Michaux: A tribute to Australian great Peter Thomson
The five-time British Open champion opened the front door of his home in Melbourne, Australia, and the first thing I did was lie to him.
“Would you like some coffee? There’s a place across the street,” Peter Thomson said as he pulled his doorway closed and introduced himself. I lied and said yes, so we slowly walked across the busy intersection and into the crowded coffee shop. Thomson, then 83 and not yet diagnosed with Parkinson’s, insisted on buying.
We sat down at a little table on the street across from the modest little enclave where he lived, and the mostly young patrons of the coffee shop had no idea they were in the company of golf royalty. Wearing a jacket and no tie, he stared at me from behind his large-rimmed glasses and offered nothing but blunt truths for the next hour or so.
“I think Australians have a different attitude,” Thomson said, six months after Adam Scott won the green jacket in 2013. “We don’t always worship our champions. I remember Rod Laver once said when we were discussing the success of a British tennis player, I commented on the media interest in Britain on the British winning something. Laver said, ‘It’s not like Australia, is it? We go home with a world championship and they say, Well why didn’t you win it by more?’ He had a point there. Though after it’s done and recorded, we’re quite satisfied.”
Thomson won five claret jugs from 1954 to 1965, including three in a row. In his first 21 trips to the British Open, he finished 18 times in the top 10 and never worse than 24th. Only Harry Vardon, with six, won more Opens than Thomson.
He competed in the Masters only eight times — his best finish was fifth in 1957 — but typically turned down the invitation to make the long journey in April to Augusta while instead playing the Indian Open which he’d helped start.
“I played first in ’53,” he said of the Masters. “It was very strange. Jimmy Demaret was very kind to me. I was wandering around the states looking for somewhere to play. He said, ‘I’ll get you an invitation to the Masters.’ I had to say, ‘What’s the Masters?’ Never heard of it. I learned that it was sort of a (Bobby) Jones picnic and he invited all sorts of people to come and play in his tournament, which was quite unusual at that time. Tournaments weren’t assembled like that, by the choice of one high-class fellow.
“I learned what it was and went and played in it. It suited me and I was happy with it. I played every year until 1960. I was busy establishing the Asian circuit. We had a good English contingent including Tony Jacklin. He came to me in India and said he had an invitation to the Masters and had to leave the tour. I said I’d like to do that, too, but I can’t. So I played in India instead of Augusta.”
Thomson only played in five U.S. Opens and never the PGA Championship.
“When I was at my peak — I did have a peak — I wasn’t eligible to play in the U.S. PGA Championship,” he said. “You had to be a resident of North and South America. Changed about 1958. (Native Australian) Jim Ferrier won in 1947 but lived in the U.S. at that point. (Roberto) De Vicenzo was eligible but I wasn’t. I took a dim view of that.”
Only once did Thomson win a regular PGA Tour event, at the 1957 Texas International Open, but he was an 11-time winner on what’s now called the Champions Tour, including one senior major.
While I didn’t know Thomson well, it was something he said when I first saw him at the 2005 British Open in St. Andrews that always resonated with me regarding the great history of the town beyond the Old Course, where he won in 1955.
“I didn’t know the first 20 years I came here,” Thomson said. “I had no idea what was happening in the town, I was all worried about what was happening down on the course. That’s what happens to a golfer’s life here. This is an amazing place historically.”
Thomson’s death at age 88 on Wednesday, coupled with fellow Hall of Famer Hubert Green's passing the same day, are more huge losses for golf. Those links to the game’s golden age are dwindling with the passing of every Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Kel Nagle, Doug Ford and Simon Hobday.
I never met Green in my golf travels, but the former U.S. Open and PGA champion was another major figure from an earlier golf era. He won 19 times in 26 years on the PGA Tour, mostly in the 1970s and '80s. He fell a missed short putt on the last hole from a playoff with Gary Player and potentially winning a green jacket in 1978. His self-made swing was the kind of thing Thomson admired in golfers of past generations who "figured it out themselves and were totally self-reliant players."
It's a sad day for golf when any of the past giants of the game are lost. Wednesday's news from Melbourne to Birmingham, Ala., was a double reminder for us to cherish what we have before it's gone.
In honor of Thomson’s passing, here are a few more nuggets from our 2013 coffee conversation:
• On Bobby Jones: “I sat beside Jones I think the last time he was at a dinner at the club, might have been 1956. He told me he wanted to have a field made up of 30 pros, 30 amateurs and 30 foreigners. I’ve never found anyone who knew that’s what he aimed at — the perfect field. He never got his wish.”
