Peter Thomson’s son channels his father’s inimitable voice five years after the great man’s passing.

Getty images: impressions

The horizon of professional golf these days is littered with the rusting hulks of former traditions and orthodoxies. Or maybe that should be burning hulks. What developed into a standard way of doing things in the late pre-war and then post-war period – staging tournaments and, for the professionals, playing tournaments for prizemoney – boosted by television broadcasting in the 1960s and thereafter, has now given way to an evolving chaos. In this new era, the future is suddenly uncertain.

In the still watches of the night, I often ask myself, “What would Dad say about it were he alive and of active mind today?”

He passed away in June 2018, a month shy of the Open Championship, held that year at Carnoustie, where Francesco Molinari, playing gritty, tenacious golf, saw off a powerful field. A fit man all his life (one of his little-known recreations was skin-diving), Dad was cruelly struck by Parkinson’s Disease, a condition for which no effective treatment yet exists. Had he dodged that bullet he may well have survived until today, strong of mind and always a keen observer of the professional game.

Imagining a dinner-table conversation with him about these things is not easy, even as his son, for he could occasionally be surprisingly pragmatic or even nonchalant about matters of golf, rather than intractably wedded to principles. But, for what it’s worth, I will exercise my imagination and see what comes of it.

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Regarding the proposed ball rollback, Dad would’ve been delighted that, at long last, the R&A and the USGA have finally discovered the courage to take a measure aimed at returning major tournament golf to sanity. Few now may remember the small ball/big ball debate of the 1960s and 1970s. In that battle Dad was the foremost advocate for retaining the small ball (1.62 inches diameter) for the Open Championship. “Why make the game easier?” he persisted in asking, a question the big-ball imperialists could never adequately answer. He may have lost that battle, but he never lost sight of the notion that rendering the game easier drains from professional events a lot of the drama that attracts spectators.

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Mixed fields of men and women in the Australian Open would have presented Dad with a dilemma. As Australian PGA president for 32 years, his highest priority was protecting and advancing the interests of his members, so a reduced field for men players would’ve pained him. Yet the harsh and inescapable reality of vastly reduced budgets for the Australian Open and the persistent virus of appearance money necessary to attract players with global stature make a mixed field a practical necessity these days. Dad would’ve accepted that and urged everyone to do the same.

It’s worth noting that he was not so much interested in women’s professional golf as something distinct as interested in the progress of Australia’s champion women golfers themselves, from Jan Stephenson in the 1970s to Karrie Webb in more recent times. Indeed, he greatly admired Karrie’s swing and her game, and he encouraged her to pursue a post-tournament career in course design, which she is now doing in partnership with Ross Perrett.

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The so-called ‘civil war in golf’ between the United States PGA Tour and LIV Golf, the latter led by the gladiator Greg Norman, would’ve given Dad some entertaining moments. After all, a world tour of some sort was his idea in the 1970s and thereafter. Despite differing interests, he was always on good terms with the PGA Tour leadership – commissioners Deane Beman and Tim Finchem were both good friends – and he vigorously supported the Presidents Cup, which owes its existence to Beman. That Greg Norman has taken up the torch for a world tour would not have surprised him. Who else but an Australian would have the courage and the energy to do that?

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Beyond doubt, the LIV format of 54 holes and teams with odd names would’ve puzzled and disappointed him, as 72-hole tournaments were, for him and his peers, the true test of a player. As for the nature of Saudi Arabia as the financial backer of LIV, I doubt Dad would’ve raised an objection. One day in China, I was with him when he warmly embraced a Chinese friend who was a powerful man in Beijing, the son of Mao Zedong’s favourite general in the PLA (who later served in Deng Xiaoping’s politburo or cabinet).

“That fellow’s father was responsible for the Tiananmen Square massacre,” I murmured a few moments later.

Dad’s expression remained unchanged. “We’re here to play golf,” he replied.

I never raised the issue again. But, reflecting on that exchange later, I realised what he meant: politicians and priests decide matters of morality; sportsmen ought not trespass into such troublesome territory.

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The Open is at Hoylake this month, the course where Dad achieved his hat-trick of victories in 1956. Over the years when asked how he managed to rack up three wins in a row, he would usually reply, “I figured out how to do it.” This answer caused some frustration, but to him it captured exactly what had happened and how he saw the experience. There was no magic formula; he simply played the shots necessary to win. Certainly, there was no swing coach/putting coach/conditioning coach/psychologist or any other source of external help that he quietly despised.

It’s true he didn’t love the course at Hoylake as he loved Birkdale or the Old Course, but he respected it and was pleased to conquer its many elements of adversity – especially its ferocious winds – to lift the claret jug for a third year in succession.

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In 2015 I accompanied him to St Andrews to watch the Open Championship. It was to be his last trip outside Australia, and frailty was beginning to show its presence in his physical movements. I didn’t know it at the time, but at the Champions Dinner that week he sat next to Tiger Woods, allowing the two of them to share a long conversation. Last year Woods kindly remarked on the significance, to him, of that lengthy exchange of views.

The Open remains the ultimate test of golf, and its stewardship by the R&A is an example for every other golf organisation to follow. Dad had no complaint about its modern evolution.

Last year, early on a July Sunday morning, a couple of hours after dawn on the final day of the 150th Open Championship, I scattered a teaspoon’s worth of his ashes on the 18th green of the Old Course. Twelve hours later, after the sun had traversed half of the Earth’s circumference, Cameron Smith birdied that same hole to vanquish his opponents and join Dad as Champion Golfer of the Year. It was, I am quite sure, no mere coincidence.