A golfer needs a special set of skills to perform well on a hard, fast traditional links and no one was better suited to this unique and often demanding form of the game than Australia’s Peter Thomson.
The man from the Brunswick suburb of Melbourne might not be numbered alongside the likes of Jones, Hagen, Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus and Woods as one of the supreme golfers of all time but there is no doubt he had few peers when it can to mastering the vagaries of British seaside golf.
Thomson gave a glimpse of that prowess on his first visit to the British Isles when, as a stripling 21 year-old, fresh from the first of three Australian Open wins, he finished tied for sixth place behind Max Faulkner at the 1951 Open Championship at Royal Portrush.
The Australian soon confirmed that stellar debut performance was no flash in the pan. From 1952 until 1958 he never finished worse than equal second in the Championship. On his second appearance he came within a shot of denying South African, Bobby Locke, his third title in the space of four years. In 1953 he was second again, behind the rampant Ben Hogan at Carnoustie, before securing his place in the winner’s circle for the first time twelve months later.
His maiden victory at Royal Birkdale in 1954 (pictured, left) saw him defeat Locke, Dai Rees and Syd Scott by a shot to claim the £750 first prize. He won again in 1955 and 1956 to emulate Tom Morris Jnr (1868-70), Bob Ferguson (1880-82), Jamie Anderson (1887-98) by securing a hat-trick of successive victories. He enjoyed further victories in both 1958, at Royal Lytham & St Annes, and 1965.
Thomson’s final victory at Royal Birkdale in 1965 was often thought be the pick of the bunch because it was secured against a strong field which included the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and defending champion, Tony Lema. But in all his triumphs he displayed a bewildering array of shots and an uncanny ability to plot his way round even the most unforgiving links.
The Australian was by no means a long hitter but was blessed with a simple swing which seldom broke down under pressure.
Henry Longhurst, the doyen of British golf writing and broadcasting, once suggested he should team up with Thomson to write an instruction manual but abandoned the plan after just two unsatisfactory 30 minute sessions on the practice ground.
“Thomson’s lessons are so simple they spoil the book,” said the exasperated English writer. “He reduces all the standard chapters to just one line. The grip, for instance, ought to be good for 20 or 30 pages. Thomson simply says that if you get set up right then you won’t need to worry about the grip. It all comes naturally.”
Thomson was also fortunate to have access to a fine mentor in the shape of the great Australian golfer, Norman Von Nida, who between the mid-1940s and 50s won 12 tournaments in Britain, plus three Australian Opens and four Australian PGA titles, before retiring to become a celebrated teacher.
“The Von led me out of the amateur ranks like a farmer leads a donkey out of the barn with a carrot in front of his nose”, Thomson wrote later. “In my case, the carrot was the promise of money and at 19 years of age nothing looked sweeter.”
Thomson, who is now 82 years-old, has been described as one of the game’s great thinkers — an important asset on any traditional links.
“(He) was the master of keeping the ball safely in play,” wrote former Golf Monthly editor, Malcolm Campbell, who was to become a good friend of Thomson through their mutual involvement in the James Braid Golfing Society. “Not for him the Palmer or Ballesteros approach of powerful hitting and spectacular recovery. Thomson was the ultimate strategist, inevitably perfect for length, and a fine putter. Those were the hallmarks of his game.”
He used all these traits to secure his first three Open titles in 1954-56. He missed out on the chance to achieve a fourth straight victory when he finished second behind Locke at St Andrews in 1957 but then quickly reinforced his reputation as favourite 12 months later in 1958 when he fired a superb 63 in less than favourable circumstances during his first qualifying round at Lytham. It was a performance which moved American amateur, Frank Stranahan, to inquire: “Peter, are you sure you didn’t miss out any holes.” It also set the scene for what was to follow.
The Australian maestro opened the Championship itself with rounds of 66 and 72 to share third place with Welshman Dave Thomas, behind Christy O’Connor Snr and Argentina’s Leopoldo Ruiz.
That year, the organisers erected the first ever grandstand beside the 18th green and the following day the assembled spectators were able to watch on high as Thomson putted out for a fine 67 that saw him lead by two shots from 23 year-old Thomas and Belgium’s Flory Van Donck. One shot further behind them were O’Connor, Ruiz and Scotland’s Eric Brown, whose 65 was completed thanks to a glorious inward nine of 30.
The fourth round saw the elegant Van Donck start with a brace of threes but his challenge faded when he drove out-of-bounds on the third. Brown set the target with a 71 for 279 and the race for the £1,000 first prize soon reached a crescendo with Thomson, Thomas and O’Connor all battling to beat that total and set a new Championship 72-hole aggregate record.
“In a lifetime of watching golf one might never again experience a last hour like this one, because the event came perilously close to being a quintuple tie,” wrote Pat Ward-Thomas in the next day’s Guardian newspaper.
The closing nine certainly provided high drama for the huge crowds that descended on Lytham. Thomas three-putted the 10th, 11th and 12th to drop two behind Thomson but that lead was obliterated when the Australian uncharacteristically took six to Thomas’ four on the 15th.
Now both men needed three fours to beat Brown. Thomas made the first move with a birdie three on the 16th but dropped a shot on the 17th when the enormity of the situation dawned on him for just about the first time.
“For me it was all on the 17th,” he said later. “It was my honour and, though faced with what I feel is one of the most difficult drives at Lytham, I hit a perfect one onto the right-hand half of the fairway.
“Peter was in a similar position, but 15 yards shorter. He played and he was on the green in two. I had a 7-iron to hit, a very easy shot, the green wide open because of the well-placed drive. Then, suddenly, it struck me that I was a stroke up with one and a half holes to play. I had never been in that position before, not even in an ordinary tournament, far less The Open. I felt suddenly as if somebody had put a terrific weight on that 7-iron. I hit an inch behind the ball and it finished in heavy rough, well short. I could do no better than five.”
Under the circumstances, Thomas did well to recover his composure and card a closing four that saw him tie Thomson, one shot ahead of Brown and O’Connor Snr. The Scot, in particular, was left to “suffer the agonies of the damned”, as Ward-Thomas so eloquently described it, having taken six at the last hole after driving into a bunker. Meanwhile, the experienced Thomson was installed as the clear favourite for the 36-hole play-off scheduled for the next day.
Thomson (pictured at the Presidents Cup 2011) was something of a mentor to Thomas but in the subsequent play-off he showed no compassion whatsoever to his young Welsh counterpart, carding rounds of 68 and 71 to claim a four shot victory over his rival.
During the week, the Australian’s eight rounds of 63, 70, 66, 72, 67, 73, 68 and 71 (including two qualifying rounds) bear testament to his extraordinary consistency and his performance was all the more impressive because, unbeknown to all but his inner circle, he had suffered an acute asthma attack on the eve of scoring that 63 in the first round of Qualifying.
“I honestly felt terrible,” he said later. “I knew that to withdraw was a drastic step but that was how bad I felt. I was tired and listless but I thought if I could just control my breathing I could give it a go. I didn’t want to give up. The only way I could get through was by taking my time, by taking things very slowly.”
Under the circumstances, the Australian still believes his 1958 victory to be one of his finest achievements and his opening 63 in Qualifying to be one of the greatest rounds he ever played.
“Although it was not part of the Championship proper, that round virtually won The Open for me,” he said. “It not only boosted my confidence but dismayed the opposition, too.”