Quotes from Peter Thomson
June, 2016

Peter Thomson, age 87, is Australia’s most accomplished golfer as well as its finest writer on the sport. In 2005, he collaborated with author Steve Perkin to produce Lessons I Have Learned, a book chock full of wisdom on the state of the game of golf, how it’s played, and his thoughts on golf course architecture. The tome was recently reissued as A Life in Golf.  For this Feature Interview, we worked with publisher Geoff Slattery, selected block quotes of Mr. Thomson and reverse-engineered the questions. Naturally for GolfClubAtlas, the topics are architecture-centric. Acknowledgments and notations are made when Mr. Thomson is quoted from other sources.

The book that inspired this interview is a gem and features Mr. Thomson’s trademark penetrating observations and tight prose. Importantly, his writings have sometimes rankled. Yet, my absolute sense is that he always put the game first, and that he campaigned for the betterment of the game. A Life of Golf captures the observations of this deep thinking champion who crisscrossed the world of golf for seven decades. The book can be purchased digitally at iBooks  https://itun.es/au/FpKbQ.l and in printed form at https://books.slatterymedia.com/store/viewItem/a-life-in-golf.


1. How did your opinion of golf in America evolve over time, from your first experiences in the 1950s through the 1980s when you played the Seniors Tour?

When I was a young man starting off on my professional career, I played some events in the United States, and in those days we played on mostly public courses, which did nothing to assist any of us, Americans or Foreigners, in our quest to better our games.  I did play quite a lot in the States, but I found the British courses far more to my liking. In the eighties, I returned to America to play the Seniors  Tour, and it was quite a different story. When I finally retired, it was with regret in some ways, as I had really enjoyed the experience of travelling in the States, renewing old friendships,  as well as making a great many new ones. So, in some ways I regret my remarks of 1965, which were somewhat derogatory to the game in the States.

2. How do you make a course challenging?

Golf only becomes really difficult and challenging on hard courses. It is then that skill, not strength, counts for everything. If the ground is allowed to become firm by the natural processes of the weather, then the ball will bounce as it should, and as it was intended to do. Golf World magazine, 1965, in an interview with Ben Wright

3. You won five Open Championships. Does one stand out?

I have no hesitation in calling the 1965 Open by far the greatest of my successes. I have achieved a great ambition by winning with the American big three (Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tony Lema) in the field.

4. You have always possessed a great analytical mind for dissecting a course and figuring out how to get the ball in the hole in as few a shots as possible. What tactical advise do you offer?

Hitting for the centre of greens is uncommon these days. It is said to be throwing money away and no way to win. Doing the opposite is one certain way to miss cuts and throw tournaments away.

5. Anything else?

The main thing about golf is to get your first shot onto what used to be called fair ground, now called fairway. It does not matter a lot if you are 50 metres on or 50 metres back. That will be taken care of by the next shot. Getting the ball into play – or as I call it, serving the ball into court – is vital. I first came upon this when I played the US Open in the early 50s. In those days, the US PGA made fairways we thought were ridiculously small. They were only 20 metres wide and all the players complained. It was so very different to every other tournament we played, but it became widespread. In any championship worth its salt, the targets were pretty small.

6. What are your memories from Augusta National?

I was never held in awe by Augusta, the home of the US Masters. It was built on what I always thought was a very poor piece of land … just a gentle slope … what we in Australia would call a billy-goat track. Before it became illustrious, it wasn’t universally liked by everybody who went there, but because you could only play it by invitation from Bobby Jones or those around him, it was something special.

7. How did you fare there?

I always struggled with the length of Augusta. The likes of Sam Snead and Cary Middlecoff could hit a long way past me and my putting strength wasn’t good enough to make up for my lack of length. But I enjoyed what I did there and I have precious memories of it.

8. Speaking of hilly, what do you think of golf carts?

Anyone who can walk can play golf. It is a walking game. To be a good golfer you must be a good walker. You must condition your legs. Sunday Times, London, July, 1960

9. What do you make of today’s uber fast green speeds?

Observing professional golf, I have noticed that slow greens are more difficult to putt on. How often do you hear players complain about slow greens, saying they couldn’t get the play up to the hole. And if slow greens are a problem to deal with, then that’s what we should have when there is a championship. The Royal & Ancient has a marvellous film that runs for about 90 minutes showing Open winners from the early 20th century – Harry Vardon, James Braid, James Taylor and after them, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen, and Reg Whitcombe and Henry Cotton – and its most notable that the greens were like lawns. To move the ball six or seven metres, you really had to give it a bit of a whack. One-putts were unheard of and getting it to the hole was an accomplishment. Is that such a bad thing? In the future, we may get around to having championships where the greens have different speeds.

10. If you were golf czar, what would you do?

Golf ball technology must change … fewer and smaller dimples, so that the ball doesn’t go so far. It is a sad fact that the modern ball has made courses shorter than they used to be. Even The Old Course at St. Andrews has had to be stretched after more than 100 years, although it hasn’t made any difference – they still shoot in the low 60s. And Royal Melbourne’s composite course has had a 60 played on it by Ernie Els. Technology means that now, in my mid 70s, I can drive almost as far in my youth, although my iron play is different as I don’t have the strength I once had. With different balls, club players won’t notice any change for a while, but technology might take 50 metres off Tiger Woods’ drive, and 5 off mine.

