There is an air of exquisite self-confidence and impenetrable security about Peter Thomson, the fluid-swinging Australian golfer. His neat, magnificently curly hair and his ruddy, passive features, which resemble those of an aging cherub (going on 39 in August), add to the impression of unflappable self-control. Even his home in Melbourne is the house of a man well-set in his own values. It is a stately Victorian town house, with a brick wall about the manicured yard, white carpets laid on dark oiled floors inside, a living-room bookcase filled with the titles of Leo Tolstoy, Arthur Koestler, Shakespeare, a collection of prints of Sidney Nolan's paintings, selected writings from Punch over the last 100 years. A stereo tape machine constantly wafts the symphonies of the London Philharmonic through the house, and Thomson's pretty blonde wife Mary says, "Peter is terribly interested in music. When he's home he is constantly listening to his tapes and when I talk he says, 'Shshshshshsh.' I sometimes wish he played cards instead." Thomson admits to an intensity toward the classics, but his passion is characteristically well contained. "I suppose Gustav Mahler is my favorite," he said. "For one thing, he is a composer a layman can understand. And I like him because he had a limited output and an amateur like myself can master it."
The same fastidious selectivity—a kind of executive detachment—marks the golf career of Peter Thomson. In recent years he has shunned the rich American circuit as if it were a crude and vulgar circus. "I find it quite difficult to get myself excited about what I consider lesser events—including some of the $100,000 variety," he said not long ago in Melbourne. Rather than playing regularly in the U.S., he has spent much of the past eight years helping to organize and vitalize a tournament tour in the Far East and the Middle East. "I had to put myself up as the principal offering when it started," he said. "It is necessary to have a healthy circuit outside America because there are too many golfers to have just one circuit in the world." A cool man, Peter Thomson—not at all cherubic.
But, of course, for even the coolest of men there is bound to be some One Thing that stirs the soul, heats up the blood, twangs the heartstrings. It might be women, oil wells, owning a Rembrandt, running barefoot through rubies. Peter Thomson has his One Thing, too. Although he does not sound emotional or even terribly interested when he talks about it, he does not equivocate. "It is my life's goal," he said, "to win the British Open again. I have been preparing myself for it from the beginning of January. I started concentrating on how I wanted myself to be for the Open, and ever since I have been conditioning myself—physically, mentally, golfingly. I'm egotistical enough to know that my best is quite good enough to win."
He does indeed have the game to go with his ego. This week when he cracks out one of his patently unimpressive drives (low, not very long, but almost inevitably accurate) off the first tee at Carnoustie, Scotland, he will be trying for his sixth British Open championship. Five times between 1954 and 1965 his best was quite good enough to win. And if, perchance, the past months of concentration have put him into proper form to win again, he will equal the record of Englishman Harry Vardon as the winningest player in the Open's 108 years. That, of course, is a worthy "life's goal" for any golfer, for Harry Vardon reached the status of a full-fledged legend 50 years ago and scored his Open victories in the days of big-time golf's incubator infancy—between 1896 and 1914. Since then only Walter Hagen and Bobby Locke, with four wins apiece, have even come close.
July 14, 1968
Although the money to be made there is a comparative pittance in golf's affluent '60s (just $7,200 for the winner), any meaningful mark put on the history of the British Open is of inestimable value, for it has an ancient history indeed. It began in 1860, barely a decade after the revolutionary gutta percha golf ball had replaced the old leather-covered, feather-filled lump that Scotsmen had been beating across the moors for 300 years. Like Britain herself, the Open has survived wars, depressions, the demise of empire and a couple of devaluations of the pound. Unlike the nation, however, the Open has been subjected to a foreign invasion in the last century, which, if not outright insulting, is at least cause for a slight pain in the patriotism. In the last 30 years only three Englishmen have won the tournament, and none since 1951.
