With the news of Peter Thomson’s passing at the age of 88, NCG remembers the Open legend in a series of interviews from down the years.
Here, Mark Townsend speaks to Thomson ahead of the 2014 edition of golf’s oldest major at Royal Liverpool…
Remembering Peter Thomson
If one word springs to mind to describe Open legend Peter Thomson it is modest.
Every achievement mentioned he plays down and “part luck” is his explanation for his various victories.
But the record books speak for themselves: five Open wins and the only player to win three consecutive championships in the 20th century.
In truth it could very easily have been five on the trot.
At St Andrews – where he would go on to spend the British summers after he retired – in 1957, bidding for a fourth straight Open crown, the Australian felt that he could have beaten Bobby Locke had he been a bit smarter.
The following year normal service resumed and he added his final victory, this time in the company of Palmer, Nicklaus and Player at Birkdale in 1965.
Those were very different times – every player had to qualify for the championship proper which ended on the Friday so the pros could be back at their clubs for the weekend – but still a run of successes which may never be matched again.
What do you remember of your early Open visits?
We were permanently over doing the circuit of events and the Open was one of them. I played my first at Royal Portrush in 1951, was then second at Lytham behind Bobby Locke and then I was second again at the Hogan Open. So I had plenty of practice at doing well and I had a fancy that I could win one.
What made you so successful?
I had been second twice so I was confident but I thought it was a case of if you played enough by the seaside you could get the hang of it. A lot of it was down to a bouncing ball. It didn’t stick like it did in the circuits of America and I’m afraid Australia.
I was well equipped to play the ball which might bounce and end up where perhaps you didn’t want it to go. You had to suffer bad lies, and putt on slow greens, the way the ball jumped a bit. That was part of the game then.
Did Hogan not arrive three weeks early to practise with the smaller 1.62 ball?
That’s right, we were all shocked that Hogan was going to play with the small ball as you didn’t need to do it. You could use anything you wanted as long as it was bigger than 1.62.
I would change ball size a lot. I grew up in Melbourne playing the small ball so moving up in size was a piece of cake. It worked for him but it could have gone wrong!
What was Hoylake like?
When I came to practise I really couldn’t make head nor tail of the course. I built up a fair amount of pessimism that I wasn’t going to win because always when I played I had a plan to play a course; I found out where the trouble was and figured out how to keep out of it and make the most of the opportunities elsewhere.
But this course, I never really got the hang of it, even after I won.
What makes it so tricky?
It is gloriously flat, we used to say, and that made it hard, believe it or not. Looking forward you don’t get a clear notion of what’s ahead. If you’re looking across a little valley it is easy to see things very clearly.
You played by instinct and with assistance from the caddy. They spoke to the player in terms of what club it was but not in yardages, that came later. The only clue you had was the scorecard.
Were you the favourite?
I reckon I had a good chance. The previous weeks we played the Canada Cup (now the World Cup) at Wentworth and Sam Snead and Ben Hogan won there but didn’t stay for the Open. Sam thought there wasn’t enough prize money.
The two key clubs in the bag were the driver and the putter. If you could get a good pair of those you could win anything.
Were you aware where you were on the leaderboard?
No we didn’t have scoreboards. The whole Open was run by one man, Brigadier Brickman, who was secretary of the R&A. He ran everything but he didn’t get around to putting up scoreboards! He was a great fella, a Black and Tans man who served the army and he was more than competent enough to run the Open on his own.
Did you hit driver everywhere?
Oh yes, the ball didn’t go very far in those days. Everybody would always hit driver.
What were your pre-championship preparations?
Just playing the course every day. Basically what they do today is the same as we did 60 years ago, I wish I was still there playing. I enjoyed it so much.
My warm up would be a bit different though. You brought your practice balls with you and they weighed a ton. My man, Jack Lee, used to have a small bag of about 15 balls and I would ask him to go down the practise fairway to retrieve them. If I asked him to go back twice I would get a very dirty look.
How important was it to win against the big names?
It fell in my lap a bit as they didn’t handle Birkdale very well. It is half you winning and half the other players losing and they played themselves out of the championship and I played myself in.
How good a competitor did you rate yourself?
I was a very hungry competitor. Just because I had a smile on my face didn’t mean I wasn’t a pretty hungry golfer. I think I was as competitive as any. That came from instinct, I used to fight in the schoolyards to get my own way. It was born and bred in me.
Would you set targets?
I would always look to shoot four 71s and see where that got me. You could almost predict the winning score and you didn’t try to one putt. If I had 32 putts that would be good, I never rated myself as a good putter.
It was almost like the four-minute mile trying to one putt, two putts were fine. The other thing is greens have got faster. It’s a fact that slow greens are more difficult to putt on than fast greens.
What about equipment?
The two key clubs in the bag were the driver and the putter. If you could get a good pair of those you could win anything. I had to borrow some irons from John Letters in 1954 before I won at Birkdale. I had a disgusting set of irons from America which I thought might be the winning clubs but they were dreadful. The night before the championship I got these strange clubs and I played with them. After I had finished I gave them back and thanked John.
You never used them again?
I never even saw them again.
Is it true you don’t like watching your swing on tape?
That’s the truth and is the case today. It didn’t help and it puts you right off. I always had an image of myself hitting a ball and when I found out that I didn’t look like Sam Snead doing the same thing I got a bit of a shock and it knocked my confidence for quite a while. I wouldn’t watch myself and it helped me.
Is Snead the most natural player you’ve seen?
No argument about that, Hogan was very complicated. I don’t know what he was on about, he would always hit hundreds of practice balls. Sam’s first shot in a day would be perfect, he didn’t need any practice.
Where would Seve rank?
He would be up there. He was another who was ready to go at the first shot.
Who do you watch now?
Naturally, as an Australian, it would be Scotty and I hope he wins the Open. He’s won the Masters but that’s not the top prize, the top prize is the Open Championship.
This interview was originally published in the July 2014 edition of National Club Golfer magazine.