I find it impossible to believe that my biography of Australian golfing legend Peter Thomson – The Complete Golfer – was published almost 30 years ago.
Where have the decades gone? Understandably, the book went out of print a long, long time ago.
Over the years I’ve had numerous approaches from people wanting to source a copy, sadly to no avail. Now they don’t have to. It may be a little late for some, but here it is for free on my website.
Of course I could have added a final chapter that would have centred on Peter’s vital role as Captain of the International team in the President’s Cup and his business expansion into China and his return to the Open Championship at St Andrews as a legend of the game, but in the end I decided to leave the book as it was. Later publications on Peter, including two from Steve Perkin – the excellent ‘A Life In Golf’ and ‘Lessons I Have Learned – Inspirations and Insights from Australia’s Greatest Golfer’, and Tony Walker’s outstanding ‘The Peter Thomson Five – A golfing legend’s greatest triumphs’, have superbly added to the story in this digital age.
It is coming up to the second anniversary of Peter’s death from Parkinson’s disease at the age of 88. By way of a personal tribute to the man who allowed me into his life, I am broadening what is essentially the acknowledgements in my book.
It explains more about how my biography came to be and my relationship with Peter and his wife, Mary.
In all honesty, this book was the hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally. It took up far more time and effort than I anticipated and I found it extremely difficult at times to justify spending hours alone in a room at a keyboard or on the phone, when my family yearned for a husband and father. I had to balance that by telling myself I also had to do justice to the story. The research and interviews were paramount and there could be no compromise.
The marketing and publicity run of any book revolves around its launch. My publisher wanted my thoughts. The 1991 Australian Open Championship was scheduled for Royal Melbourne. I thought it would be a perfect place to launch my book in a marquee at RM on the Wednesday morning before the tournament began. I put a circle around November 27th. The biography, with my name on the cover, had to be ready to hand out on that day.
But why golf and why Peter Thomson?
We need to go back a little.
I had no connection to the sport of golf until my family moved to the suburb of Mt Eliza before I was due to start Year 11. It’s true, I had won the junior prize on the sand-scrapes at the 9-hole Muckatah course for the Katamatite Football Club’s annual golf day using four borrowed clubs, but that’s only because my younger brother and I were the only juniors who bothered to turn up and I outscored him! At the time, my parents owned the Katamatite pub, north of Shepparton. They never worked harder in their lives. This was the catalyst for the move to Mt Eliza.
Among a group of new students starting Year 11 with me was a lad from Tasmania whose father had landed the job of head professional at the Long Island Country Club in Frankston. Largely because we were ‘newbies’ I struck up a friendship with the son of a pro, who was a pretty handy golfer himself and clearly in love with the game. It wasn’t too long, through my friend’s persistence, before I found myself on the practice fairway at Long Island hitting balls with borrowed clubs. I immediately realised that I was far from naturally gifted. In my first session with a 7-iron, I didn’t have a clue how to get the ball into the air. Perhaps taking pity on me, my friend’s father then wandered over and while this was not a formal lesson, he helped with my set up, gave me a couple of tips and went back to the pro shop. The moment I made proper contact and the ball sailed majestically into the air, has stayed with me all my life. That shot of electricity it sends through the entire body is unforgettable. And then you look up. I discovered there is nothing better in the sport of golf than hitting the shot the way you intended. Of course I would concede that holing a long putt is a wonderful feeling, but in my humble opinion there is nothing better than watching the ball in flight.
Golf and I fell head over heels. I bought my first set of clubs and visits to local public courses became a weekly event. I became very adept at squeezing in a quick nine holes somewhere.
After finishing Year 12 in 1977, I was lucky enough to obtain a cadetship in the newsroom at GTV-9 in Richmond and a part-time role involved working in the sports department.
Now I had enough money to buy my first pair of proper golf shoes, with spikes. At least I was beginning to look like the real deal!
As a young reporter I was sent along to cover my first golf tournament. It was the Wednesday before the start of the 1978 Garden State Victorian PGA Championship at Woodlands Golf Club in Mordialloc. As a cadet, I was tagging along with a senior reporter and my role was primarily to watch and learn.
But this was a sliding doors moment for me. What unfolded that day was life changing.
I had spent most of my years living adjacent to Melbourne’s famous sand-belt, yet my sporting horizon had been limited to Australian rules football in winter and cricket in summer.