But if any un-Englishman must have a go at the record of their beloved Harry Vardon, the British would probably just as soon it were Peter Thomson; he is quite their cup of tea. In 1957 Queen Elizabeth conferred membership in the Order of the British Empire (M.B.E.) on him. Besides being an unflagging loyalist to the Queen's Commonwealth ("Wherever I go, I'm aware I'm an Australian first, a golfer second"), Peter has also stuck assiduously to the cautious, exacting brand of golf so dear to the hearts of the purists who play England's austere, gorse-by-the-sea golf courses. The flamboyant, Big Shot game that is so effective on the U.S.'s lush, well-watered landscapes is the antithesis to Thomson's way. "For reasons of my build and my style I find it more to my liking on seaside links," he said with typical analytical detachment. "The major difference between British courses and American is that the ball bounces as far as it rolls in England. In America it doesn't. I greatly prefer close turf because I strike my shots hard downwards and I get a lower line of flight than most. Playing British-style courses requires extremely delicate judgments, rather more exacting assessments of each shot. It is not a question of fixing your eyes on the flag and swinging. It is a more sensitive game."
Now, Thomson is quick to add that he does not think that "any more skill is required to do well on British courses; it is more a matter of adaptation. If I'd played all of my golf on the American circuit, I think I could do as well as any good golfer should, and, of course, the likes of Nicklaus and Casper and, to a lesser extent, Palmer, would do well in Britain." And he insists that he has never meant to be hypercritical of American golf in general, that he is simply pointing out the differences between the courses and the style of play in England and the U.S. Yet many American golfers have long felt that there was at least an implicit put-down in Thomson's attitude toward them.
The few times he has been in the U.S. recently he has held himself well clear of the hail-fellow-well-met aspects of social life on the tour. "I was probably the only friend he had," says Jim Gaquin, who was PGA tour manager during the late '50s when Thomson was playing in this country. "He was pleasant enough most of the time, but you couldn't get close. He was aloof, a loner—and others probably felt that he considered himself above them." A couple of years ago Peter was widely quoted when he said, "I have always been one to keep Americans at their distance. I can't understand the attitude of [fellow Australian] Bruce Devlin, who has become one of the gang." Americans have replied in kind. Last fall, just before Arnold Palmer was to play Thomson in the finals of the Piccadilly World Match Play Championship, he told the press, "I like to beat anyone I'm playing no matter who he is. But I guess you could say that all U.S. players especially enjoy beating Peter." (Which Palmer did, to many U.S. players' especial enjoyment.) And last year, at St. Andrews, Thomson was playing in the Alcan International Championship while, at the same time, 19 other golfers were involved in the more prestigious Alcan Golfer of the Year Championship over the same course. When it was over, Thomson had won his tournament (for a $6,000 purse), shooting a 281 that was two strokes better than Gay Brewer had done in winning the Golfer of the Year competition (and $55,000). At the closing ceremonies Thomson snapped crisply into the microphone, "I find it a little embarrassing to have shot the low score with all these Golfers of the Year here; maybe I should just be called Golfer of the Week." Whereupon Mason Rudolph, speaking for the defense, took the mike and retorted in his easy Tennessee drawl, "I enjoyed the golf Peter Thomson played this week. I've played on the U.S. tour for nine years and this was the first time I've had the pleasure of seeing him win a tournament."
Of course, it is undeniable that Peter Thomson has been less than dazzling on the U.S. tour. In all of the American tournaments he entered (and in the '50s that was almost everything), he has won just one—the Texas International Open in Dallas in 1956, which carried a hefty (for then) $13,478 winner's purse. He finished in the high money often enough and gained a reputation as a sound and, occasionally, even superb golfer. In 1956 at Oak Hill he led the U.S. Open at the end of two rounds and seemed on his way to being the first non-American to win that tournament since Briton Ted Ray did it in 1920; but Peter faded to a 75 in the third round and wound up fourth. At the Masters in 1959 Thomson was shooting reasonably good, if not brilliant, golf through the first three rounds, when suddenly he was struck by the same kind of rule-book lightning that felled Roberto De Vicenzo in Augusta this year. In Peter's case, however, his partner-scorer, Chick Harbert, scribbled in a lower score on one hole than Thomson actually had made and, when Peter signed the card (which had the proper total), he was instantly disqualified. "I don't know how well I would have done," he says now, "but it just so happens that the man I was tied with was Art Wall." Who just so happened to win the Masters that year.
