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An ambassador from Down Under who rose to top of golf

The late Peter Thomson, known the world over as a 5-time British Open champion, toured the world before there was any such thing as a world tour, as the book ‘The Complete Golfer’ details

Peter Thomson, Australia’s greatest male golfer, is best known to U.S. fans as a five-time winner of the British Open and the only man in the 20th century to earn the Claret Jug three times in a row (1954-56). But to fans throughout the rest of the world, Thomson remains one of golf’s greatest ambassadors.

Peter Thomson biography
‘The Complete Golfer’ gives the late Australian champion Peter Thomson his due

Decades before countryman Greg Norman popularized his idea for a world tour, Thomson simply did it: He spurned golf in the U.S. to take his formidable talents and intellect wherever golf was played, eventually capturing the national opens of nine countries.

He was sporting royalty in his home country, but his success with, and affinity for, links golf put his heart in St. Andrews, where won the 1955 Claret Jug, eventually had a home and received an honorary doctorate from St. Andrews University. His relationship with the locals was such that he often was called to raise a toast in the clubhouse.

“[Thomson was] the greatest links player of the modern era and quite possibly the greatest links player in the history of the game,” said Tom Watson, a fellow five-time Open champion.

Thomson, who died at age 88 in 2018 in his native Melbourne, lived a golf life unlike any other. He was a brilliant writer – Gary Player once said Thomson was “the most read golfer I’d ever met” – and kept a column in Melbourne’s The Age, reporting on the game. After several of his Open victories, he would accept the trophy, then scurry into the media tent to peck out a piece on his typewriter and wire it back to Australia before speaking with the rest of the media.

With that insatiable golfing brain, Thomson unsurprisingly later took to course design. Continuing the worldly ways of his pro career, he started a firm that eventually would build more than 180 courses in 30 countries.

If there was ever a nit to pick regarding Thomson, many observers point to his having stayed away from the U.S. for most of his career. But his résumé offers plenty of defense, especially the 1965 British Open at Birkdale, when Thomson outclassed Palmer, Nicklaus and a full field of American stars and put on a ball-striking clinic in the final round, hitting 17 greens and taking 35 putts for his 71. And, of course, there is his standout season on the Champions Tour, when he won nine times in 1985, a single-season victory mark that he still shares with Hale Irwin.

Perhaps the best way to describe the measure of this humble man is in what he often called his greatest golfing accomplishment. In 1960, Palmer showed up at St. Andrews as the biggest name in golf. Fresh from having won the Masters and the U.S. Open, Palmer arrived to the home of golf as the swelling media began talk of a professional Grand Slam – soon known as the four majors – including the British Open and the PGA Championship. But Thomson and fellow Aussie star Kel Nagle had other ideas.

Thomson poured all of his knowledge of the Old Course into his in-form friend, showing Nagle every nook and cranny of the course and how to play with the elements. It worked. Thomson finished in the top 10, and Nagle pulled off a stunning upset, defeating “The King” by one stroke. Nagle, ever grateful, wore Thomson’s jacket to the trophy ceremony.

The 149th British Open, which originally was scheduled to be played this week at Royal St. George's in England, was canceled by the R&A because of the global coronavirus pandemic.

It is a shame that with Peter Thomson’s command over the English language and his formidable golfing acumen that he never wrote an autobiography. Peter Thomson’s words are recorded in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper and subsequent books that cite those published letters, but he never detailed his thoughts on golf for a book. Sadly. The closest that golf fans can get to a biography is the 1992 book “The Complete Golfer” by Australian journalist Peter Mitchell.

In reverence to Thomson, Mitchell has made the book available for a free download at this link. It is quite a read.

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