The Open Championship returns to Royal Birkdale in the north-west of England this week and it holds a special place for Australian golfers.
Ian Baker-Finch raised the Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale in 1991 (we’ll get to that in another post) but we first wanted to look back at Peter Thomson two victories there; the first of his Open Championship victories in 1954 and the last of his five in 1965.
1954 Open Championship
Australian golf legend Thomson won the first of his five Open Championships at Royal Birkdale in 1954 beating South Africa’s Bobby Locke, England’s Syd Scott and Welshman Dai Rees by one stroke.
Going into the final round tied with Scott and Rees, Thomson had a difficult start to the back nine and when he found a fairway bunker with his second shot to the par-5 16th hole things looked grim.
The next shot was one that Thomson nominated as one his the greatest and most memorable as recounted in Tony Walker’s book; ‘The Peter Thomson Five: A golfing legend’s greatest triumphs’:
It’s a par-5 coming back in the direction of the clubhouse. My second shot was just one degree offline and ended in a pretty deep bunker about a cricket pitch from the flag, the green itself being a long thin target.
This bunker scared me somewhat because I wasn’t, I confess, a good bunker player. There was a huge face on the bunker, it was just a wall of sand and I was still about twenty metres from the flag. The distance was such that I was asked to make a clean contact with the ball: in other words, I couldn’t explode it out of the sand.
So, I had one foot higher than the other and twenty metres to go. Happily, with a full swing, I made contact with my sand wedge which sent the ball twenty metres and within a few feet of the flag… that felt marvellous. The crisis was over.
A par at the 17th and a bogey from the sand at the 18th ensured a one stroke victory with Thomson winning about about $1,500 in the process.
In an interview with Paul Mahoney at Golf.com Thomson said it was considered quite a bit of money at the time:
Believe it or not, in those days, that could buy you a pretty nice house. But with Padraig winning [over a million] last year, I guess I was just born at the wrong time.” Thomson said. “It was one reason I went on to win the Open five times the prizes were so small back then that the money was all spent by Christmas!
1965 Open Championship
Strangely after four Claret Jug victories, some people had questioned the strength of the fields he had beaten.
Any doubt was put to rest at Royal Birkdale in 1965 when Thomson won his fifth Open Championship by two strokes from Brian Huggett, Christy O’Connor Sr, seven years after his previous Open victory.
But it was the field that Thomson beat that silenced the doubters.
Thomson later called the 1965 victory his greatest as it featured a field of champions including two-time Open winner and seven-time major champion Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus (who had already won four majors in 1965), Gary Player, Kel Nagle and 1964 Open champion Tony Lema.
The 1965 Open was the first to be broadcast on television. Finally Thomson was a household name across the world.