Thomson fears for his beloved St Andrews

'I hope it is not soft and windless and that Tiger does not go round in four 64s. If he does some might say it is time we went somewhere else'

The 129th Open Championship is a pretty exciting prospect, but the event that has golfing romantics drooling with anticipation is this afternoon's Past Champions Challenge, which will throw together, for the first and last time, some truly legendary figures. The 22 participating legends include Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros. Even the 88-year-old Sam Snead, winner at St Andrews in 1946, is taking part. But none of those great golfers has an Open record to compare with that of Peter Thomson.

The 129th Open Championship is a pretty exciting prospect, but the event that has golfing romantics drooling with anticipation is this afternoon's Past Champions Challenge, which will throw together, for the first and last time, some truly legendary figures. The 22 participating legends include Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros. Even the 88-year-old Sam Snead, winner at St Andrews in 1946, is taking part. But none of those great golfers has an Open record to compare with that of Peter Thomson.

Not only did the wiry Australian lift the old claret jug five times, as Watson did, he also finished, in seven remarkable years from 1952, second, second, first, first, first, second, first. And for those who rudely suggested that these achievements were diminished by the absence of some of the world's top players, Thomson had an eloquent answer. In 1965, at Royal Birkdale, he outplayed Nicklaus, Player and Arnold Palmer and won the darned thing again.

We are chatting in the sumptuous clubhouse of the Duke's Course, just outside St Andrews. Thomson is a highly-regarded course architect these days, and considers the Duke's, which is owned by the Old Course Hotel, to be one of the jewels in his crown. But the course he most admires, nay reveres, is a couple of miles down the road, being prepared for its 26th Open Championship. Although not, he fervently hopes, over-prepared.

"I first played the Old Course in 1954, in the British matchplay [which he won] and I was awed. I loved it instantly. But the Old Course is on trial in this coming championship and I fear for it. Unfortunately, there is currently a demand for courses to be green and lush, which runs counter to what links golf should be about. I hope it is not soft and windless and that Tiger does not go round in four 64s. If he does then some people might say it is time we went somewhere else. Yet if the course is firm and bare, as it should be, and the wind blows, and the greens are given just a little hand-watering, then I would say you need more discipline here than on any other course, because you have to play approach shots away from the flag. [Henry] Cotton told me that in 1939 the place was as bare as a board. And in those conditions, you can't play stone-dead golf."

Thomson's back-to-nature plea will perhaps strike a chord with the Royal & Ancient Golf Club's championship committee. For some R&A bigwigs privately concede that they goofed last year, by manicuring Carnoustie to within an inch of its reputation. St Andrews will be much more open, making it all the more important, Thomson believes, that its natural defences are deployed.

"The more negative a course, the more likelihood there is of an upset," he adds. "That is the history of the US Open, which has a very odd list of winners. On a flat course a mile wide, as on a tennis court or a billiards table, the best player wins. The more things you complicate, the more chance that he won't. Carnoustie in its raw state is ferocious. There was no need to do what they did."

Thomson's stature as a course architect, as well as his record in the Open, lend him about as much authority as you could wish for on the subject of links golf. And St Andrews, he tells me, is always in his mind when he designs a new course. "All courses are to some degree copies of the Old Course," he says. "We have 18 holes because that's what it's like on the Old Course, and for the same reason, sand bunkers of all shapes and depths. On the Old Course the bunkers are the creations of Tom Morris, or sheep. Have you played Brora, north of Dornoch? It's wonderful, one of the most interesting and exciting courses I've ever played, and it's looked after by a man, two boys, and 200 sheep."

Thomson chuckles. At 70, this quietly-spoken, droll, sometimes acerbic but always engaging man has lost none of his enthusiasm for the game, and is particularly excited about a new project in Australia, provisionally called Moonah Links. "It's great to work in different landscapes like woodland," he says. "But I think the pure form of golf is played in the wind off bare turf. I get dismayed watching golf on television. Let me take your mind back to the Ryder Cup in Boston. The 17th is a drive-and-pitch hole and the green has two levels. The logical shot is to play it low, land it on the bottom level and run it up. But every player, on both sides, hit a sand wedge, landed on top and spun back down. I was laughing. I was saying 'doesn't one of them have a brain?'"

Which was not a criticism ever levelled at him. For golfing nous, combined with an unflappable temperament, there was nobody to beat Thomson. At St Andrews in 1955, nobody did. He arrived as the Open champion, having won the year before at Birkdale, and duly joined James Braid, Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Bobby Locke as the only men in the 20th Century to defend the claret jug successfully. By winning the following year too, at Hoylake, he reached a plateau all of his own. Only Young Tom Morris (1868, 1869, 1870) keeps him company in the record books.

He is well-acquainted with the snipe that he beat an inferior field, and brushes it off. "Okay, Hogan wasn't here in 1955, but Cary Middlecoff was, and he was the leading US money-winner. Byron Nelson was here. Ed Furgol, who was the US Open champion, was here. There was always a pretty good sprinkling of top Americans, and those who stayed away generally did so because they reckoned they couldn't win."