That scorekeeping rule is "absurd" to Thomson's way of thinking: "If they're going to persist in having players do the scoring, then the marker should be the one penalized." Yet there is a strong, old-fashioned streak of fundamentalism in Thomson's view of golf. And even though the omnipresent vigil of television makes it bluntly impossible for pros to cheat even if they kept their own cards, Thomson thinks it would be utterly improper to change the rules to fit that particular reality. "All rules of golf must apply to all golfers," he said. "Since most golfers are club players, not pros, then the rules must of necessity disallow a man from keeping his own score. We mustn't forget that the important people playing golf are the club players, not the pros." His purism created some antagonism on the U.S. tour in the '50s when nearly all of the American pros were eager to do away with a rule that prohibited marking your ball when you reach the green; Thomson was outspokenly opposed, on grounds that in his kind of golf "you place the ball on the tee and you pick it out of the hole later and in between you do not touch it." Nevertheless, the rule was eventually dropped—along with Peter's U.S. popularity rating.
Characteristically, Thomson is also a devotee of match-play tournaments over aggregate-stroke competition, again because in his mind it is plainly a purer test of a golfer—his psyche as well as his physique. "In head-to-head play the stronger personality wins out; if Americans did more match play there would probably be no more than six or eight tournament winners a year instead of 20. Frankly, I enjoy losing in match play almost more than I enjoy winning in stroke play. I must say, it always amuses me to hear a chap boasting, 'I finished fourth, four strokes back." Either you win or you lose—and fourth place, four strokes back, is losing. I think it's regrettable that U.S. players don't have more match-play competition. But, of course, such tournaments are notoriously unreliable for getting big names through to the final day when the biggest crowds turn out."
Now, people who know and like Peter Thomson are quick to volunteer (unsolicited) that he is not a pompous prototype of Colonel Blimp, that he is not an Australian-bred combination of stuffed shirt and stiff upper lip—as some of the people he has alienated have come to believe. "He's a fair Sebastian," said Jack Merrick, executive secretary of the Victoria Golf Club in Melbourne where Thomson is the home pro (for a salary of $10 a year). "He does have that superconfidence about himself, of course, and he speaks in those clipped sentences and he isn't very outgoing. But that's his right to be, isn't it?"
Thomson is by no means a laugh-a-minute conversationalist, but there is nothing remarkably pompous or up-tight about his private life—particularly around his Melbourne home. He has three lively, handsome children, Andrew, 7, Peta Ann, 5, and Fiona, 3 (another daughter, Deidre, 14, from his first marriage, lives with her mother). Because he is gone as much as seven or eight months a year, they ail but smother him in rowdy demands for his time when he is home. He is concerned that his travels should not keep him away more than six or eight consecutive weeks, "because that's more time than any responsible father should inflict on his children." Mary Thomson is a cheerful, outgoing woman, casual and candid in her conversation. "You know, Peter is really rather an amateur at heart," she said. "He is in golf for the sake of winning, in a way, rather than for the money. You know, even when he's home he plays socially two or three times a week with his cronies. We have little cups of coffee—lots of little cups of coffee—when he's home, and we talk and talk. He's terribly smart and well informed, you know. He wins all these trophies, but we really don't believe in trophies much. There are a couple shoved in the children's playroom, I think. Usually when the cups come here, I remove that big wooden base, you know, and take off the medals and things and I turn the writing on it to the wall and use it as a vase."