11. How would you accomplish that?

What the game of golf could do with now is a ball a few pennyweights lighter. One that would not pierce the wind so easily. One that would make par fives like par fives, as they used to be. A ball that would make the Old Course a tiger no matter what wind blew and no matter how soft it was. The Age, Melbourne, February 16, 1995

12. What else would you like to see change?

The rake … a simple object, but so many clubs get it wrong. Garden rakes don’t do the job – they just smooth the sand. The professional comes along and he’s laughing at it because he can get as near from that lie as he can from a long putt. You have to have a rakes with teeth, which loosen the sand right up to the sides, where the ball lodges in the grooves. Then you get some variable lies and stances – enough to make the professionals dread those bunkers.

13. Speaking of bunkers …

In Melbourne, there’s a picture of what a golf hole should look like – massive, gaping bunkers starring at you. That’s not the case in Britain. They are smaller, submerged, sometimes below vision height – so the wind won’t blow the sand away. In Melbourne, we have lost that. It is easier to open up a great expanse of sand, and although we think that is normal, it’s not. It is very peculiar and it has become admired. I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this doesn’t look good to me. In Melbourne, if a bunker is small and half submerged and not quite where they want a bunker or expect to find a bunker, then it’s wrong. In Britain, they are hidden away, waiting to trap you. The hidden danger is more dreaded than the obvious one.

14. What mistake is currently being made in golf course design?

Hardly anyone is about making courses more friendly, by giving relief to the less gifted in the form of more mown grass and fewer cavernous craters of sand. Or of clearing unnecessary trees within the course boundaries to let in the light and air. If there is an art to golf course design, it is the achievement of making an 18-hole course a source of pleasure to all manner of golfers, from the best among us to the most inept. A course that is so difficult that the highest handicaps can’t finish is a poor course.

15. Who or what has shaped your views on course design?

I can’t say there has been a single influence on my philosophies on golf course design. The character of courses is formed by the territory on which they sit. What designers do is arrange the features, and there is a certain commonality about the people who put courses together. I don’t think anybody goes way off the track and survives. The best work in history has been done by Harry Colt in Britain and Donald Ross in America. I am also a great admirer of James Braid, who designed 200 courses, mostly in Scotland, Yorkshire, and the British Midlands. There are dozens of Braid courses still intact.

16. Talk to us more about Braid.

James Braid was somebody I always looked up to and admired. He won five British Opens early last century and then became a course designer, and I always liked his courses, so I developed an affinity. For the past 10 years or so, I’ve been president of the James Braid Society, which is a small group of people who come together to extol his virtues and keep his name where it ought to be – among the of the game, not only for playing but for creating courses on which the public play.

17. Please describe the perfect par four.

I admire simplicity and subtlety in par fours. Believe it or not, I have always thought the first hole on the Old Course is the best design there is. It’s so simple. There is only one feature, and that’s the burn. It is close to the green and very difficult to judge the distance, especially when the wind is blowing. It has a fairway as wide as the MCG* and an enormous green, but it causes tremendous havoc. I have tried to create that subtlety in things I have designed. (*The Melbourne Cricket Ground, Melbourne’s famous sporting arena, 160 metres in length, and 140 metres wide)

18. The Old Course is very special to you, as anyone knows who has read your writing over the past six decades. You won the Open there in 1955; talk to us about the Old Course.

Generally speaking though, one’s opinion of the Old Course depends very largely on how you have dealt with it, or to put it another way, how the course has dealt with you. My own experience has taught me the utmost respect for it as a championship test. No other course on the British Open rota quite measures up to it. It provides a difficulty second to none, combined with variation of wind from all directions. Temperature comes in all degrees, even during an Open week in the middle of high-summer July. The course, almost entirely nature made, has a subtlety no man can ever completely fathom. There is a razor edge between success and failure at every turn. It has two par threes, which makes the breaking of 70 a meritorious achievement. More than any other course I know on earth, the Old Course demands discipline and judgement – and both in abundance. To describe the St. Andrews course to those that have not yet felt its magic under foot, it can be summoned up as an adventure in risk-taking, and, on first tackle, an odyssey through a golfing minefield. Golf Digest July 1984

19. When is she at her best?

History tells us that the Old Course is at its fiercesome best when it is parched dry, when the turf is scorched brown and dusty, and drives run 50 metres and more after hitting the ground. Then it is only a player’s skill and prudence that keep him out of trouble in the form of the deep, straight-walled bunkers. Approach work, too, is a matter of pitch and long run over hollow and ridge, a circumstance that modern professionals hate. Greens, too, in dry times can assume a glassy, cricket pitch-like appearance that makes putting a defensive exercise.

20. What is a sign that a course might not be ready to test the best?

When 100 per cent of a championship field is generous in its praise of the course, it should be concluded that something is wrong. At the Australian Open on Wednesday, Metropolitan received the seal of approval from the 150 who took practice rounds, which might have set off alarm bells. Championship courses are seldom universally popular. The Age Melbourne 26 November 1993

21. You once linked integrity to golf courses – please expound.

As for golf courses of integrity, I know this is an unusual word, but to me, it means strength of features, proper dimensions, which give an obvious look of a golf course, not too many trees, but enough for the enhancement of bird life and habitat without interfering too much with the golf. Add to this a high standard of maintenance, which may well be the most important thing of all.

The End