Longevity and success are two adjectives used to describe the golf career of Melbourne’s Peter Thomson.
He turned professional in 1947 and won for the last time in 1988, so 30 years settles the longevity claim. He won all over the world and concluded with 88 victories, satisfying the success descriptive.
England and New Zealand were particularly fertile environments for Thomson. He won the New Zealand Open nine times. He won the British Open, or as the Brits would prefer, The Open Championship, five times and finished runner-up thrice, third once, and played in 30. Some might say that the level of competition at The Open Championship might not have been what it could have been, since professionals from the United States did not often participate due to the paucity of prize money.
That element of snobbery should not have existed then and the last couple of decades has found Australian, British and European golfers routinely showing the Yanks that non-American golfers are every bit the equal of the U.S. PGA Tour Professionals.
Peter Thomson served as harbinger of this new reality when he beat Arnold “The King” Palmer, Jack “The Golden Bear” Nicklaus and “Champagne” Tony Lema to claim the 1965 British Open, his fifth and final victory in that tournament, when he was 36. Thomson and Palmer are separated by a month in age. Nicklaus was 11 years junior and Lema, who won the British Open at St. Andrews in 1964, was five years younger. He would die in a plane crash the following year, only a short time before he would have had the opportunity to defend his title.
Thomson is credited with six PGA wins, but that did not happen until 2002, when the PGA declared that as one of the so-called Major Championships, The Open Championship would be retrospectively granted status as a PGA Tour event.
His other PGA victory on the under-50 tour was the 1956 Texas International Open, where it required a playoff betwixt Thomson and Americans Cary Middlecoff and Gene Littler. Thomson’s win came in dramatic fashion. He shot a remarkable 63 in the final round in order to get into the three-way playoff, and then made birdie on two consecutive holes for the win.
Interestingly, that was the only year the tournament carried that name. It originated at the Texas Victory Open in 1944 and was won by Byron “Iron Byron” Nelson. Sam Snead won it as the Dallas Open in 1945, followed by Ben Hogan in 1946, when it was the Dallas Invitational. The tournament took a hiatus until May of 1956, when it was won by Don January in May of 1956 as the Dallas Centennial Open.
Thomson won when it was played again a month later in June and the purse had more than doubled from $30,000 to $70,000, of which Thomson took away just over $13,000. Bruce Devlin was the next Australian to win in 1969, by which time the event was known by the name of the inaugural winner, Byron Nelson, as the Byron Nelson Golf Classic. Adam Scott won in 2008, by which time corporate sponsorship of PGA tournaments meant that he earned over $1.15 million, roughly equivalent to the amount Peter Thomson earned for his entire stint on the PGA and PGA Champions Tours. Jason Day would claim victory in 2010 and Newcastle, NSW’s own Steven Bowditch would win in 2015.
Regarding the U.S. Majors, Thomson’s best finishes were a fourth in the 1956 U.S. Open and a fifth in the 1957 Masters. He never played in the PGA Championship. Elsewhere, he is credited with 34 victories on the Australasian circuit, including the aforementioned nine New Zealand Opens and two Australian Opens, the first in 1951 and the second 21 years later in 1972.
Including his five Open Championship wins, he won 28 times on the European Tour. He also won in Japan, Canada, Hong Kong, India and the Philippines.
After winning all over the world, he joined the PGA Champions Tour five years after reaching the eligibility age of 50. He won 11 times, earning some well-deserved financial compensation for his lifetime of contributions to the game. In winning over $1 million, he twice bested Arnold Palmer. An encore of sorts took place in 1985 when as in 1956 he got the upper hand over Gene Littler and won the MONY Syracuse Senior’s Classic, producing a 14-under par 202 for a two-shot victory. He was the top money winner on that tour in 1985 with nine wins.
It is Thomson’s record in The Open Championship, however, that most defines him as a professional golfer. His five wins place him only one behind Harry Vardon, who won over a twenty-year span from 1896-1914. Thomson’s first of three consecutive wins was in 1954. The win earned him £750, so he might have considered a major upgrade when he won again in 1955 and took in £1,000. No pay increase accompanied the 1956 win.
Those three wins were at Royal Birkdale, St. Andrews and Royal Liverpool. Before those three wins, he had finished second two times, once to South Africa’s Bobby Locke in 1952, who won his third Open Championship. In 1953, it was Ben Hogan who ran away for a four shot victory over Thomson and three others.
Thomson placed second again in 1957 and Bobby Locke won his fourth title. Thomson’s fourth titled followed in 1958 at Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s in a playoff over Welshman Dave Thomas.
Six years would follow, including two wins by Arnold Palmer (1961-62) and one by another Australian, Kel Nagle, before Thomson won for the fifth and final time. This was at Royal Birkdale, a two-shot margin that paid him £1,750.
During and following his playing career, Peter Thomson, had a close association with the game that had its roots whilst he was playing. He wrote golf articles for the Melbourne Age over a span of 50 years beginning in the early 1950s. He also designed over 100 golf courses, both in Australia and around the world.
He received the Arnold Palmer Award in 1986 for being the top earner on the Champions Tour in 1985. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1988.