Remembering Peter Thomson

Golf News

With the news that Peter Thomson has died in Melbourne, Dan Murphy reflects on the Australian's remarkable Open Championship record

The five-time Open champion Peter Thomson has died at the age of 88.

Thomson had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for more than four years and he died at his home in Melbourne on Wednesday, according to Golf Australia.

He is survived by his wife, Mary, four children, 11 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Peter Thomson on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his third-successive Open win at Royal Liverpool. That was in 2006 as the championship was about to return to the Wirral venue after a long absence.

Here is the full feature:

Remembering Peter Thomson

The only other golfer in the modern era with as many Claret Jugs to his name is Tom Watson. Only one man in the near century and a half since the Open Championship began has been more successful than he was Harry Vardon.

He became only the second Australian to win a major when he claimed the first of his five Open titles in 1954 and even now, more than 50 years after his most recent success, his personal tally of majors represents almost a third of the Australian nation’s collective total in the men’s game.

By anyone’s standards Peter Thomson is truly a giant of the game. So why is it that this five-time Open champion is so rarely mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods?

The simple answer is that Thomson never quite achieved the same level of success in the United States as he did on this side of the Atlantic. Or at least not until he joined the American Seniors Tour almost 20 years later and in 1985 reeled off nine victories to win that year’s money list and confirm his enduring class.

As with most things, the reasons behind this apparent anomaly in his career are manifold, but one of the more significant is that The Open simply meant more to him. Indeed, it has always been his number one priority in professional golf – a life-long love affair for the Australian as strong now as it was when he grew up in Melbourne in the 1930s.

“I played a lot of golf on a local nine-hole municipal course as a youngster and there were photos on the wall of St Andrews,” said Thomson.

“It was always the ultimate thing to do to go and play in The Open.” Thomson’s dream became reality in 1951 when he travelled to Northern Ireland and qualified for the championship proper.

“When I played at Portrush I was euphoric. It lifted me. I was always lifted by the occasion whenever I played in The Open.

“It was very basic and primitive back in those days, nothing like it is now. There was only one official, believe it or not, the secretary of the R&A. But it worked brilliantly.”

Despite the excitement, Peter Thomson played well enough on his debut to finish sixth, the start of a quite brilliant Open record.

The next championship he missed would be in 1981, exactly 30 years later. During the seven years after 1951, Thomson’s record was, and is, the best in Open history. Between then and 1958, only two men finished above him: Bobby Locke in 1952 and 1957, and Ben Hogan in 1953 at Carnoustie.

In among this were four victories, including three in consecutive years, something nobody else managed in the 20th century and only Jamie Anderson and Bob Ferguson can match elsewhere (Tom Morris Jr won four in a row between 1868 and 1872 but there was no championship in 1871).

“The Open was the one big highlight for me every year,” he said.

“You can’t keep a high priority of interest for 52 weeks a year and you have to set a week to get to your pinnacle.

“It always happened that championship in July was the week I had to be ready for. Once you have won something I think that you have gone through the barrier and then it’s something you know you can do and believe you can do again.

“I did have an advantage. All the big names in those days were club pros. Guys like Dai Rees and Christy O’Connor. Even Henry Cotton had a club to go back to. Whereas I was a young player from Australia with no obligations. I didn’t have to go and open the shop first thing on a Saturday morning the day after The Open finished and sell tee pegs and balls to the members.”

Thomson also recognises a natural affinity with seaside golf served him well. It is said that he honed his keen eye for judging distances when walking along a street by estimating how far away a lamppost was then pacing it out to check his accuracy.

Attention to detail, calm thinking and a cool, strategic brain were said to be as key to Thomson’s consistency as much as his simple, repeating swing and sure putting touch.

“I just didn’t find it any mystery. It all looked very logical to me. I just felt this is it. I suppose I was unusual because so many players did and still do look at Open courses and feel uncomfortable. I was the opposite.

“Getting your clubs ready was the most important thing. It wasn’t like now when you can just walk into a shop and walk out with a brand-new set. Finding a driver that you liked and would last a good year or so was very difficult because in those days they certainly didn’t last forever.”

Interview continues on the next page, where Thomson recalls his battle with the up-and-coming Americans and calls for a Ryder Cup-style event involving Australia…

Previous article
Next article
Top