher than it sounds, but it can be done and these experiences make you the person you are because my career has been one hell of a rollercoaster so far.
“I don’t really intend it to be that way forever. I’d rather get some solidarity going forward and then try and keep it.”
Jonathan Thomson was speaking to NCG as an ambassador for Coffee Friend.