That day at Woodlands, the people involved in golf couldn’t have been more helpful and the players themselves, like the man we interviewed that day, local hope Ian Stanley, were incredibly approachable. There was a huge marquee where the working media, having wandered the fairways inside the ropes, could avail themselves of free food and drink. It was like a whole new world had opened up before my eyes.
All sports, major and minor, competed vigorously for media attention and Australian golf was no different. It was about to enter a golden era, riding largely on the back of a blonde bombshell from Queensland called Greg Norman. I took a huge interest in him, but there was a player from overseas I took a shining to even more.
And when he came to Royal Melbourne to play in the Australian PGA in 1978, I found myself going to the golf even when I wasn’t rostered on for work. I was drawn alone to the public car park and then to the course by the magnetism and aura of Severiano Ballesteros. You couldn’t take your eyes off the Spaniard. His shot making ability would take your breath away. He returned to RM in 1980 and I even got to interview him in front of the international terminal at Melbourne Airport when he arrived that week. He came back the following year and won the title.
Seve helped enhance my love affair with the game and as I desperately pursued ways of improving my own game, I sourced as many books as I could to read about the sport’s rich history in our country and the big names who created that legacy.
And I discovered there was a glaring omission.
Try as I might, I just couldn’t find a decent book about the biggest name of all, the man from Melbourne who won the British Open no less than five times, Peter William Thomson.
In my research I found out that numerous scribes had approached him about embarking on some form of biography, but that he had declined every request, citing the view that he may eventually want to write it himself.
One day in 1985, I interviewed Peter at his home in Toorak after he’d returned from an astonishingly successful debut season on the U.S Senior Tour for the over-50’s. He won nine tournaments.
Sitting in his lounge room that day, after meeting Peter’s wife Mary, I noticed a golf trophy in the shape of a cup on the shelf of a huge bookcase. It was being used as a vase for a bunch of flowers and the engraved side was facing the wall. “There’s more to this bloke than meets the eye,” I thought.
After our meeting it took me some months to pluck up the courage to put pen to paper and send Peter a letter. Still under the spell of the game and bursting with enthusiasm, and despite having not one credit in the bank when it came to long-form journalism, I had the audacity to approach him about writing his story.
Thanks, but no thanks.
I’d already started my research and had even separated my work into rough chapters. I could see the book and I wasn’t giving up. But there was no point continuing if I didn’t at least have his blessing.
More months passed. I sent another letter. Another polite decline.
Letters clearly weren’t working, so I bit the bullet and rang the same number I had called to arrange that 1985 interview. Mary, by this stage, was well aware that I’d been talking to many of their family friends. She wasn’t entirely impressed and wanted me to stop bothering them. I again gave her the story about filling that empty space in the bookshelf. In the end, she suggested that I call back in September when she and Peter had returned from their trip to Europe.
“Well, there’s a glimmer of hope,” I thought.
I eventually met Peter again in September, armed with much of what I’d already written and as we sat in his study, he gave it to me straight.
“I guess I can’t stop you from doing what you want to do,” he said. “I’ll happily answer any questions you have, but I want to make it clear it won’t be an authorised biography. It’s your project. I don’t want a cent from it.”
He then gave me one non-negotiable. I was not to bother his elderly mother, who was then in declining health.
I had the green light and I had thousands of questions.
During the next 18 months I pestered Peter over landline phones at his homes in Toorak and Port Douglas and in person at numerous golf tournaments. When curious journalists asked him what was going on, he told them it was my project, not his. To my eternal gratitude, he patiently answered every question I had and there were many. I was willing to fire them at him all day and night, but he would always wrap it up on his terms by saying, “That’ll probably do for now.”
Arrangement times for interviews were very loose. When I asked when I could contact him next, he would say, “I’ll be back in Melbourne on Thursday. Call me late morning.” He had no reason to show me this kindness. In the end, I think he was just willing to help an enthusiastic young man get on.
He did the same with a young man called Adam Scott when he arrived at St Andrews in 2000 to play in the Open Championship, his first major tournament. Peter walked an entire practice round with Adam, guiding him around the course, just as he had done with Ian Baker-Finch in 1984. If you wanted help, all you had to do was ask. They may have been from a different generation, but other major winners from Australia like Geoff Ogilvy and Jason Day, also had the utmost respect and praise for their countryman.
My reading, research and interviews, took me to some remarkable places.
