Until Tom Watson came along, no one dominated the British Open Championship like Peter Thomson. The great Australian won four Opens in the 1950s, including three in succession (1954–56, a trifecta that went unmatched in the 20th century). By the mid-’60s, however, Thomson had been largely written off by misguided scribes, bookmakers and other co-called experts. Certainly, Peter had continued to win his share of tournaments in Britain and elsewhere outside the U.S., but his mastery at the Open had been swept aside by a new generation of Americans led by the charismatic Arnold Palmer, Open champion of 1961 and ’62.
Along with Palmer and 1964 Open winner Tony Lema, a young Jack Nicklaus had also begun to stroll golf’s international stage, finishing third to Bob Charles in 1963, and second to Lema in ’64. It seemed only a matter of time before the Ohio phenom would make his British Open breakthrough.
Despite the naysayers, Thomson was anything but finished as the ’65 Open at Royal Birkdale drew near. The first inkling I had of his determination came one spring day when my friend Dave Thomas and I drove from our homes in Bowdon, Cheshire, to play a casual round at Birkdale. There we found Thomson quietly working on his game.
Dave was well acquainted with Peter’s skills: In the 1958 Open at Lytham, the long-hitting Welshman had lost a 36-hole playoff to Thomson by four shots, 139 to 143. Dave knew Thomson was as consummate artist and shotmaker, one who had played mostly long irons and fairway woods off the tee in winning his first Open, also at Birkdale, in 1954.
Peter had finessed the course in that victory; now 11 years later, it was obvious he was preparing a similar strategy. With two months remaining before the event, Birkdale was practically burnt out already, rendering it extremely firm and fast. The freaky bounces generated by its many humps and hollows were certain to play havoc with long hitters. The only way to avoid Birkdale’s tortuous rough and vicious willow scrub would be to leave the driver in the bag.
Peter told Dave and me that day that he planned to come back for as many practice rounds as his schedule would allow. I sped straight home after our round and dialed up my bookmaker—I knew I had seen the “Melbourne Tiger” of old.
The rest is history. Palmer grew increasingly frustrated with the conditions and shot 70–71–75–79 for a 295 total, 10 strokes behind Thomson, who stuck to his plan and mostly kept the driver out of play. Nicklaus was never really in contention, either, finishing one shot ahead of Palmer. Lema shot rounds of 68–72 to share the 36-hole lead with Bruce Devlin, but his final-day scores of 75 and 74 left him tied for fifth.
After Peter capped his two-stroke win over Brian Huggett and Christy O’Conner Sr., we adjourned to his tiny room at the Prince of Wales Hotel. Accompanied by his countryman Bruce Devlin and his course design partner, Mike Wolveridge, we enjoyed a bottle of good champagne, albeit sipped from cheap glasses off the washbasin. On our way to the elevator, Peter peered into the bar and saw, among others, Palmer and Nicklaus, perhaps commiserating over their failure to live up to the hype. He didn’t say a word, but he didn’t need to: A wide smile slowly crept across the face of the Melbourne Tiger, clearly reveling in the afterglow of his “comeback” triumph.