Aussie legend Peter Thomson returns to Old Course

Peter Thomson on the steps of the R&A in St Andrews, near the spot where he launched his 1955 bid for Open glory. Picture: David Cruikshanks
Peter Thomson on the steps of the R&A in St Andrews, near the spot where he launched his 1955 bid for Open glory. Picture: David Cruikshanks
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AUSSIE who ruled at St Andrews 60 years ago and he will return this week. Aidan Smith went to meet him

Peter Thomson is just off the course at Brora when I catch up with him. He once called it the best links in the world and unsurprisingly, given the man’s glistening stature in the game, his words still figure prominently in the promotional blurb. But Tommo stops short of describing his actions today as having constituted an actual round of golf.

“I don’t count any more but I’ve a fair notion of what my score would be if I did,” he says with a weary sigh. “I’m not missing out on anything and neither is anyone else.”

Niggling arthritis and a largely paralysed left shoulder were severely restricting his golf a few years ago and soon he’ll turn 86. Most men that age would be happy with such a score but Thomson isn’t just a proud five-times Open champion, he’s a proud Aussie – a gent from the land Down Under which is so sporty that, when you seek confirmation of the national pastime, you’re told: “Winning, mate.” The march of time, even for a legend, is unavoidable. Doesn’t mean you have to like it, though.

“I’ve got to play at St Andrews – the Champion Golfers’ Challenge,” he says. This is Wednesday’s four-hole curtain-raiser featuring Claret Jug hoisters of the past. “It’s been done before and here we go again. Hopefully, it will be interesting to watch those old fellas, none older than me I don’t think, who love a game of golf even if it’s not how they used to play it. I hope to be able to swing a club but frankly it would be ridiculous for me to try and beat somebody like Tom Watson…”

Thomson sounds in need of a wee reviver. It’s too early for anything, er, medicinal but I think I’ve got just the thing. It’s our sister paper The Scotsman’s report from his Open triumph at St Andrews 60 years ago and I read him the choicest paragraph: “No winner of the world’s greatest golf honour could have looked easier-minded as he pursued his quest relentlessly – no furrowed brow; the ready smile instead of the tight, screwed-up, strained expression; a springy, elastic stride along the fairways. A fresh athletic figure, he is the complete Happy Warrior of the links.”

“Oh I approve,” he says with a tiny chuckle, but this isn’t an egotistical response, rather that of a golfer who when he finished being springy and relentless, became a journalist and understands about the imperative of making words sing while racing the clock. He asks for the reporter’s name but the piece is merely bylined: “From our golf representative.”

These were more modest times and the Open 60 years ago was inevitably a more modest tournament, with limited American participation owing to the small prize money and the fear of being beaten, but Thomson, who’d won his first Open the year before at Royal Birkdale, was determined to defend his title despite the epic travelling required from Melbourne, where he still lives.

“Flight from Sydney to Singapore, Singapore to Karachi, Karachi to Beirut, Beirut to London – three days on the one plane, staying over in hotels – then the train to Edinburgh and on to St Andrews,” he says, and the pride in his voice is evident and justified. “I stayed at the Rusacks Hotel with my wife Mary and our baby daughter, Deirdre. Mary is with me now and I’m delighted to say Deirdre will be joining us in St Andrews for a happy reunion. I felt pretty good about that year’s tournament. I’d already won the Matchplay at St Andrews and I think I held some kind of record for having taken four events there. Of course Bobby Locke was the main guy you had to climb over to win a championship.”

Thomson and the South African had some terrific contests throughout the 1950s but in ’55, from a field including Henry Cotton, Max Faulkner, John Jacobs and Christy O’Connor Snr, there was a strong Scottish challenge, with Eric Brown leading after the first day.

“Eric was one of the bold ones,” says Thomson of the man from Bathgate.

“I think he imagined he could beat anybody – and on his day he could. He was quite a showman.”

But it was Lanark-born John Fallon, based in Huddersfield, who made the bolder effort, eventually finishing as runner-up two shots back. “Johnny was a genuine first-class player. It wasn’t so easy to make a living from tournament golf in those days so like many he was a club pro and a good one. He was the chap nearest to me and I gave him credit for that.”

Thomson who, until recently, had a holiday home in St Andrews and designed the Duke’s course just outside the town, remembers a keen competition in front of enthusiastic galleries. “The St Andrews crowds were always knowledgeable because many of them would have been good players themselves.” The committed weekenders would have wanted to know which weapons Thomson was using. “Well, all of one’s life was a search for a really good driver and a really good putter. I can’t recall what I was playing with in ’55 but what I didn’t have, of course, was a 60-degree wedge so when I hit sand twice on the 14th, The Beardies, on the last day I had to play out backwards. That was nearly suicide.”

Thomson’s winnings were £1,000. Locke finished fourth but, when the Open returned quickly to St Andrews two years later, the latter was able to end Thomson’s terrific streak of three-in-a-row, a feat only matched by Young Tom Morris (1868-1870). There was controversy about Locke’s final shot, though, and it burned for decades.

Moving his ball marker from the putting line of his playing partner, he replaced it in the wrong position before holing out. “I wasn’t a witness to this – I didn’t even know about it until the rumours started to fly 24 hours later,” says Thomson.

The fuss was kicked up by others, including Cotton and Tommo’s countryman Norman von Nida. “But Bobby thought I was the one making a noise and fell out with me.” Thomson was wounded by this – he’d admired Locke and aped his style, the white shoes, always in a collar and tie. “But I’m glad to say we patched things up before he passed away. I met him in Johannesburg where his health wasn’t too good. He’d drove his car into the front of a train, I think, and he really wasn’t well. But he gave me his hand and I gave him mine. It was a nice finish.”

And with that I leave Thomson to get ready for a much shorter journey to St Andrews than that of 60 years ago. He can’t promise springiness this time but the Happy Warrior is thrilled to be coming back.