Meeting a hero from one’s youth for the first time can often be a disappointment. It’s a rarity if a hero turns out to be as one imagined. It was not the case when I met with Peter Thomson in the offices of Thomson, Perrett & Lobb – Golf Architects, in Melbourne six-years ago. For those of you who might not know, ever before a Golden Bear or Tiger dominated golf, a Melbourne Lion was terrorizing all of the other golfers in the jungle.
An engaging 2-hours filled with opinionated golf talk, philosophy, yarns and a few belly laughs ensued. I have rarely felt as proud, or as flattered, as when it was time to leave and my hero shook my hand warmly and said:
“Good man! You get golf. Print and be damned!”
It was the best endorsement of my occasionally cranky views as I could ever hope for.
At the age of 84, Peter Thomson still played (and walked) 9-holes about once a week “at the same standard as when I was 12-years-old. I’ve gone right back to the beginning!” He said with big smile and no sign of regret.
When you have had a career like Thomson, there is no need for regret. Over 100-wins as a professional in a truly international career, including 5 priceless wins in The Open Championship puts him among the best of golf’s all-time best.
I remember my hero at his physical peak, purring like a Rolls Royce as he stylishly dismantled golf courses but it was impossible to ignore some of the inevitable frailties of old age and a stark reminder that we are all heading in the same direction! There wasn’t a hint of mental deterioration, though, as we discussed the issues impacting on golf today and into the future.
It was hardly a surprise that a man of Peter’s stature did not pull his punches. Why should he? Did he not fearlessly begin his globetrotting at a time when worldwide travel was far more energy-sapping than it is today? Peter was a full-time player dependent on his winnings for his living at the same time as Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Henry Cotton made sure to retain the financial safety net of a club job.
When I told him that as a teenager I had studied his swing while following him around as he shot an incredible 62 during the Carroll’s Tournament at Woodbrook and had rushed home to try to emulate the way he went about his business, including the way he dressed, he did not spare my feelings.
He said it was ‘foolish’ to try to copy anyone else. “One should always be oneself and develop one’s own style of play. And, the best way to do it is not on the practice ground but by playing the game on one’s own with a number of balls – playing ‘real’ shots and figuring out why some work and others don’t. He was adamant that mentoring could be helpful to some extent but not full-time coaching, which he called ‘silly.’
“A golfer has to stand or fall on his own in the heat of battle. My long-serving caddie, Jackie Leigh, never once told me what shot to play or what club to use. His job was to turn up on time, carry my clubs, watch the ball and keep me concentrating and entertained; no advice,” he said.
Peter was obviously pleased to hear that my first set of golf clubs were Peter Thomson signature model by Dunlop purchased one at a time from the legendary, Denis Cassidy at Castletroy for £4.16.3d each and that they helped me to get from 20-handicap to scratch. When I mentioned that I regretted that I was never able to match his unruffled approach on the golf course, he said he never understood fuss or ever worried about what other people thought. He found golf ‘easy’ and it made him feel guilty that he made a lot of money from doing something he loved and enjoyed so much. “It felt more like stealing than work.”
When I asked him to name the golfer he admired the most, he replied: “Sam Snead. He made golf look easy and he was always joking and needling the opposition, which suited me because it made me more determined. Once, he walked past me in the locker room and called out: Hey Pete, you get the yips yet? When I said: No. Sam laughed: Well, they are a-coming!”
It’s no surprise to hear that Peter’s favourite course is in Scottish but it isn’t one on which he won any of his five Open titles. It’s little known, Brora, in the far north. When his competitive days were over, he and his wife used to holiday there regularly.
Thomson came to Ireland for the first time in 1951 as a 21-year old and finished sixth in The Open Championship at Royal Portrush won by Max Faulkner. Subsequently, he won The Open five times a feat matched only by Tom Watson in the modern era.
His typically wise parting shot is worth remembering: You must know what you are doing to succeed in golf. If you know that – then you should have no fears, only hopes – and you will relish being in a position to win.
Peter Thomson b. Brunswick, Australia, 1929, d. Melbourne, Australia, 2018.