“Talent imitates, genius steals,” so goes T.S. Eliot’s famous line.
This timeless quote, often mistakenly attributed to Oscar Wilde, sums up the approach of one of the greatest players to ever pick up a golf club, history maker Peter Thomson.
A five-time Champion Golfer of the Year, the Australian is the only man to have won a 72-hole Open three years in a row.
But even a master like Thomson needed some guidance in his early days, and it came from some very obvious sources.
As we continue to track down descendants of former Royal Liverpool Champions, ahead of The 151st Open at Hoylake next month, his son Andrew picks up the story.
“He was confident in his own game, but these men were the great golfers of the world.
“So he’d watch how Hogan and Snead, who was his good friend, would hit the ball and he would copy bits of each of them.
“People used to say that dad had a unique swing, but that swing was really a synthesis of what he’d taught himself and what he’d observed.”
It speaks volumes of Thomson’s humility, and his desire to succeed as a professional, that he wasn’t afraid to literally copy the greatest players of the day.
As someone who was self-taught, and who never had the luxury of a swing coach, he had to find his own way to the top. But find it he did, with some quite remarkable results along the way.
After climbing to the top of the amateur ranks in Australia, Thomson finished sixth in his first Open, at Royal Portrush in 1951. Then began an astonishing run.
He finished runner-up at Royal Lytham & St Annes 12 months later, missing out to Locke by a single shot, and didn’t finish outside the top two again until Muirfield in 1959.
During that unparalleled sequence, Thomson etched his name into Open folklore by lifting the Claret Jug three years in succession, in 1954 [Royal Birkdale], 1955 [St Andrews] and 1956 [Royal Liverpool].
Locke broke the run in 1957, only for Thomson to reclaim the prize at Lytham a year later.
“It’s a remarkable thing when you think about it,” said Andrew Thomson.
“Some people have said there was insufficient competition from the United States but dad said he felt he could have beaten anyone who turned up.
“He felt that after coming second in 1953 that he had the measure of any field that would likely turn up and any course that the Championship was to be played on.
“I suspect he felt a lot of pressure going into Hoylake that third year. But he had a very special head on his shoulders, having grown up in the Great Depression with no father and a mother who struggled to make ends meet.
“He wasn’t intimidated by anything. That psychological make-up, as well as the way he could hit the ball, is probably what led to those three victories.
“He hit a few poor shots every now and then – everybody does – but he was able to overcome bad shots in his head instantly. It just washed away.”
Ahead of The 150th Open in 2022, Andrew Thomson visited the courses on which his father won The Open, and spread a smattering of his ashes on the 18th greens, ensuring Peter Thomson will forever be enshrined at four very special venues.
He said: “I went to Hoylake, Birkdale and Lytham with one of my childhood friends, Tony Rule, who’s now captain at Royal Melbourne Golf Club. We went principally so Tony could introduce himself to these clubs as captain of Royal Melbourne.
“But I took my father’s ashes along with me, but without making too much of a fuss about it.
“We went to each club and we were very warmly received. We played golf and as we finished each round on the 18th I left a little bit of dad on the green.
“I told our hosts afterwards out of courtesy; I didn’t want them thinking I’d done it in a sneaky way.
“Before dad passed away my mother had told him she was going to take a portion of him to the Old Course and dad said: ‘oh no, don’t do that; it will cause a terrible fuss… but I don’t think there’s much I can do to stop you!’
“Being able to leave a little bit of him on the three courses in England and finally a little bit on the 18th at St Andrews 12 hours before Cam Smith won The Open was a very special thing.
“We felt grateful for the opportunity and very satisfied that we’d closed the circle. That was very important to us.”
He continued: “I felt foolish that I’d left it that long to visit, but on the other hand, I had a quiet joy that I had his ashes with me.
“To go there for the first time and play a round with a set of clubs that we believe dad won the 1958 Open with, a set of Dunlop Maxflis that we found in the garage; how can you find the words to describe that?”
Thomson’s golf odyssey began at the Royal Park Golf Club in Melbourne. After being advised to go for long walks following a bout of polio, Thomson was accompanied by his grandfather and they soon found themselves walking the course regularly.
Mesmerised by the action unfolding on the fairways, it wasn’t long before Thomson had a club in his hand, a left-handed hickory cleek acquired by his grandfather.
“Dad began hitting golf balls rather surreptitiously,” said Andrew Thomson. “He’d sneak onto the fairway and hit them with his left-handed cleek and copy what he saw the others doing. He would just find balls that had been lost in the heavy rough.
“After a little while he decided he might try right-handed, so he found another club, either a 2- or 3-iron with a pyratone shaft.
“Some of the members soon noticed this young boy in the distance hitting balls that he’d found – and all the balls were gathered on the green near the pin!
“And the members said: ‘This kid’s a genius!’ So they said to my dad: ‘you’re 12 years old, a local boy… why don’t you come and play with us with a full set?’
“So he began to play holes with the other members and got better and better at managing the run of the ball.
“Just like the links courses in Britain at the time there was no irrigation at Royal Park so dad became very good at judging how a ball would behave after it landed.
“He had been playing all over Australia as a top amateur and was already very good on links courses by the time he was 19, 20 and turning professional.
“He was very confident of his game on links courses and I think a lot of his success in The Open Championship in the mid-50s was because of the way he began to play the game."
The Open will always celebrate Peter Thomson as one of its greats. But how did Thomson view The Open?
“For dad and his fellow players, it was the pinnacle of the sport,” explained his son.
“They regarded being the Champion Golfer of the Year as the most you could achieve by hitting a golf ball.”