Date: June 20, 2018
Author: Martin Blake

TRIBUTE: Peter Thomson

Peter Thomson, who died this morning in Melbourne, may be the greatest golfer this country ever produced.

The argument has been running for some years. Thomson, Greg Norman, Karrie Webb are the usual candidates, all with great credentials and among Australia’s finest sportsmen and women generally.

Thomson had five Open Championships (and 90 titles around the world) to put his case but it was not a debate that he wanted to enter. Pushed, he would say that Webb (seven major titles) deserved it. When the PGA of Australia had a vote of members for its player of the 20th century a few years ago, Norman won from Thomson.

It mattered little to ‘Thommo’, whose record spoke for itself and who in any case, was much more than a golfer. But he was certainly a giant of the game in Australia, long beyond his playing days when he was president of the PGA and a course architect who created and tinkered with courses around the world. He was also a strong and independent commentator on the game, both on television and in print.

Thomson was born in West Brunswick in 1929, straight into the Great Depression. The strain was immense, and he remembered his mother struggling to pay the rent and his father, a signwriter, leaving the family. “I don’t know where my father went to, but he went out of sight,’’ he told a forum at VUT, where he was alumni, several years ago. “I was really brought up by my grandfather and my mother.’’

He walked to school at Brunswick Tech and then afterward, studied on scholarship at Footscray Tech, and his mother urged him to find a vocation.  But it was golf that had him in its grasp.  In his youth, Thomson used to spend his spare time jumping through the fence at Royal Park Golf Club and playing a few holes, dodging the wire that was placed around the greens to keep the sheep out; it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship with the game.

“It (golf) attracted me, drew me to it. It wasn’t the other way around,’’ he said. “I didn’t have a lot of friends. I was a bit of a loner. That’s the golfer’s life, I think.’’

Thomson won the Royal Park club championship at 16, joined the Victoria Golf Club in the sandbelt, and decided on professional golf as his future, despite his mother’s protestations. Years later when he succeeded in making a living from the game, he bought the West Brunswick house that they had grown up in and gave it to her.

It was another all-time great, Norman Von Nida, who persuaded him to turn pro. Thomson remembered meeting him at his hotel in Sydney once, and the legendary ‘Von’ opening his wardrobe to reveal dozens of brightly-coloured trousers.  “I went ‘wow, this is what golf pro is all about’.’’

But golf was not the manifestly global game that it is now in the 1940s and 1950s; there were not enough tournaments to make a proper living. Thomson went to America for two years but only won one tournament, and did not especially like playing there anyway. He played in exhibitions to make his best money, once travelling to South Africa at the invitation of the great Bobby Locke, playing in different venues every day for nine weeks.

Momentarily he worked a day job in the AG Spalding factory in Melbourne, testing golf balls and promoting the product. But it did not last for too long and in any case, he was finding places to play around the world, notably on the bouncy, wind-swept courses of Britain. “I liked playing on a course where the ball bounces. As time went by, I found I had an advantage. Somehow, I comprehended that style of play, watching the ball bounce forward. But I had to learn both, frankly – bouncing and non-bouncing.’’

On his first trip to Britain, the great English player Henry Cotton scoffed at his notion of making a living from the game. But Cotton was wrong. Thomson won the Open Championship for the first time in 1954 at Royal Birkdale and thus began an astonishing run of domination on the links of England and Scotland through the 1950s.

He had borrowed a set of clubs for the purpose that year, reasoning that the MacGregor clubs he was contracted to use were not up to the job. As he told the writer Richard Allen in an interview last year: “This is silly. I can’t win the Open with these clubs. I might as well stay at home’. It came to me that I could borrow a decent set of clubs – irons a driver and a three wood – from John Letters, who’s a lovely Scot who had a factory in Glasgow.

“I said: ‘John, can I borrow one of your sets of clubs?’ He said: ‘Yes, of course you can’. He went to the boot of his car in the carpark and there was a box. In the box was a set of irons, untouched by anyone. I said: ‘Thank you. I hope I do it good, and I’ll give them back to you if they don’t work’. They worked but I gave him the set of clubs back.’’

He won the Open again in 1955 at St Andrews and for a third straight year at Royal Liverpool in 1956, where he forgot to bring a jacket for the presentation ceremony outside the clubhouse. It led to one of his best anecdotes.  “I thought ‘I must get a jacket from somewhere’ and I saw Max Shaw, who was captain of Royal Melbourne at the time,'' he told me in a 2009 interview for 'The Age'. "I said ‘do me a favour, lend me your coat’. He took off his grey jacket and it fitted me.

‘‘The picture shows me in my white golf shoes with a strange jacket on taking the prize. When Max got back to Australia and his wife was sending his jacket to the dry cleaners, she found a cheque for £1000 in the pocket.’’

Thomson won again at Royal Lytham in 1958 by which time he had finished either first or second in seven consecutive Opens. But he won his fifth claret jug in 1965 at Birkdale and while critics suggest that his domination of the earlier period was assisted by the fact that the top American players declined the trip to Europe, on this occasion Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tony Lema, the greatest of the era, were in the field.

He was simply a master of the links. Only Harry Vardon, with six, won more Opens.

Thomson won three Australian Opens, tournaments in numerous countries and, eschewing his dislike for the game in America, went to the seniors tour in 1985 and won nine times in the season, utterly dominating. He was also president of the Australian PGA for 32 years, and his hand as an architect is upon golf courses throughout the world.

He was Inducted into The Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985 as an Athlete Member for his contribution to the sport of golf and was Elevated to "Legend of Australian Sport" in 2001. He was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1998.

He stood for election to the Victorian Parliament in 1982 as a Liberal Party candidate, but was defeated.

In 1979 he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his service to golf and in 2001 became an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for his contributions as a player and administrator and for community service.

The Parkinson’s Disease he has battled for four years saw him withdraw from public life in the last year. He died at home today, survived by his wife Mary, son Andrew and daughters Deirdre Baker, Pan Prendergast and Fiona Stanway, their spouses, 11 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

Needless to say, he will be sadly missed as the godfather of Australian golf.


Worldwide wins – 93
Senior wins – 13
Majors – Five British Opens (1954, 1955, 1956, 1958, 1965)
US wins – One
European Tour wins – 26
Australian-NZ wins – 40
Australian Open wins – Three (1951, 1967, 1972)

Others victories – Eight, including three Hong Kong Opens and open championships of Italy, Spain, Germany, India and the Philippines.