People who know and like Peter are also quick to say that he is not an arrogant and reclusive egotist who refuses to mingle with other touring golfers because he feels intellectually their superior. Of course, the chances are that he is the intellectual superior to many, for he is a broadly cultured man. He is an avid reader (autobiographies and political tomes rather than fiction). He is a close personal friend of Australia's former Prime Minister Robert Menzies, the man who, as Peter puts it, "led Australia into the 20th century." When he is in Europe he frequently attends concerts in Milan's La Scala opera house, and in London he regularly goes to London Symphony performances and to the music festivals that are so abundant in England. When he is not in Britain he has a friend tape the major concerts of the London Symphony and ship them to him in Melbourne. And on the tour he "makes it a point" to visit art galleries most everywhere he goes, although he does not have a large collection as yet ("Everything I fancy is way too expensive"). True enough, it is a rare occasion when he bellies up to the bar with the boys on the tour. "I prefer being by myself, as a rule," he says. "I read or listen to music in my room; it is preferable to talking about the same old things with the same old people night after night." As Mary Thomson says, "Peter is really quite a solitary sort. As a youngster he much preferred playing by himself. Some people may not understand it, but he rather enjoys his own company and his own ways."
His own way has taken Thomson along a rather odd route in his golfing career although it began routinely enough. His grandfather gave him a two-iron when he was 12, and he began flogging about a nine-hole course in Melbourne; he won the championship there when he was 15. He impressed some members of the classy Victoria Golf Club enough so that they wangled a junior membership for him there in 1946 (he was from a working-class family and could not afford the dues himself). To the astonishment of his friends at Victoria, he decided in 1949 that he would turn professional. At the time he was considered by some to have a far more promising career as an apprentice industrial chemist than as a golfer. Although he had won the Victorian state amateur championship, he had never been champion of his own club. "He had a four or five handicap when he came here," said W. A. Flavell, a longtime member of the Victoria Golf Club. "He was good, all right, but he seldom practiced. I was really quite appalled when he asked me what I thought about his becoming a pro. I gulped and told him I thought maybe he should finish his studies in chemistry first."
Just 19 at the time, Thomson ignored the advice. "I felt I was getting better and I was young enough to try the adventure," he said. "For one thing, it meant travel, and I knew well that it would be about my only chance for that." His first mentor, Harry Young, a member of the Victoria club, and his first close friend in professional golf, Australia's fiery little Norman Von Nida, both encouraged him to try playing professionally. He managed to pick up a few pounds here and there those early years, winning the New Zealand Open in 1950—a title he now has won seven times—and in 1951, the Australian Open, a championship he was unable to win again until just last year. Chock-full of that superconfidence, he headed for the British Open in 1951. "When I first left Australia I invested all my savings. I had a bit of help from a sporting manufacturer, but there was no question about it—I had to win enough money myself or I couldn't afford the fare to come home."
Astonishingly, he finished tied for sixth in that first British Open. In 1952, a mere stripling of 22, he finished one stroke behind Bobby Locke, and in 1953 he was runner-up to Ben Hogan. Then in 1954 on the hard-baked Royal Birkdale course he switched from a driver to a three-wood on the tees, punched out a series of frighteningly short but deadly accurate drives and won by one stroke over Bobby Locke. The following year at the St. Andrews Old Course, Thomson scored a blazing 281, which broke Bobby Jones's 1927 record of 285 in Open competition on the Old Course. And in 1956 at Hoylake, England he breezed to his third consecutive victory in the Open (an unprecedented feat), winning by a solid three strokes over Belgian Flory Van Donck. The next year he did not win—but he finished second to Bobby Locke by three strokes. And in 1958, back in form again, he came through in an excruciatingly pressure-filled 36-hole playoff with Welshman Dave Thomas for the championship (they had tied with record-breaking totals of 278 after the regulation tournament). In the first 18 holes Peter cracked out a spectacular 68, but Thomas was hot on his heels with a fine 69; both scored 35s on the third nine holes. Going into the last nine with that scanty single-stroke lead, Thomson scored birdies on the first two holes, kept up the pressure while Thomas' putter was turning cold and wound up winning by a full four strokes.
Unbelievably, Peter Thomson—only 28 years old—had finished either first or second in the British Open for seven years running. Which is the kind of monopoly they used to bring suit against.
