Peter Thomson was the thinking man’s golfer. His clean, brisk game was based on cold logic and a gift for reducing things to their simplest essentials. His style was free of the extraneous, so that the path he would take to victory seemed a remarkably straight line.
Between 1954 and 1965, the Australian won the British Open five times. He and Young Tom Morris were among only four men to win it three times consecutively. He won 26 times in Europe, 19 times in Australia and New Zealand and 11 more times in Asia and Japan. He played only a few seasons in America, garnering one victory in the U.S., the 1956 Texas Open, where he closed with a 63 and defeated Cary Middlecoff and Gene Littler in a playoff.
Thomson was best on fast-running courses where judging the bounce and run of the ball was more important than long hitting. Mostly for that reason, he did not excel when playing on the well-watered and longer courses in the United States. Other than his victory in Texas, Thomson’s best showing in a U.S. event was a fourth place in the 1956 U.S. Open and a fifth in the 1957 Masters. He never played in the PGA Championship.
That apparent void in his record is the reason Thomson’s victory in the 1965 British Open at Birkdale is considered his finest hour. By that year, most of America’s prominent professionals were competing in the oldest championship, and Thomson beat them all handily.
"The most important facets of golf are careful planning, calm and clear thinking and the ordinary logic of common sense.''
But even without that victory, Thomson’s championship mettle is beyond reproach. With his confident gait and serene smile, he had the self-possessed aura of a winner. “I never saw a golfer who seemed so assured of his destiny,” wrote Pat Ward-Thomas. “There is about him the unmistakable air of success.”
Thomson was born Aug. 23, 1929, in Melbourne, Australia. As a boy, his first strokes were made on the sly at a nine-hole club named Royal Park. When the members saw his talent, he was given playing privileges, and by age 15 was the club champion. After a two-year apprenticeship as an assistant pro along Melbourne’s famed sandbelt, Thomson turned professional and quickly dominated Australian golf. “I sensed he had that inevitable something when I first set eyes on him,” said the great Australian pro, Norman von Nida. As a young professional, he was profoundly influenced by friendships with Bobby Locke, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead.
Peter Thomson turned away from a career as an industrial chemist to pursue golf full-time.
Thomson was gifted with a true affinity for being in the thick of the tense closing moments of a championship. “That was the real thrill of it for me,” he said in his biography. “I’ve seen a lot of people find themselves in that situation, and I suspect that very few of them like it, but I really enjoyed it.”
By temperament and design, Thomson indeed seemed pressure-proof. His grip was light, his manner at address brisk and his motion through the ball graceful and devoid of much physical effort. He was a reliable and occasionally brilliant putter. “There were no frills,” said von Nida, “so virtually nothing could go wrong.”
Above all, Thomson had a head for the game. “The most important facets of golf are careful planning, calm and clear thinking and the ordinary logic of common sense,” he once wrote. It was the same cool detachment with which he separated his competitive self from the rest of his life. He was truly a balanced man in a world that usually requires obsessive and narrow dedication. Thomson enjoyed reading, the opera and painting. He ran for elected office in Australia in 1982, narrowly losing. After his competitive rounds, when he was abroad, he often wrote cogent dispatches and columns for the Melbourne Herald. Later in his career, he designed golf courses, especially in Asia, where he was also instrumental in establishing professional tours. His diverse interests were a big reason why he chose not to uproot himself for America like other Australian golfers.
Thomson did give the Champions Tour a brief try and the results were outstanding. In 1985, he won nine tournaments, a record he shares with Hale Irwin.