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Monday 16 July 2018

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Five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson passes away

Peter Thomson tees off during a pro-am
Peter Thomson tees off during a pro-am

Phil Casey

Australian Peter Thomson, who is best remembered for winning the Open Championship five times in 12 years, has died at the age of 88.

Thomson, who was one of just four men to lift the Claret Jug in three consecutive years, also won two Senior major titles and captained the International Team to their sole Presidents Cup victory to date in his native Melbourne.

Born on August 23, 1929 in the Melbourne suburb of West Brunswick, Thomson's first experience of golf was on a nine-hole course near Melbourne Zoo called Royal Park.

Virtually empty during the Second World War, Thomson would sneak on to the course to hone his skills with whatever equipment he could borrow or find.

"I scrounged a set of hickory clubs and found golf balls between the hedgerows and the railway line," he said. "That was my treasure trove. I became hooked."

His reputation for preferring playing to practising on the range was born of pragmatism - "I didn't have any more than two balls at once" - but ultimately paid off when his talent was discovered by club members and he was given playing privileges.

By the age of 15 Thomson was the club champion and after a two-year apprenticeship as an assistant pro around Melbourne's famed sandbelt, Thomson turned professional in 1949 and won the first of more than 80 tournaments worldwide in the 1950 New Zealand Open.

After initially supplementing his income with a series of exhibitions matches in South Africa with Bobby Locke after the pair had met in Australia - "We played every day for nine weeks" - Thomson competed on the PGA Tour in the United States before embarking on a remarkable run in the tournament which made his name.

Between 1952 and 1958, Thomson finished no worse than second in the Open, winning it four times, including becoming the only player in the 20th or 21st century to win three years in succession.

After finishing sixth on his debut in 1951 and runner-up in 1952 and 1953, Thomson won by a shot from Locke, Dai Rees and Syd Scott at Royal Birkdale in 1954, despite using a set of clubs borrowed from John Letters - who had them in the boot of his car - because the McGregor set he was paid to endorse were "no good".

Living in Australia meant Thomson's journey to defend his title the following year included flights from Sydney to Singapore, Singapore to Karachi, Karachi to Beirut, Beirut to London and then trains to Edinburgh and St Andrews, but he still prevailed at the Old Course by two shots.

The hat-trick was completed at Hoylake in 1956, although the first prize was almost lost after Thomson had to borrow a jacket from Max Shaw, the captain of Royal Melbourne, for the presentation ceremony.

Shaw took the jacket back to Australia and thankfully checked in the pockets before sending it to be dry cleaned, discovering - and then returning - Thomson's winning cheque for £1,000.

Remarkably, Thomson finished second to his friend Locke in pursuit of a fourth straight win back at St Andrews in 1957, a result which inadvertently saw the two men fall out.

After moving his ball out of the way of playing partner Bruce Crampton on the 72nd hole, Locke failed to replace it correctly before holing out for a three-shot win. Rules officials only became aware of the incident via newsreel footage after the trophy presentation and decreed the result should stand.

Locke mistakenly blamed Thomson for raising the issue and their relationship soured, although they cleared the air shortly before Locke died in 1987.

Thomson was not to be denied the following year at Royal Lytham, beating Dave Thomas by four shots in a 36-hole play-off, but arguably his greatest success did not come until 1965.

By then the biggest American stars, inspired by Arnold Palmer's wins in 1961 and 1962, had finally begun to contest the Open in large numbers, with Thomson finishing two shots clear of a field which included Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tony Lema, as well as South African Gary Player.

"By then, what they used to nominate as the big three - that was Palmer, Nicklaus and Player - had sort of overwhelmed the golf scene and it was a question of which of the three was going to win," Thomson recalled.

"And here's little me got in the way. And I had a lot of joy out of that. I didn't doubt myself, but I think the general world of golf did, that I was a back-number and here were the modern heroes, and I proved that to be wrong."

Years earlier, Nicklaus had "crawled on my hands and knees" up the back of a tee at the 1957 US Open to watch Thomson in action, but other than his victory in the 1956 Texas Open, Thomson did not often perform well on the well-watered and longer American courses.

Away from the Open, his best major results were a fourth place in the 1956 US Open and fifth in the Masters the following year.

He never played in the US PGA but returned to America for a successful senior career, winning nine times in 1985 with the aid of a Dunlop ball which flew lower, but crucially straighter, than the competition.

Jealous rivals resorted to stealing balls out of Thomson's bag, but when he contacted Dunlop the following year to ask for more, he was told they had stopped making that model.

Thomson's last victory came in 1988, the same year he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, but he remained involved in the game via course design and the media. He wrote for various outlets over many decades, even filing for Melbourne's The Herald on his Open win at Lytham in 1958 before he spoke to the press.

He was president of the Australian PGA from 1962 to 1994 and almost won a seat in parliament via the Victorian State elections in 1981.

Thomson, who was made an MBE in 1957 and CBE in 1979, was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2001. He is survived by his wife Mary and their children Diana, Andrew, Peta-Ann and Fiona.

Press Association

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