There is an air of exquisite self-confidence and impenetrable security about Peter Thomson, the fluid-swinging Australian golfer. His neat, magnificently curly hair and his ruddy, passive features, which resemble those of an aging cherub (going on 39 in August), add to the impression of unflappable self-control. Even his home in Melbourne is the house of a man well-set in his own values. It is a stately Victorian town house, with a brick wall about the manicured yard, white carpets laid on dark oiled floors inside, a living-room bookcase filled with the titles of Leo Tolstoy, Arthur Koestler, Shakespeare, a collection of prints of Sidney Nolan's paintings, selected writings from Punch over the last 100 years. A stereo tape machine constantly wafts the symphonies of the London Philharmonic through the house, and Thomson's pretty blonde wife Mary says, "Peter is terribly interested in music. When he's home he is constantly listening to his tapes and when I talk he says, 'Shshshshshsh.' I sometimes wish he played cards instead." Thomson admits to an intensity toward the classics, but his passion is characteristically well contained. "I suppose Gustav Mahler is my favorite," he said. "For one thing, he is a composer a layman can understand. And I like him because he had a limited output and an amateur like myself can master it."
The same fastidious selectivity—a kind of executive detachment—marks the golf career of Peter Thomson. In recent years he has shunned the rich American circuit as if it were a crude and vulgar circus. "I find it quite difficult to get myself excited about what I consider lesser events—including some of the $100,000 variety," he said not long ago in Melbourne. Rather than playing regularly in the U.S., he has spent much of the past eight years helping to organize and vitalize a tournament tour in the Far East and the Middle East. "I had to put myself up as the principal offering when it started," he said. "It is necessary to have a healthy circuit outside America because there are too many golfers to have just one circuit in the world." A cool man, Peter Thomson—not at all cherubic.
But, of course, for even the coolest of men there is bound to be some One Thing that stirs the soul, heats up the blood, twangs the heartstrings. It might be women, oil wells, owning a Rembrandt, running barefoot through rubies. Peter Thomson has his One Thing, too. Although he does not sound emotional or even terribly interested when he talks about it, he does not equivocate. "It is my life's goal," he said, "to win the British Open again. I have been preparing myself for it from the beginning of January. I started concentrating on how I wanted myself to be for the Open, and ever since I have been conditioning myself—physically, mentally, golfingly. I'm egotistical enough to know that my best is quite good enough to win."
He does indeed have the game to go with his ego. This week when he cracks out one of his patently unimpressive drives (low, not very long, but almost inevitably accurate) off the first tee at Carnoustie, Scotland, he will be trying for his sixth British Open championship. Five times between 1954 and 1965 his best was quite good enough to win. And if, perchance, the past months of concentration have put him into proper form to win again, he will equal the record of Englishman Harry Vardon as the winningest player in the Open's 108 years. That, of course, is a worthy "life's goal" for any golfer, for Harry Vardon reached the status of a full-fledged legend 50 years ago and scored his Open victories in the days of big-time golf's incubator infancy—between 1896 and 1914. Since then only Walter Hagen and Bobby Locke, with four wins apiece, have even come close.
Although the money to be made there is a comparative pittance in golf's affluent '60s (just $7,200 for the winner), any meaningful mark put on the history of the British Open is of inestimable value, for it has an ancient history indeed. It began in 1860, barely a decade after the revolutionary gutta percha golf ball had replaced the old leather-covered, feather-filled lump that Scotsmen had been beating across the moors for 300 years. Like Britain herself, the Open has survived wars, depressions, the demise of empire and a couple of devaluations of the pound. Unlike the nation, however, the Open has been subjected to a foreign invasion in the last century, which, if not outright insulting, is at least cause for a slight pain in the patriotism. In the last 30 years only three Englishmen have won the tournament, and none since 1951.
But if any un-Englishman must have a go at the record of their beloved Harry Vardon, the British would probably just as soon it were Peter Thomson; he is quite their cup of tea. In 1957 Queen Elizabeth conferred membership in the Order of the British Empire (M.B.E.) on him. Besides being an unflagging loyalist to the Queen's Commonwealth ("Wherever I go, I'm aware I'm an Australian first, a golfer second"), Peter has also stuck assiduously to the cautious, exacting brand of golf so dear to the hearts of the purists who play England's austere, gorse-by-the-sea golf courses. The flamboyant, Big Shot game that is so effective on the U.S.'s lush, well-watered landscapes is the antithesis to Thomson's way. "For reasons of my build and my style I find it more to my liking on seaside links," he said with typical analytical detachment. "The major difference between British courses and American is that the ball bounces as far as it rolls in England. In America it doesn't. I greatly prefer close turf because I strike my shots hard downwards and I get a lower line of flight than most. Playing British-style courses requires extremely delicate judgments, rather more exacting assessments of each shot. It is not a question of fixing your eyes on the flag and swinging. It is a more sensitive game."
