Peter Thomson (Photo: John Fischer III)
Peter Thomson (Photo: John Fischer III)

The Open Championship being played at St Andrews is about as nostalgic as we can get as golfers … immediately it conjures up history, familiarity and anticipation. To win The Open at St Andrews is a feather in the golfing cap of a selected handful of golfing immortals including; J.H Taylor, James Braid, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Peter Thomson, Bobby Locke, Kel Nagle, Tony Lema, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, John Daly, Tiger Woods and Louis Oosthuizen. 2015 brings several unique milestones and a high anticipation as the world’s best golfers return to The Old Course.

It was 60 years ago that the immortal five-time Open champion, Peter Thomson, won The Open Championship at St Andrews and he will be in the gallery watching the play of golfers 65 years his junior. 2015 marks 50 years since Thomson’s final Open victory, the historic 1965 win at Royal Birkdale where he beat (among others) the swashbuckling Arnold Palmer and the young gun, Jack Nicklaus. 2015 also presents a unique event in the World Golf Hall Of Fame induction ceremony being held at the esteemed St Andrews University (where Thomson has an honorary doctorate), a university steeped in history … history that dates back five centuries. Australia’s own David Graham will be inducted this year.

Of all the greats of the game, Thomson has a deep love and respect of the Old Course that is unparalleled in the modern era. He spent a considerable portion of his life living at St Andrews and soaking up Scottish links golf. His golf course architecture, encompassing more than 200 golf course designs, reflects his reverence for the home of golf. Thomson has mentored other Open Champion golfers (Kel Nagle, Greg Norman and Ian Baker-Finch) to the nuances of The Old Course.

The 85-year-old Thomson returns to the sacred ground of St Andrews in 2015 and on the eve of The Open Championship we talk to the five-time Open Champion about the intricacies of The Old Course, his love of the game of golf and how winning the Open Championship at St Andrews can involve strategies as simple as aiming away from the target.

 

Peter Thomson: The simplest piece of Golf Course Architecture is the 1st hole at the Old Course, St Andrews. There is no bunker, the fairway is about 150 yards wide and it is a beautiful piece of turf. When you play the Championship there, it is a frightening hole. The wind is blowing and the flag indicates that the cup is perhaps three meters from the burn in front of it. You are a professional and you, of course, attempt to get close to the flag and you get caught (laughs). The simplicity of the whole thing intrigued me when I played all those years.

 

Did you make many 3’s at the first hole at St Andrews?

Peter Thomson: No. I never tried.

The year (1984) that Ian Baker Finch was doing well, he was leading going into the final round. It was his first Open Championship. I had told him ‘just ignore the flag on the first hole, hit your second to the back of the green’. He had a friend caddying for him and I don’t know how they figured out what club it was, but he had a go at the flag and he actually pitched right by the pin. Hitting into the wind with a wedge…it had rained quite a lot and the ball spun back towards the tee, into the burn and he made a six. That was the end of him, he shot 79. (Seve Ballesteros won by 2 shots from Bernhard Langer and Tom Watson)

You could have a straight paddock, if you cut it properly it could make a good golf hole. The 9th at St Andrews doesn’t have a greenside bunker, aside from one tucked away in the gorse bushes on the left edge of the green. The hole is dead flat, the water doesn’t go anywhere, it just sits there until it soaks through. Greg Norman one year elected to drive to avoid the bunkers that divide the 9th and the 10th holes. He wouldn’t be 80 yards from the flag … gets out his wedge and launches it, but comes up about 12 feet short and it screws back a bit as well and he is now quite a few yards from the pin and a bit cranky because the hole is so simple you should get a 3 every time. Norman gets on the green gives the putt a good whack, misses and goes by about six feet and he missed that one coming back. I was standing there and I had to laugh. After that beautiful drive he had this simple  approach, yet contrived to take 5. That is what I think is marvellous about golf, an intriguing hole like that where you think it is easy and could walk off with a birdie, yet you walk off disappointed. It is wonderful.

Players would be wise to pay attention to the 17th, the ‘Road Hole.’ It is a very odd hole and one that players can make a very high score. When I won tournaments at St Andrews, I dodged that road like the plague. Quite often you are better off to not try and hit your second shot stone dead, but to play short of the green. You have to be able to swallow your pride and approach the 17th green with caution and be happy walking off with a 4.