“Clifford (Roberts) did the hard work of pulling it together, but it wasn’t the same as Jones giving you an invitation.”
• On the Masters: “We had some most unlikely winners. Doug Ford was one of them and Art Wall was another. How did these fellas get to win a big tournament like that? They were talented in their own way. Ford was a marvelous putter and holed more putts than most people. The rest of the game was enough to give him the win.”
“One of the things I do remember about Augusta is that dreadful hotel (Bon Air) we stayed in. That was an embarrassment. I don’t think we had in the entire length and breadth of Australia a hotel as bad as that.”
• On Snead and Hogan: “I was paired with them at Greenbrier. A dream threesome. We each shot 66. Hogan wasn’t prone to chat. Kel (Nagle) had played with him a couple rounds. At Fort Worth he holed in one and Kel waited for something to be said. Finally it came out, ‘Good shot.’ Sam was a secret do-gooder.”
“Snead and Hogan were mighty giants. On Wednesday (at Masters) we did what was called a clinic and all of us had to hit five shots from the practice tee, next to 18th hole. I can still remember Sam driving, he was so athletic. Chick Harbin had a contest with him to see who was the bigger hitter to amuse the crowd. Sam won the contest.”
“I walked around on the Monday when (Snead) played Hogan and won (in 1954 playoff). I asked Clifford if I could walk inside the ropes. It wasn’t a big-crowd affair in the early 50’s. I was the only one inside. I had decided while playing the U.S. Tour I should take some pictures. I asked permission and they said to keep out of way they’d have me inside the ropes. I had them all printed, but I didn’t do it expertly enough to say I had an epic photograph.”
• On rivals: “In my time, I had some ferocious competition with Snead and Hogan and Julius Boros and Cary Middlecoff in the U.S. It was an endless list of super players who were all individual characters. That was their strength. They weren’t taught, they figured it out themselves and were totally self-reliant players. That’s why they won and I used to bow to them. It was a pretty big effort for me to keep up the pace.”
• On the green jacket: “It’s a big thing, this jacket. There’s an Australian tournament that apes it. The Australian Masters. The name was stolen by a couple of rogues about 40 years ago. They quickly registered the name and nobody could touch it, not even Augusta. That’s why I say they stole it. Before Augusta woke up there was somebody gnawing away and it was gone. Too late.”
• On Alister MacKenzie: “More and more comes out about the man himself who really did some terrible things and was so rude to people around him. To get him to come to Australia he was enticed with money. Royal Melbourne club figured out they could sublet him to other clubs for the weekend. Instead of giving money back to Melbourne he put it all in his pocket.”
“Augusta is a Bobby Jones golf course. (MacKenzie) didn’t do anything. That’s clear enough. Met two people who actually met MacKenzie. One was Bobby Jones who never mentioned him. The other was a nice man in Auckland, (New Zealand), a retired principal of Kings College boys school. Well-mannered. He said his father told him there was a very important man coming to look at a piece of property and ‘I want you to carry and fetch for him.’ At 20 years old, Rex George went with Dr. MacKenzie and told him his father’s instructions and asked what shall I do? ‘Just keep out of my way.’ What a dreadful thing to say to a 20-year-old. George went on to say he was a ‘braw man.’ Means a mean man. Anyone who touched him came away with the same opinion. It’s very interesting the way a myth will perpetuate itself.”
• On Greg Norman: “I’m purposely careful about commentating on Greg and shouldn’t be critical in any way. He had a magnificent record in pro golf play. I can hardly criticize that. It was that faith in gripping the club as tightly as he can whereas the opposite is better. The lighter you grip it the better your swing. I was never very close to Greg. I don’t know who he was.
“It was his bad luck with somebody doing something that was quite unexpected and unusual. If (Larry Mize) hadn’t have chipped in they might have gone on a few holes until somebody did win. It very likely would have been Greg ... or not. It was very much that act that he found difficult to match and that was that.”
• On Adam Scott: “When he was about 11, he was obviously an adolescent with a lot of talent and a nice demeanor. We knew he was going to win for us. We didn’t know which stop. I thought it was inevitable that he would be the logical winner (first Australian at Augusta) because he was the best player. And given the ordinary luck you need when you compete at that level, it would come his way.”