SI Vault
John Underwood
November 01, 1971
It's still called golf, even in the Outback. But Australians, with their penchant for putting reverse English on things, have come up with a game that holds almost nothing sacred
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November 01, 1971

Poms, Butcher-birds And Bogeymen

It's still called golf, even in the Outback. But Australians, with their penchant for putting reverse English on things, have come up with a game that holds almost nothing sacred

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The best golf writer in Australia is Peter Thomson, the same one who is the best golfer. (The irony of this gets to you only after you have not thought about it for a while.) Thomson handles the language smartly and does not use a ghost. Columns by sports stars written by ghosts are very popular in Australia. Thomson chooses to go it alone. When he finishes a round he moves directly to the press tent, pounds it out and lets the chips fall on whomever they may—usually some foreign golfer whose presence he resents. His target last year was Player.

Gary let his guard down by saying he had no chance after a first-round 71 in the Australian Open, how really terribly messed up his game was, how it would take a "bloody miracle" to save him. The next day he shot a 65. Thomson couldn't forgive Player that 65. He wrote, "We are becoming used to, if not bored by, the soul-searching and hand-wringing that precedes [Player's] record scores...." He used words like "histrionics" and "emotional displays" to describe Player's actions. It was obvious that Thomson would have been satisfied only if Player had run a string of 71s. Meanwhile, an unrepentant Player was retaliating. Without naming him, he hinted broadly that it was Thomson who had arranged to have the course closed the day before the tournament and had made it uncomfortable for internationals in many nasty little ways, and said a certain someone who writes a column as well as plays golf for a living had entirely too great an influence on the game in Australia. It was all too much for a casual observer.

So in Canberra I sought out Norman Von Nida and asked him about Thomson, whom I had not met but had been told was not terribly popular in his own country. " Thomson wants Australian golf for himself." Von Nida said. "He's jealous, that's all. He's the best golfer we've had, but he's that way. I don't like him much."

At the seat of Thomson's estrangement, I was told, was his reputation for being more British than the British. One does not have to spend much time in Australia before he hears that "most Aussies can't cop a Pom." That is to say, the average Australian wouldn't want his sister to marry a Britisher. They regard Thomson as a kind of naturalized Pom. They call him Pete-ah, and mock his affected British ways. They notice how he chums up to "his English writers" and has them to tea. They distrust his intelligence. "He reads Gandhi, of all things," I was told.

It just so happened I had the seat next to Thomson in the clubhouse at Canberra as we watched on television the finish of the tournament there. He is a strikingly photogenic man in his 40s, medium-sized with a flashy nose and curly brown hair and no upper lip. I had been warned he was also anti-American, which explained why he never participated in U.S. tournaments anymore. The story is told of the time in England when he won a tournament over Palmer and Nicklaus and was going into a restaurant afterward only to be cautioned by a friend that Palmer and Nicklaus were already inside. "You don't want to go in there, Peter. There's Nicklaus and Palmer," the friend said. "Yes I do," Thomson replied. "I want them to see me."

As a matter of fact, Thomson made no attempt to be hostile when we met. Not that he was particularly friendly, either. He just had no reason to be anything, and he wasn't. I asked him if it were true he didn't like Americans—if he didn't cop a Yank. He said, "Those things spread around. You don't like one or two and they say you don't like them all." He did not elaborate. I thought to myself, "Well done." I think I could learn to appreciate the qualities of Peter Thomson. Just the kind of wet blanket golf needs.

About that time a familiar figure began flickering black and white on the television screen, advancing onto the 18th green in that purposeful field marshal's stride, the now-customary worried look on his face (golf is no picnic for Gary Player, as he is the first to admit). The crowd cheered him on. Player was about to take another trophy away from Peter Thomson. Thomson shifted in his chair.

A man on the other side of Thomson, a British writer, it so happened, said he didn't care much for having had to travel all these thousands of miles to write about Gary Player winning two tournaments in a row.

"Yes," said Thomson soothingly. "It's a bloody shame."

Thomson, Bruce Devlin and Bruce Crampton are really the only Australians making an impact on international golf today. Von Nida and Nagle still play, but are no longer factors. Von Nida is semiretired, and Nagle is getting older and has a bad back.

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