In 1957 the Open returned to St Andrews and Thomson finally relinquished his hold on the claret jug, finishing second. But controversy still stalks the victory of the South African maestro Bobby Locke. On the final green, Locke moved his ball marker away from the putting line of his playing partner Bruce Crampton, but then forgot to replace it in its original position before holing out. Over the years, Thomson has become associated with the ensuing brouhaha, he thinks unfairly.

"Locke won by a distance, so even with a two-stroke penalty he would still have won. I wasn't a witness to it. I didn't even know about it until the rumours started to fly 24 hours later. My countryman Norman von Nida made the most noise, and aged 85, he's still making it. Cotton made a big noise, too. That September we played the Matchplay Championship at Turnberry and Cotton had black-and-white photographs [of the incident]. But somebody told Locke that I was the one making a noise. He fell out with me. Until just before his death he wouldn't talk to me."

This was a shame, not least because Locke had been an inspiration to Thomson. "I used to play in the championship in a collar and tie. I aped Locke. He always wore a tie, and that was good enough for me. He got me started on white shoes, too."

Thomson picked up something, he says, from everyone he ever played with. "Sometimes I learnt what not to do. But I played quite a bit of golf with Hogan and that was a great education. He had a unique technique. The ball was always positioned against his left foot, which made it immensely complicated to get his timing right."

The swing characteristic that separates the legends from the mere greats, adds the five-times Open champion, is rhythm. Sam Snead, of course, had it in bucketloads. "Snead was in the Ballesteros class but about twice as good," he says. "And rhythm is the one thing Greg Norman has never been able to grasp. The disasters he has had have come about because he is not a rhythmic player. You'll recall his head-to-head here with Faldo [in 1990]. Faldo has great rhythm. There's that lovely little dancing start to his swing, and then it's marvellously smooth. Norman starts tight then jerks it away and gives it a violent hit. But they're both great players."

And what about Tiger, the man reportedly negotiating a $100 million (£66.6m) sponsorship deal with Nike (Thomson was once offered a £300 deal by Saxone)? Does Tiger have the game to eclipse his own record at the Open? There is a pause.

"Woods, too, is exceptional in the way he plays and I must say I'm not enamoured. He's not a hand player. He has a technique which I understand he's evolved himself of keeping everything tight and unarticulated, then hitting the ball with a violent twist of the torso in the belief that it's more secure that way. But I reckon that he's not a good wind player. You can't play well in wind unless you swing long and fully cock the wrist, like [John] Daly. I saw Daly play here in the Dunhill and knowing that there was a championship coming up, I said 'this guy will win by a mile, he's the best wind player I've ever seen'. Well, he won by a whisker, but he should have won by a mile.

"I've always been an admirer of long swingers. I couldn't do it. I have short arms and wide shoulders. Someone with long arms and narrow shoulders can go way beyond the horizontal."

But there have doubtless been long swingers who would have traded their flying right elbows for Thomson's swing, a sweet, unfussy affair which rather challenges his assertion that wind is best overcome by long swings, for his game was perfectly equipped for the demands of links golf. And those demands, adds Thomson, were magnified by the use of the 1.62 inch ball.

"It was much more difficult to play with, and that was why I opposed the change to the larger ball. It made no sense to make the game easier and sure enough, they are trying now to get winning scores back up to 72. That is damned difficult playing with the larger ball, which is easier to hit and doesn't sit tight, whereas the small ball, on a dry course, found little depressions every time. I think it is time something is done about the ball.

"The size is fixed now, but they should go back to that regular pattern of dimples which makes it more vulnerable in wind. Modern technology has resulted in a ball less affected by the wind and it has happened under the nose of the authorities. They haven't really been aware of it, and regrettably it has gone too far. I would specify a cover mixture too, so it is not so easy to spin the thing. These things are working against the best courses all the time."

It is not that Thomson is some diehard conservative, keen to stick a time-machine into reverse, just that he longs to protect the game's heritage. As he says: "I'm not one of those silly men who can't tolerate progress. But I observe things and I wonder sometimes. For instance, I watch referees walking round the course. The players don't need to know the rules these days because they have a walking rulebook with them, there not only to advise how to proceed but to watch for infringements like an umpire with a whistle. Joe Dye used to run the US Open like Wyatt Earp ran Dodge City, but there weren't these guys at every corner of the course."

Indeed, and while we are reminiscing, it is also worth noting that in the last round of the 1955 championship, Thomson was twice forced to play backwards out of bunkers on the par-five 14th, circumstances that the advent of the 60-degree wedge has all but obliterated. He took a seven, but then finished 3-4-4-4 to score 281, lopping four shots off the aggregate record established by Bobby Jones in 1927. The Old Course will not see Thomson's like again. Not until this afternoon, anyway.

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