On his way to the iconic moniker of ‘Five Times’, Peter Thomson first had to do something that no Australian had ever achieved before.
Still just 24 years of age when he arrived for the 1954 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, Thomson was seeking to become not only the first Australian Champion Golfer of the Year but the youngest since Bobby Jones in 1926.
But the signs were there that he was one of the true contenders.
For the two years prior he had finished runner-up to Bobby Locke (1952) and Ben Hogan (1953) so when he got up-and-down from the bunker beside the 16th green and parred his closing two holes for a one-stroke victory, few were surprised.
Norman von Nida, a mentor of Thomson’s who had told him as an 18-year-old amateur that he had the game to win in Britain, defused any of the accolade that Thomson would endeavour to share.
“Anything he did here today, he did on his own,” said von Nida.
In a portent of what was to come, Thomson wasted no time in expressing his desire to leave his mark on the Championship.
“I will be back every year. My ambition is to win three of these things.”
WHAT CAME BEFORE
Peter Thomson was just 21 years of age when he contested The Open Championship for the first time in 1951 but he had already displayed an affinity for the unconventional.
Seeing the natural simplicity of his swing and sensing a special connection to the game at a young age, Royal Park Golf Club where Thomson first played the game changed its rules so that he could join as a member at 14 years of age.
One year later he was crowned club champion.
He completed a two-year apprenticeship with Riversdale professional George Naismith before being admitted to the PGA of Australia but even that didn’t come without controversy, some Victorian PGA members believing he was allowed to join under false pretences.
The truth was that Thomson always wanted to play, winning the Victorian Close Championship as a 20-year-old and the first of nine New Zealand Opens a year later.
But it was Britain that held the greatest allure and after finishing sixth on debut in 1951 he returned not only with hopes of championship glory but also serving as golf correspondent for The Argusnewspaper in Melbourne.
HOW IT UNFOLDED
After successfully navigating qualifying at Hillside with rounds of 74-70 for a 144 total, Thomson was into the tournament proper where he opened with a 1-under par round of 72 to sit in third place alongside Tasmanian amateur Peter Toogood three strokes off the pace.
It was a round for Thomson that could have challenged the best of the day if not for some missed opportunities with the putter, including a birdie putt of no more than five feet at the last.
“I holed only one putt of any length, but missed a number of tricky curling ones,” Thomson lamented in his column.
His score improved by a stroke in the second round to remain in third place heading into the final day’s play but again could have been much lower, four times hitting the hole with putts in his round of 2-under 71.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing however for Thomson as he mounted his charge, with reports surfacing of a rift between he and his caddie, Englishman Timmy Timms.
Timms, who had caddied for Ben Hogan in his victory at Carnoustie 12 months earlier, told reporters that he was becoming frustrated with Thomson’s unwillingness to accept his advice… and tipped another player to win the tournament!
“I have been in the game a while now, and have caddied for some good people, but this fellow doesn’t work with you,” Timms complained.
“I don’t think he’ll win – I prefer Dai Rees.”
At the completion of 54 holes Timms’ choice as champion was tied for the lead, along with Syd Scott and the man whose bag he was carrying.
Thomson’s third round of 4-under 69 in the morning put him in such a confident frame of mind that with 18 holes left to play he chose to skip lunch in the clubhouse and duck back to his hotel to fetch the jacket and tie he would require for the presentation ceremony.
It would again prove to be a keen instinct as his afternoon round of 71 edged him one clear of Rees and Scott who both carded 72s and secured his place in history as Australia’s first Champion Golfer of the Year.
“After three trips I will return to Australia an ambition achieved,” Thomson wrote.
“Now I want to win two more of these championships to equal the records of (Bobby) Locke and (Henry) Cotton.
“If I prove good enough, it may be four.”
With the conviction that even a self-confessed “mediocre putter” could win The Open, Thomson went on a run of results in a single major championship that may never be matched.
Including his two runner-up finishes in 1952 and 1953, Thomson didn’t finish outside the top two until 1959, completing a hat-trick of wins in 1955 and 1956, finishing runner-up again in 1957 and then claiming the Claret Jug for a fourth time in 1958 in a playoff over Welshman Dave Thomas at Royal Lytham and St Anne’s.
He was uncharacteristically outside the top 20 in 1959 but was a top-10 placegetter in each of the four years between 1960 and 1963, moving to within one of Harry Vardon’s record of six Open victories when he triumphed once again at Birkdale in 1965.
In 30 appearances at The Open Championship Thomson won five times, was top five on 10 occasions, top 10 an astonishing 18 times and in his second-to-last appearance was tied for 26th in 1979 just six weeks shy of his 50th birthday.
He won nine times on the US seniors tour in 1985 and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1988, passing away 30 years later at the age of 88.
“The world of golf has sadly lost arguably the greatest links player in history,” said Tom Watson upon Thomson’s passing, himself a five-time Open champion.
“His record of winning five Open Championships combined with his finishing in The Open’s top 10 finishers an incredible 18 out of 21 years (1951-71) will go down in the annals of golf’s greatest achievements.”