In the next few years Peter faded a bit in his British Open performance, and it wasn't until 1965 when he nipped defending champion Tony Lema back at Royal Birkdale that he got himself on the winning track again there. But in the meantime he had become a kind of combination father image, patron saint and chief box-office dollar draw for that exotic but almost uncharted golf terrain loosely known as the Far East Tour. Thomson became involved out there around 1960, at a time when, as he put it, "about the only really good golf they had seen was in exhibitions by people like Walter Hagen." The whole South Pacific was a gargantuan backwater for golf. No more than 50 golfers would turn up for such events as the Hong Kong Open, the Philippine Open or the Singapore Open; prize money was seldom enough to cover travel expenses for the entries, and there was absolutely no coordination between tournaments in terms of making a convenient travel pattern for the few competitors who did have the wherewithal to move from country to country. The circuit, as such, did not really come into being until the early '60s. "My part of the bargain was largely just to appear as a name attraction," said Thomson. "But we also worked hard with the various national PGAs to arrange the tournaments so that a player could buy one airline ticket to cover the whole tour, and we worked to get the prizes up, of course. I think the average tournament totals around $15,000 now, with about $2,500 being the average winner's money. The best players make maybe $10,000 or $12,000 a year. That is paltry by U.S. standards, of course, but it is an enormous income in Asia." There are now seven annual Opens on the circuit—Philippine, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Formosa and Yomiuri. There are also irregularly scheduled tournaments in New Delhi, Djakarta, Pakistan and Nairobi, Kenya. "It is still utterly minor league, of course, compared to America," said Peter, "but the growth of the circuit has been quick—and spontaneous. It'll never equal the U.S., but there have been some exciting changes. Most important is the rise of the Oriental golfers. The tour, such as it was, used to be dominated by Australians. Now at least 80% of the regulars—there are around 100—are Orientals. In 1967 they won six of the seven Opens, and this year they won five."
Although many people have been deeply involved in building a viable tour on the other side of the world, it is rather widely agreed that Peter Thomson was the man who made it work. "Peter's reputation, his mastery of the game and the glamour of his presence boosted the image of the circuit like nothing else in the early days," said one official. A reporter in Bangkok, a close friend of Thomson, said, "Of course, Peter does make quite a lot of money as he goes around checking up that the clubs are stocking his golf equipment. But for all that, we know that without him we would still be playing a lot of tournaments without coordination and without the professionals who now find it worthwhile to come."
Ironically enough, Peter's game has not exactly defoliated the jungle around Far East fairways. He won the Yomiuri Open in Tokyo in '62, the Philippine Open in '64 and the Hong Kong Open in '60, '65 and '67—but he is really a superstar in name only. There are some people who criticize him for simply strolling through the last couple of rounds in a tournament if he feels that he has only a slim chance to win (that, of course, is not entirely out of character with a man as detached and self-contained as Thomson is). But playing around the Far East is not exactly like dawdling through a Sunday's 18 holes at Winged Foot either, for the hazards there can be really hazardous.
"Oh, there is not great danger, of course," said Peter. "Kenya is the only place where animals are a serious problem. A few months ago three lions took up residence on the Karen Golf Club in Nairobi and players were advised not to play the 13th and 14th holes. Also, they have quite fierce swarms of bees there. If you hear them coming, you must throw yourself on the ground; it just won't do to stand up and flail your club at them, you know. And an odd snake or two is seen in some places. A chap killed a cobra on the green during a pro-am tournament in Bangkok this year. Then, in Delhi, there are jackals on the course toward evening, but they are quite harmless. Delhi has had a problem with some rather ferocious monkeys, though. They don't really attack, you know, but they do menace the golfers—charging toward them with their fangs bared and chattering."
