There was nearly a Big 4. When IMG super agent Mark McCormack built his historic stable of clients in the early 1960s and sparked a sports-marketing revolution, he wanted to include Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Australian star Peter Thomson. But Thomson was not interested. Decades before 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 10 different countries.
This was but one of a flood of memories that resurfaced when Peter William Thomson passed away at 88 in June 2018. Australia’s greatest male golfer, Thomson is best known to U.S. fans as a five-time winner of the Open Championship and the only man in the 20th century to do it three times in a row (1954 to 1956). But to fans throughout the world, Thomson remains one of golf’s greatest ambassadors.
He was sporting royalty in his home country, but his success with and affinity for links golf put his heart in St. Andrews, where he eventually had a home and received an honorary doctorate from St. Andrews University. His relationship with the locals was such that he was often 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 lived a golf life unlike any other. He was a brilliant writer—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, it was no surprise that Thomson later took to course design. Continuing the worldly ways of his pro career, he started a firm that would eventually build more than 180 courses in 30 countries.
If there was ever a nit to pick, many point to Thomson staying away from the U.S. for most of his career. But his résumé offers plenty of defense, especially the 1965 Open Championship at Birkdale, when Thomson outclassed Palmer, Nicklaus and a full field of American stars. And of course there is his one and only season on the PGA Tour Champions, when he won nine times in 1985, a record he still holds 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 to St. Andrews as the biggest name in golf. Fresh off winning the Masters and the U.S. Open, Palmer and the swelling media began talk of a professional grand slam—soon known as the four majors—including the Open Championship 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 two.
Nagle, ever grateful, wore Thomson’s jacket to the trophy ceremony.
Andrew Crockett is a native Australian and the author of Bump & Run: At the Feet of the Masters.