I had an enormous thrill one night when I took a huge gamble and rang directory assistance in Virginia, USA, asking to be put through to a Mr Sam Snead. This was a tremendous long-shot, but I dearly wanted to speak to the golfing legend who came to Melbourne twice, to play in the 1959 World Cup at Royal Melbourne (the first time the composite course was used) and in an exhibition match against Thomson at Yarra Yarra Golf Club in 1973.
The next thing I heard on the line was an American woman’s voice saying, “putting you through Sir.” There was still no guarantee it was the right Mr. S. Snead. It turned out it was!
“From Australia? Whatcha say? You writin’ a book about Peter?” he said.
“Yes, that’s right. I am Mr Snead.”
“You know what time it is here?”
“It’s before six! You woke me up! .. Hold on now, I gotta take a pee!”
I even heard the toilet flush in the background and Sam returned to the phone. I apologised for the wake-up call, but I needn’t have. Sam was up for a chat. He spoke with great affection about his mate from Down Under for almost an hour and I couldn’t believe my luck. It was meant to be.
When I told Peter about this story a big smile broke over his face and it seemed to me to be something of a milestone in our relationship. The longer my project went on, the more helpful and friendly Peter became. Mary even brought out her private scrapbook and said I could copy anything from it. My wife and I were invited to Peter’s birthday party at the South Yarra tennis club.
When it came time to launch my book, I was lucky again. Peter said he would be more than happy to be there and to make a speech. The icing on the cake was to have Ian Baker-Finch officially launch the book, fresh from his win in the British Open that year, at Royal Birkdale, the scene of Peter’s first triumph in the Open Championship. Again, it was meant to be. Peter’s influence on Finchy’s golfing career was profound and it certainly helped to boost media numbers at the launch. I was very pleased to see Mary there too.
My book, published by Lothian Press didn’t exactly top the best sellers list, but that was never my priority. I was chuffed that I sold a few thousand copies in Australia and a couple of thousand more in Britain. To me, ‘my project’ was first and foremost about filling that gap on the bookshelf.
I always kept in touch with Peter and Mary and with the help of material provided by Ross Perrett, I was invited to prepare a special DVD that was shown at Peter’s 80th birthday party (while I was presenting the news!). Mary sent me a note saying Peter loved it. I was approached by the Riversdale Golf Club to interview Peter on video about his strong connection to the club for their archives. Peter and Mary were about to head off to South Korea as special guests at the 2015 Presidents Cup. Peter was battling a very heavy cold, but bravely soldiered on.
I do believe that I was able to penetrate that shell that he had instinctively developed over years of being in the public spotlight. I discovered that he was a very humble man, who often couldn’t believe there was so much fuss about a bloke hitting a little white ball along a strip of grass. He knew it was a privileged existence and he wanted his talent to take him as far as it could. His professional career revolved around the Open Championship. That was, as he told me, his “life’s ambition.” If you remain skeptical, just have a look at his record. You won’t find bunches of flowers anywhere near the auld claret jug.
Later in life, Peter became openly more proud of his achievements and a little more reflective. “If I had won all of my Opens in the 1960’s,” he said, “I think my name would have been much bigger. If I had won five times on television, it would have been different. That’s what happened to Tom Watson and he became a household name.”
Peter added that he was, “in no way envious” of such fame. “I didn’t want to be a public star,” he said. “I had a very joyful time playing a game that I loved, for the sheer pleasure of it. I don’t think I did a real day’s work in the whole of my life.”
It’s also true that Peter never found golf physically taxing. Reading, listening to music, writing for newspapers and magazines, and painting. They were his pursuits. He told me that he “thrilled to the symphonies of Gustav Mahler.” Golf course architecture and design, shaping greens and bunkers on computers and out on location, all over the world, was a natural fit once his professional playing days were over.
Above all, I found Peter Thomson to be a fiercely proud Melbourne-born Victorian. Of course he travelled to all ends of the earth and he did so many, many times, but he always came back. This was his home. His business has always been here and this is where he paid his taxes. He was the boy from West Brunswick who became a world champion, but he was so much more than that.
My wife and I were overseas when Peter passed away on June 20, 2018. I sent our deepest sympathies to Mary, who had earlier, before the Riversdale interview, confided in me that Peter had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Mary replied to my message that they had a wonderful life prior to Parkinson’s and that she was lucky to be able to keep him home, where he died surrounded with love and all the family.
Peter and Mary let me into their life and helped to change mine in the process. I will be forever indebted to them both.