The course is a beautiful bit of nature at work, totally natural in construction and has never been altered to be something it isn’t. The 18th has ‘the valley of sin’. Tom Morris apparently put it together. It is not the original green, apparently there was another one further up the hill before it got taken to buildings. It is driveable from the tee if the wind is accommodating. There is a public road which goes right across the 18th hole from one side to the other. The road was probably there 300 years ago and you couldn’t put a hazard in a more appropriate spot, even today. If your ball ends up on the road, you have to play it, you can’t take a free drop. You go firing at the green and here is this bloody great ‘valley’ before the green. The valley is what made the green … Tom Morris went in there with a horse and scoop, pushed it up until he had enough and then levelled it out, but leaving this hollow ‘valley’.  We did similar things here in Melbourne when making Royal Melbourne and Metropolitan Golf Courses.

Peter Thomson at the Swilken Burn (John Fischer III)
Peter Thomson at the Swilken Burn (John Fischer III)

 

 

Of all the players that are competing in 2015, which ones do you think are a big chance of winning?

Peter Thomson: Australians are hoping for another winner I am sure.I think Adam Scott has the experience around St Andrews and is a big chance if he can keep his head. Jason Day, obviously has the skills and is very capable of winning. There are a number of other Australians who could contend too. I think Rory McIlroy has a lot of tournament experience playing the Old Course and all the skills to win there, he shouldn’t be overlooked by any means, in fact he probably should be the favourite. Jordan Spieth was remarkable at the US Masters. Temperamentally he was perfect, he has a simple style of hitting the ball and there is a lot to be said for those two traits.

 

Can you remember roughly how long a Championship round would take you, in your prime of the late 1950s?

Oh yes. Three hours and twenty minutes. In a pair. We would be walking to our golf ball and sizing up what club we might need for the next shot, when we got to the ball we would pull the club and hit it. In 1952 at Lytham (Royal Lytham & St Annes) Bobby Locke won the championship by one stroke, from me. Norman Von Nida went off his head yelling and screaming and saying that Locke should be disqualified, or at least given a two-stroke penalty, for playing slowly. They clocked him at three hours and twenty minutes. I remember the final of the 1948 Victorian Amateur championships, I got knocked out in the semifinals, but I went to watch the final and they sped around in two hours and 20 minutes.

One of the problems with the modern clubs is that it takes too long to play the course. … it is more than half a day. That dismays a lot of people. I am a member at Victoria Golf Club and on Saturday there would be 100 players before 10am, because they want to go and watch the footy in the afternoon. That is not possible anymore, forget it, it takes five hours to get around!

 

What slowed it down so much?

Habits. Bad habits I think. In many cases it is also the difficulty of the course. Bunker play is time consuming, you have to climb in there and then hitting it and cleaning up after you are done with it. Generally speaking a difficult course is a slow course. You see them come up to par-3s and there are three groups waiting to play the hole, that is common, but it is also demonstrating that the place is too difficult. There was a panel at Victoria Golf Club recently discussing the course and they asked me ‘do you think we have any weak holes?’ my reply to that was, ‘if you don’t have any weak holes, as you call them, well you should have some!’ They didn’t know what to say, but that is the point. Golf course Architecture is following the tried and proven route … like the Old Course at St Andrews, there are seven holes without a bunker near the green. The difficulties are the grass, cut close or not, a bit of hither and it functions beautifully.

 

When you think of the great sand bunkers of the world, which ones stick out to you?

I am inclined to say I like the bunkering on the Old Course because it is not too much, they are small gathering areas and ferocious to escape from, but it can be done. When I played golf I had such a dread of bunkers that I hit in the opposite direction and avoided them, that was the best I could do, not to get in them. In my day, there really was a penalty if you went in one. Bunkers are so homogenised today, but it is part of the damn game of golf to have variation. It is too scientific now, yet it flourished for 300 years on bunkers that never got raked. Rakes in bunkers? The old boys would have been marvelling at such a thing. I have a photo in my scrapbook of Bobby Locke playing out of a bunker in the 1957 Open Championship (which he won and I lost) and all around his feet are footprints … the bunker had not been raked. On Monday morning they raked them and they didn’t touch them again until the next Monday morning. We played the Championship through there.

 

You’re travelling to St Andrews this year … It’s 50 years since your last Open Championship, the historic 1965 win (Birkdale) and 60 years since your Open Championship victory at St Andrews. It must be quite something to go back there this year with the World Golf Hall Of Fame induction happening at the St Andrews University?

Oh no doubt.  I am just trying to stay healthy enough. I won, altogether four events on the Old Course ; The British Matchplay Championship, a one-off Alcan Championship, the Martini Tournament and, of course, the Open.

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