Open Returns To Thompson’s Great Stage

Success in sport can be a fickle mistress. Whatever the record books say there is very rarely an undisputed champion. Allan Wells won the 1980 100m gold at the Olympics. But the Americans weren’t there so, for some, it is an achievement forever diminished (that Wells went on to beat them all weeks later is not dwelled on.) Tim Henman got to six Grand Slam semi finals and was number four in the world. But he never won Wimbledon and there were always, at least, three players better than him the world. So he’s a failure.

Such is the lot of the only man to have won three consecutive Opens in the last century. He is not considered a true great because four of his wins came at a time when few Americans accepted the challenge of the British links.

Peter Thompson, however, was a great champion and he triumphed in an age of other great champions. And this year the Open rota returns to the scene of his first and last championship wins.

In 1954 Thompson won the first of his Opens at Royal Birkdale. It’s true that Ben Hogan didn’t turn up to defend his title. But Thompson held off the challenge of, amongst others, Bobby Locke to claim the Claret Jug. Locke was no slouch: he won the Open in 1949, 1950, 1952 and again in 1957.

Thompson, born in Melbourne on the eve of the Great Depression, found his true calling at the Open. In 1952 and 1953 he was second. He followed the Birkdale triumph with wins in 1955 and 1956. Then he “slumped” to second behind the imperious Locke in 1957 before winning again in 1958. A seven year stretch of finishing no worse than second. Not a bad record.

But he wasn’t playing the leading American. The currency of his domination was devalued. And it’s true that he didn’t find full time life on the PGA Tour to his liking. Although, in 1956, he did manage to finish ninth on the American money list. And he only played in nine tournaments.

In 1965, however, golf was changing. Gary Player had become the international golfer par excellence. Arnold Palmer had cultivated a transatlantic army and won back to back Opens in the early 1960’s. Tony Lema had won the 1965 Open. A chubby young guy called Jack Nicklaus was in the process of redefining the game.

Thompson, the man who dominated as American pro’s basked in splendid isolation, was ageing. He shouldn’t have had much of a chance against the new kids on the block. But he was back home at Birkdale. And not only did he have a chance, he wiped the floor with them to claim his fifth and final Open Championship.

The myth of the Australian who couldn’t beat the Yanks was put to bed. He didn’t just beat the Yanks he beat the very best of them.

Even without that victory it’s impossible to argue with his record. From 1951 to 1971 he finished outside the top ten on only three occasions and, in that period, never finished outside the top 25. As records in a major go that takes some beating.

It was his victories though that proved his brilliance and his mastery of the oldest championship of the lot. It is a record that only Harry Vardon has beaten and only JH Taylor, James Braid and Tom Watson have equalled. A pantheon of greatness that Thompson deserves to be bracketed in.

There will be more than a few Europeans who arrive at Birkdale this year with their eye on getting a chance to have a pop at the best America has to offer. They might like to remember the story of the unassuming Australian who proved that, when it comes to staking a claim for greatness, Birkdale is as good a place as any to start.

2 Responses to “Open Returns To Thompson’s Great Stage”

  1. PJ says:

    There is certainly a case to be made that Peter Thompson was Australia’s best ever golfer. Based on majors won this is the case. To compare him with the shark and his years at #1 is difficult but there is no doubt PT was the best in the world in his heyday.

  2. Bob Crawford says:

    Andy: Great stuff, as always. Nice to get some stories about the older generation. I’m one of those. Have a good day. Bobc

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