Modesty, despite his grand achievements in the world of golf, both on and off the golf course, has always been Peter Thomson’s constant companion. Yes, he was, and still is for that matter, forever confident but quietly so unlike others who’ve reached similar lofty heights.
Indeed, Thomson was very much an amateur at heart in a professional game that, these days, has almost obscenely huge purses that, sadly, are matched by the egos of many who pocket the fat cheques.
Back in the 1993, fellow Australian Greg Norman proposed a world tour of golf with 10 tournaments. He had the financial backing of media baron Rupert Murdoch and his international News Corporation and the verbal support of many of the leading players but Norman has always believed the PGA Tour and its Commissioner Tim Finchem nobbled his idea.
Norman says in his book, The Way of the Shark, “(the players) changed their minds. ‘If the PGA Tour is not involved, I won’t play,’ said one. ‘I like the concept because it’s the free enterprise system at work,’ said another. ‘But I’m not going to turn my back on the PGA Tour.’”
Then, lo and behold, the PGA Tour – and Finchem – created its series of World Golf Championships with three tournaments coming onto the scene in 1999 and, though there have been different sponsors they remain as the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship, the WGC Cadillac Championship and the WGC Bridgestone Championship. A fourth – the WGC-HSBC Champions – began in 2009.
Since then, Norman has been forever aggrieved.
In truth, it was P.W. Thomson who saw golf as a global game, not one that was confined to the magnificent links courses of Britain and Ireland, nor the European courses and certainly not in the United States where Arnold Palmer with his raw appeal had so popularised the game of golf in the mid to late 1950s.
Just recently, and a few days after I’d been asked to write this article, I woke before the birds and turned the television onto a sports channel that was showing a re-run of an archival documentary on The Big Three – Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player – who had their tours around the globe playing exhibitions arranged by their manager, the late Mark McCormack.
Indeed, the claim was made it was The Big Three who globalised golf. What nonsense. When I first became the senior golf correspondent of a metropolitan newspaper in Australia in 1969 – at the Melbourne Age – Thomson was the golf columnist, and he took me under his wing.
We spoke often, sometimes over a convivial drop of the deadener when the day was done, Thomson, or Five-Times as we called him because of his five Open Championship victories (1954-55-56-58-65), talked of his pioneering days in the Far East and his trips to southern Africa with fondness and a sense of achievement.
He’d had the chance to make The Big Three The Big Four for McCormack asked him to join his troupe of travellers but he politely declined, and continued to do things his way – as he has always done.
His view was it was necessary to have a healthy circuit outside the US because there were too many golfers to have just one circuit in the world. It is true Thomson never embraced America, nor did Americans embrace him but he did play full-time on its tour in 1953-54 and, in 1956, he played eight events winning the Texas Invitational.
In the 1950s, Thomson’s name was instantly recogniseable everywhere golf was played save for the US of A where folk didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, there was a big wide world outside there own country. It is an attitude that still prevails in some quarters.
He did, of course, go to the States in 1985 to plunder the US Seniors Tour, winning nine times, and one wonders what might have been had he actually made that country his home away from home during his prime.
It was instead the Far East – or Asia as we now call it – that beckoned Thomson. His first overseas trip was to Manila for the Philippine Open as a 20-year-old soon after he had turned professional. The godfather of Australian golf – the late Norman Von Nida – had arranged Thomson an invitation and they travelled together via Singapore.
“It was my first taste of the exotic east,” Thomson says. “It was fascinating because you’re not accustomed to it and the people involved and the environment and, for a young boy on his first overseas trip, an entirely new scene and very attractive.”
One can totally understand that. He grew up in the poor inner-west suburb of Brunswick in Melbourne where tough – and rough – men were born and, while Thomson was never the latter, he was always the former with a love of golf and a humanitarian view on life.
In that Philippine Open he finished fifth, and received the extraordinary sum of 750 pounds. That year, South African Bobby Locke at Troon won his second of four Open Championships at Royal Troon and his purse was just 300 pounds.
“It was massive, and it set me on my tracks,” Thomson said. After the Philippines, I went to South Africa to accept an invitation to tour southern Africa with the two of us showing off in exhibition games and that again multiplied my bank account and sent me further on track.”
Sponsors put up the cash, and there was no appearance money involved. Thomson, through the years, has been a vocal opponent of appearance fees and says: “I can honestly say I never accepted money before I played. I learned that with my brief entry to the United States field, discovering they had strong rules against appearance fees. The sponsors agreed as a group to outlaw it. Every one should be equal.”
Thomson did go to the Far East in the late 1950s, as the winner of four Open Championships at the time, to play the local champion for cash put up by sponsors.
“I guess you could say I went to exhibit myself. There were 500 or so people watching and I said to local officials: ‘Can you imagine what it would be like if we had a whole contingent of golfers to watch – Australians, the rest of Asia and the players from the United Kingdom,” Thomson says.
“If you come and play, we’ll make it happen,” the various golfing officials said.
And, with that, Thomson became the universally recognised founding father of Asian golf. Tournaments in eight countries – Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, India, Indonesia and the Philippines – were co-ordinated into a single circuit in February- March, months when the northern hemisphere was waking up after winter.
It was the early 1960s.
A committee was formed with representatives from each country with Thomson on board to give the players perspective. Thomson was the guiding light while an expatriate Welshman Kim Hall who was a member of the Royal Hong Kong GC (the “Royal” has since been dropped after the Chinese reclaimed the territory in 1997) was his right-hand man.
Thomson urged the Asians that they needed television of the tournaments. They were ambivalent to the idea, happy enough that there would be a few spectators on the ground but Thomson was persuasive. In another calling, he surely could have been a diplomat.
Airline travel was coordinated to limit costs and the good players were earning around six thousand pounds if they played well. That sounds miniscule by today’s standards but it was a fortune back in the 1960s in a region where wages were low and the cost of living was equally so.
The foreign players who ventured into those parts were happy enough, save for the courses that were being played. Thomson says: “The greens were an indigenous grass and it was a battle to get them cut. The ball had to be struck hard but putting on lousy greens is a real lesson I can tell you.
“But you were playing golf. Turn your back on it and you weren’t playing golf. It was very important for every one of us who aspired to make a living to learn how to do it in Asia. It was a training ground for many of them including myself. It’s a fact that you keep learning if you’re astute enough.”
Mind you, when Thomson played in the US in the 1950s he wasn’t exactly enamoured by some courses. In Indianapolis they played one inside the car racetrack, in San Antonio for the Texas Open they played off rubber mats on the tee and the Los Angeles Open was played on a public course.
In November in 2013, the Indian Open celebrated its 50th anniversary at the Delhi GC. Thomson won the first Indian Open, the first of three, in that first open. He was invited back to join the party but declined, having already accepted to attend the centenary New Zealand PGA championship, a tournament he won nine times. He sent a video message of congratulations.
Asked now, about whether he felt he was the founding father of Asian golf, now embraced by the European Tour with co-sanctioned events, he said, modestly as always, “That’s for others to judge.”
He did admit though – “(Development of an Asian circuit) would have come anyway, but it may have taken 10 or so years more.”
Through his illustrious career of more than 100 tournament victories, Thomson won the national titles of 10 different countries, more than any other golfer, and if anyone is entitled to refer to himself as the pioneer of global golf, he is.
He doesn’t. He’s too modest for that. His has been a love and passion for golf like few others.