Now, Thomson is quick to add that he does not think that "any more skill is required to do well on British courses; it is more a matter of adaptation. If I'd played all of my golf on the American circuit, I think I could do as well as any good golfer should, and, of course, the likes of Nicklaus and Casper and, to a lesser extent, Palmer, would do well in Britain." And he insists that he has never meant to be hypercritical of American golf in general, that he is simply pointing out the differences between the courses and the style of play in England and the U.S. Yet many American golfers have long felt that there was at least an implicit put-down in Thomson's attitude toward them.
The few times he has been in the U.S. recently he has held himself well clear of the hail-fellow-well-met aspects of social life on the tour. "I was probably the only friend he had," says Jim Gaquin, who was PGA tour manager during the late '50s when Thomson was playing in this country. "He was pleasant enough most of the time, but you couldn't get close. He was aloof, a loner—and others probably felt that he considered himself above them." A couple of years ago Peter was widely quoted when he said, "I have always been one to keep Americans at their distance. I can't understand the attitude of [fellow Australian] Bruce Devlin, who has become one of the gang." Americans have replied in kind. Last fall, just before Arnold Palmer was to play Thomson in the finals of the Piccadilly World Match Play Championship, he told the press, "I like to beat anyone I'm playing no matter who he is. But I guess you could say that all U.S. players especially enjoy beating Peter." (Which Palmer did, to many U.S. players' especial enjoyment.) And last year, at St. Andrews, Thomson was playing in the Alcan International Championship while, at the same time, 19 other golfers were involved in the more prestigious Alcan Golfer of the Year Championship over the same course. When it was over, Thomson had won his tournament (for a $6,000 purse), shooting a 281 that was two strokes better than Gay Brewer had done in winning the Golfer of the Year competition (and $55,000). At the closing ceremonies Thomson snapped crisply into the microphone, "I find it a little embarrassing to have shot the low score with all these Golfers of the Year here; maybe I should just be called Golfer of the Week." Whereupon Mason Rudolph, speaking for the defense, took the mike and retorted in his easy Tennessee drawl, "I enjoyed the golf Peter Thomson played this week. I've played on the U.S. tour for nine years and this was the first time I've had the pleasure of seeing him win a tournament."
Of course, it is undeniable that Peter Thomson has been less than dazzling on the U.S. tour. In all of the American tournaments he entered (and in the '50s that was almost everything), he has won just one—the Texas International Open in Dallas in 1956, which carried a hefty (for then) $13,478 winner's purse. He finished in the high money often enough and gained a reputation as a sound and, occasionally, even superb golfer. In 1956 at Oak Hill he led the U.S. Open at the end of two rounds and seemed on his way to being the first non-American to win that tournament since Briton Ted Ray did it in 1920; but Peter faded to a 75 in the third round and wound up fourth. At the Masters in 1959 Thomson was shooting reasonably good, if not brilliant, golf through the first three rounds, when suddenly he was struck by the same kind of rule-book lightning that felled Roberto De Vicenzo in Augusta this year. In Peter's case, however, his partner-scorer, Chick Harbert, scribbled in a lower score on one hole than Thomson actually had made and, when Peter signed the card (which had the proper total), he was instantly disqualified. "I don't know how well I would have done," he says now, "but it just so happens that the man I was tied with was Art Wall." Who just so happened to win the Masters that year.
That scorekeeping rule is "absurd" to Thomson's way of thinking: "If they're going to persist in having players do the scoring, then the marker should be the one penalized." Yet there is a strong, old-fashioned streak of fundamentalism in Thomson's view of golf. And even though the omnipresent vigil of television makes it bluntly impossible for pros to cheat even if they kept their own cards, Thomson thinks it would be utterly improper to change the rules to fit that particular reality. "All rules of golf must apply to all golfers," he said. "Since most golfers are club players, not pros, then the rules must of necessity disallow a man from keeping his own score. We mustn't forget that the important people playing golf are the club players, not the pros." His purism created some antagonism on the U.S. tour in the '50s when nearly all of the American pros were eager to do away with a rule that prohibited marking your ball when you reach the green; Thomson was outspokenly opposed, on grounds that in his kind of golf "you place the ball on the tee and you pick it out of the hole later and in between you do not touch it." Nevertheless, the rule was eventually dropped—along with Peter's U.S. popularity rating.