My first memories of Peter Thomson were from flickering images on a black-and-white television set in my parents’ home. He wore, as I recall, a white cap or visor, and white shoes. He looked neat. If I said he also often looked querulous it was because his fine head of hair and glasses added to the impression that here was an inquisitive, thoughtful, scholarly man.
A few years later another image of Peter Thomson formed in my mind. Covering Opens in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I would be sitting at my desk when Peter would stroll in to the media centre, possibly still in his golf clothes with a sweater placed jauntily over his shoulders and carrying a portable typewriter. He would settle himself at a desk and bash out 800 words about his play and that of others in that day’s Open Championship and get them transmitted to The Age, the newspaper in his native Melbourne, Australia, or so I believe. Impressed as I was by the golf of this man, I was even more impressed to see such an eminent golfer manhandling his typewriter so easily a few feet away from me.
His playing record is well known and needs no repeating here. Instead I will remember the man I came to know in the last 30 years of his life when he was the éminence grise of Australian golf, someone who always had interesting views, the means to express them and no inhibitions about making them known.
To some, he might have looked a typical R&A member in a club tie, grey flannel trousers and blazer, friendly but slightly quizzical. In person he was far from conventional. A conversation with him was always stimulating and at some point in it he would test you. He owned a house at St Andrews for a number of years and enjoyed his status in the town and at the R&A where he played, often using a pencil bag and only a few clubs. He said to me once: “I’ve been thinking about the bunkers at the Old Course. Do you know how many bunkers there are on the Old Course?” He knew because he was highly intelligent and analytical. I didn’t because I am not.
On another occasion he challenged an historical fact about the royal family I had made in The Times of London that morning. Once again, he was right and I was wrong.
He had strict views about the distance the ball travelled (too far), about the speed of play (too slow), about the swing (too complicated), about course design (too many to mention). He believed that golf was a game that should as often as possible be played along the ground, at speed, with enjoyable companions, with discussion going on before and after each shot.
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On one visit to Australia I stayed with him in Portsea down the peninsula from Melbourne and ventured on to one of the courses he had designed. To play with a former Open champion was a delight, slightly nerve-wracking. “That was a bit of a funny one” was his comment after a truly awful shot of mine.
That night various members of his family gathered for dinner and the grandchildren raced around in the garden to his delight. When they paused to come back to the table for food or drink, they called him a name. I asked him what it meant. “Head of the family,” he explained briskly and simply, much as he explained briskly and simply about Australia’s politics, about the golf swing, about aspects of Australian life.
I think that was his trick. However complicated things were, he made them seem easy. Many others may have or had the same gift but few to the same extent as Peter.