Peter Thomson and his memories of the Old Course at St Andrews

Peter Thomson and his memories of the Old Course at St Andrews
Peter Thomson
Andrew Crockett
By Andrew Crockett

The Open Championship being played at St Andrews is about as nostalgic as we can get as golfers. Immediately it conjures up history, familiarity and anticipation. It was 60 years ago that Peter Thomson, won the second of his five Opens at St Andrews and he will be in the gallery watching the play of golfers 65 years his junior.

2015 also marks fifty years since Thomson’s final Open victory, the historic 1965 win at Royal Birkdale where he beat Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

“The simplest piece of golf course architecture is the first at the Old Course,” he says. “There is no bunker, the fairway is about 150 yards wide and it is a beautiful piece of turf. But when you play the Championship there, it is a frightening hole. The wind is blowing and the flag indicates that the cup is perhaps three metres from the burn in front of it. You are a professional and you, of course, attempt to get close to the flag and you get caught.”

Did you make many threes at the first hole at St Andrews?

No. I never tried. The year that Ian Baker Finch was doing well, he was leading going into the final round. It was his first Open. I had told him ‘ignore the flag on the first, hit your second to the back of the green’. He had a friend caddying for him and I don’t know how they figured out what club it was, but he had a go at the flag and he actually pitched right by the pin. It had rained quite a lot and the ball spun back into the burn and he made a six. That was the end of him, he shot 79.

You could have a straight paddock, if you cut it properly it could make a good golf hole. The ninth at St Andrews doesn’t have a greenside bunker, aside from one tucked away in the gorse bushes on the left edge. The hole is dead flat, the water doesn’t go anywhere, it just sits there until it soaks through. Greg Norman one year elected to drive to avoid the bunkers that divide the ninth and tenth holes. He wouldn’t be 80 yards from the flag, he gets out his wedge and launches it, but comes up about 12 feet short and it screws back a bit as well and he is now quite a few yards from the pin and a bit cranky because the hole is so simple you should get a three every time. Norman gets on the green gives the putt a good whack, misses and goes by about six feet and he missed that one coming back. After that beautiful drive he had this simple approach, yet contrived to take five.

Players would be wise to pay attention to the Road hole. When I won tournaments at St Andrews, I dodged that road like the plague. Quite often you are better off to not try and hit your second shot stone dead, but to play short of the green. You have to be able to swallow your pride and approach the green with caution.

Can you remember roughly how long a Championship round would take you in the late 1950s?

Oh yes. Three hours and twenty minutes, in a pair. We would be walking to our golf ball and sizing up what club we might need for the next shot, when we got to the ball we would pull the club and hit it. In 1952 at Lytham, Bobby Locke won the championship by one stroke, from me. Norman Von Nida went off his head yelling and screaming and saying that Locke should be disqualified, or at least given a two-stroke penalty, for playing slowly. They clocked him at three hours and twenty minutes.

What slowed it down so much?

Habits. Bad habits I think. In many cases it is also the difficulty of the course. Bunker play is time consuming, you have to climb in there and then hitting it and cleaning up after you are done with it. Generally speaking a difficult course is a slow course. You see them come up to par threes and there are three groups waiting to play the hole, that is common, but it is also demonstrating that the place is too difficult. There was a panel at Victoria Golf Club recently discussing the course and they asked me ‘do you think we have any weak holes?’ my reply to that was, ‘if you don’t have any weak holes, well you should have!’ They didn’t know what to say, but that is the point. Golf course architecture is following the tried and proven route, like at St Andrews, there are seven holes without a bunker near the green. The difficulties are the grass, cut close or not, a bit of heather and it functions beautifully.

When you think of the great sand bunkers of the world, which ones stick out to you?

I am inclined to say I like the bunkering on the Old Course because it is not too much, they are small gathering areas and ferocious to escape from, but it can be done. When I played golf I had such a dread of bunkers that I hit in the opposite direction and avoided them, that was the best I could do, not to get in them. In my day, there really was a penalty if you went in one. Bunkers are so homogenised today, but it is part of the game to have variation. It is too scientific now, yet it flourished for 300 years on bunkers that never got raked. Rakes in bunkers? The old boys would have been marvelling at such a thing. I have a photo in my scrapbook of Bobby Locke playing out of a bunker in the 1957 Open, which he won, and all around his feet are footprints. The bunker had not been raked. On Monday morning they raked them and they didn’t touch them again until the next Monday morning. We played the Championship through there.

Andrew Crockett is an Australian golf writer

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