Golf: Thomson recalls the claret years: Prize-giving day as Australia's five-times Open champion joins the veterans in PGA Seniors Championship

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The Independent Online
PETER THOMSON presented the prizes at a pro-am lunch here yesterday. 'I notice,' he said, 'that I'm between the main course and pudding. That would be an appropriate description of my golf.' At the age of 64 Thomson can afford to make self-effacing remarks after a career in the mainstream which earned him his just desserts.

Between 1954 and 1972 Thomson won 26 events in Europe, and that netted him a total of pounds 71,400. By today's standards he would get that sum for one victory. 'The money we did win was pretty valuable,' he said. 'When I won my first Open I received pounds 750 and you could buy a new Jag for that. What's a new Jag cost today?'

Thomson is playing in the Forte PGA Seniors Championship, which starts over the Old Course here today, for old times' sake. The five- times Open champion hardly plays at all but then he always had other interests, even when he was repeatedly taking possession of the old silver claret jug.

Born in Melbourne in 1929, Thomson's career was unorthodox in that he was not the son of a greenkeeper. He was the son of a signwriter and club cricketer - 'beautiful lettering' - and he lived near a nine-hole course called Royal Park. It was virtually empty during the war and the 13-year- old Thomson jumped over the fence. No tee times, no expense, just time well spent. 'I scrounged a set of hickory clubs and found golf balls between the hedgerows and the railway line. That was my treasure trove. I became hooked.'

Thomson won his first tournament, the New Zealand Open, in 1950 and the following year finished sixth in the Open. Thereafter he became part of Royal and Ancient folklore: second in 1952, second in 1953, first in 1954, first in 1955, first in 1956, second in 1957, first in 1958. He won the Open for a fifth time in 1965.

Thomson's hat-trick was only previously achieved by Young Tom Morris; since then, five Opens by Young Tom Watson. Before and since the record books will say that standards could hardly have been comparable. For example, four of Thomson's claret years came in an era before the Arnold Palmer-inspired charge of American professionals.

Thomson, whose main rival was the South African Bobby Locke, is not moved by such arguments. 'If it was easier you'd have to say that Locke wasn't much of a player. You can't say that. He was a giant.' Before the appearance of Greg Norman, Thomson was always described as the greatest Australian golfer. Has anybody overtaken him? 'Statistics will tell you,' he said. Thomson 5, Norman 2.

'When I started relatively few players could sustain life from prize-money alone. In this country it was not until Tony Jacklin that players became full-time professionals. Even Henry Cotton had a club job. I don't envy anybody in this day and age. We might have had the golden years. We certainly had far more fun. The modern player is so serious and grim about it.'

For Thomson it is not the memory of receiving the claret jug at one of the great links courses that will sustain him when he puts his feet up in front of the barbie. 'There are things in life far more memorable than winning golf tournaments,' he said. 'For instance, your children, your grandchildren.'

Thomson has always had outside interests: to augment his living in the late Forties he worked for the Melbourne Argus and still does articles for the Melbourne Age; in 1981 he stood in the Victorian State elctions and nearly won a seat in parliament; for five years he was chairman of Odyssey, an organisation to help drug addicts; he promoted the idea of a world golf tour long before Greg Norman made it fashionable.

Thomson, CBE, is still linked to St Andrews and the R & A, which made him an honorary member in 1982. He has either completed or is designing 20 golf courses, most in Indonesia, Thailand and Japan. His only blueprint in Britain will be unveiled next July and it is, of course, at the home of golf.