And if the fauna is occasionally troublesome to golfers, the flora of the Far East courses is a constant bother. "The layouts range from top class to rather primitive," he said. "Any old local grass will do so long as it's green, you know. For the best of us, making a three-foot putt is no more than an even-money chance, and 34 or 35 putts around are very much an average. Their apathy toward course designing borders on ignorance because a lot of people have never seen a course anywhere else and they think theirs are quite splendid." (One of Thomson's major investment commitments now is as vice-president of South Pacific Golf, a Melbourne-based firm now busy designing courses in the Pacific. He spends some of his time at home actually designing architectural layouts for courses.)
Thomson also mentioned that he has been "rather worried" on occasion about being bombed while playing in Bangkok; the course there is at a Thai air base that is a major launching point for U.S. planes going on bombing missions over North Vietnam. Thomson is philosophical about the political turmoil in the area: "Golf goes on, you know, despite wars. They still play in Saigon."
Upsetting—and unrewarding—as Far East golf may seem on the surface, Thomson does not feel deprived. "I ask no sympathy," he said, "because I do as well financially and keep as much afterward as any but a dozen of the U.S.'s top professionals. I also believe that helping put this tour on a sound basis has a rather important moral worth, too. Most of the Oriental pros who are now making money on the circuit are using it to give their children a better education and lift them out of their class. Education is, of course, the most important thing in these underdeveloped countries, you know. A lot of old racial prejudices and national hatreds are being eased, too, because of this international mixing in golf. For one thing, there is an entire absence of resentment against the Japanese at our tournaments. And the old colonial thinking in which the white establishment deliberately discouraged natives from bettering themselves is no longer a viable force—at least not in golf."
Despite his monetary and moral satisfactions, Thomson has not had a good golfing year—mainly because he sprained his left wrist during the Thailand Open in March. "I slept one night in cold air conditioning with my arms outside the blanket," he said. "The next day when I swung, I tore some ligaments—a damned silly thing, you know." In the course of seeking some therapy, Peter ran into a number of fine old occult Oriental and African prescriptions. A magician in Shanghai mumbled inscrutable oaths while twisting the wrist. A Peter Sellers-like doctor in India gave him vitamins and told him to lay off curry; a white hunter from Rhodesia gave him a copper bracelet and told him if he promised never to take it off he would be cured; and a friend in Kenya said that wearing a loop of elephant hair ("which is about as tough as chicken wire") around his wrist was a "very nearly infallible cure."
Finally some plain, mundane, modern, deep short-wave heat seemed to do the trick, and Thomson hit the U.S. tour in June—playing in the 500 Festival Open, the Canadian Open and the Spanish Open. He tried to qualify for the U.S. Open but failed by a stroke. But it didn't really matter a great deal, for to Peter all of it was essentially just a part of his long, intensive preparatory ritual for the British Open ("I always like to play in three or four important events leading to the second week in July"). Whether he can achieve his sixth title there is not something a tightly analytical man like Peter Thomson would deign to promise, yet he is not pessimistic. "I have been through a pattern of maturing in recent years," he said recently. "I played very well as a youth, then I went through some kind of a change of life. I somehow got into a bad state mentally for a time, and I played very badly for several years. I suppose that as a youth I had on blinkers, then I must have become rather self-conscious of the people around me and the successes I had. It was a time of insecurity. But now, in my late '30s, I feel more powerful than before—mentally powerful as well as what I call golfingly powerful. I suspect—and I certainly hope—that I have five or seven more years of golf ahead of me. They could be my best years, you know."
As for this year's British Open, Peter Thomson will have his self-confidence working beautifully: "One has a feeling that he is going to win certain tournaments—especially if you've won before. Right now I feel so fit, as if this were my year again." The intellectual judgments will have been properly made: "I think I tend to do instinctively the things that give me the best results, but I feel that I have done away with many of my recent insecurities." The detached appraisal of his condition will have been done: "If I have no viruses or illnesses and if my wrist is well, I should do well."
And yet when all the dispassionate analyses are done and this very cool Australian has measured his own being as meticulously as he can in terms of the manner and the mathematics of being a British Open winner for the sixth time, he grins boyishly and says, "Of course, the stars must be right or I don't have a chance."