Peter Thomson, Australian Golfer With 5 British Open Wins, Dies at 88
Posted June 20, 2018 1:13 p.m. EDT
Updated June 20, 2018 1:18 p.m. EDT
Peter Thomson, the Australian who won five British Opens and became the only player in the 20th century to win that major in three consecutive years, died Wednesday in Melbourne, Australia. He was 88.
His death was announced by Golf Australia, the sport’s governing body in that country, which said he had been treated for Parkinson’s disease for the past four years.
At a time when Australians had made little impact on international golf, Thomson emerged as a leading player on links far from his homeland, winning the British Open each summer from 1954 to 1956 and again in 1958 and 1965.
Thomson played for only a few seasons in the United States, where courses were more suited to long hitters than to his finesse game: low, running shots on hard courses, ideal for the British seaside venues. But he flourished in his brief run on the U.S. Senior Tour, winning a record nine times in 1985.
Thomson lacked the charisma of latter-day Australian golf star Greg Norman, but he won dozens of tournaments around the world and encouraged the development of pro golf in Asia in the 1960s.
Many of the United States’ leading pros did not compete in Britain in the 1950s. But Thomson proved himself as an elite golfer on the world scene with his final British Open victory, when he left Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus far behind and overtook defending champion Tony Lema in winning at Royal Birkdale, also the site of Thomson’s first Open victory.
“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 told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in 2005, recalling his victory 40 years earlier.
“And here’s little me, got in the way,” he said. “I didn’t doubt myself, that I could do it as well as they could, 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.”
Peter William Thomson was born on Aug. 23, 1929, in Brunswick, a suburb of Melbourne. As a youngster, he sneaked onto a nine-hole club, Royal Park, and when the members saw how talented he was they gave him club privileges. By the time he was 16, he had become the club champion.
Thomson scored his first victory as a pro in 1950 when he captured the first of his nine New Zealand Open championships. He was among four golfers with five British Open triumphs, a total exceeded only by Harry Vardon’s six.
His only victory on the regular PGA Tour came in 1956 at the Texas International Open. He was fourth in the 1956 U.S. Open and fifth in the 1957 Masters. He never played in the PGA Championship.
Thomson had largely forsaken competitive golf by the late 1970s in favor of designing courses and making a foray into politics. He narrowly lost a bid for a seat in the Victoria State Parliament in Australia in 1982.
But the U.S. Senior Tour (now the Champions Tour), which began play in 1980, provided a new and lucrative challenge. Thomson won the PGA Seniors Championship in 1984. His nine senior victories in 1985, a single-season mark matched only by Hale Irwin 12 years later, put him atop the year’s earnings list with $386,000 in prize money, a record at the time.
Thomson was the nonplaying captain of the international team that defeated the United States in the 1998 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne Golf Club and he was captain in its losing efforts in 1996 and 2000. He was president of the Australian PGA from 1962 to 1994 and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1988.
In his later years, he concentrated on international golf course design as a director of Thomson, Perrett & Lobb (now Thomson Perrett).
He is survived by his wife, Mary, his daughters, Deirdre Baker, Pan Prendergast and Fiona Stanway; his son, Andrew; 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Thomson possessed a seemingly effortless swing and a calm approach. “There were no frills so virtually nothing could go wrong,” the World Golf Hall of Fame quoted prominent Australian golfer Norman Von Nida as saying.
Jack Nicklaus, in an interview with the British newspaper The Telegraph, once recalled watching the 1957 U.S. Open. “I crawled on my hands and knees up to the back of one tee to watch Peter Thomson and Roberto De Vicenzo tee off,” he said. “At that age, when you watched the swings of great players, you could not help but go out the next day or so and emulate them. I know I did.”