20 Jul 2023 | Professional golf |

1956: Thomson's historic hat-trick of Opens

by Martin Blake

Peter Thomson image
Peter Thomson cradles the claret jug in 1956 at Hoylake. Photo: Getty

Peter Thomson did a good line in self-deprecation, so much so that in his latter years, he came to look for humour on the subject of his Open Championship record.

“I played in 30 Open championships and I lost 25 of them,” he would say, which of course, raised a few laughs given his customary moniker – five-time Open Champion.

But there is no disguising or downplaying of that astonishing record in a week such as this. Particularly with the venue being Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, the seaside town that looks out over the Irish Sea and the host club for his third straight Open victory on the afternoon of 6 July, 1956.

Sixty-seven years ago Thomson became just the fourth man to achieve that feat, and the first since 1882. No one has managed it since, although he likes of Tiger Woods and Tom Watson have threatened to do it.

Thomson had won in 1954 at Royal Birkdale and in 1955 at St Andrews and was established as the modern king of links golf.

In 1956 he was 26 years of age and near his peak as a player. He had also won his only tournament on the PGA Tour in America, the Texas International Open, in June of that year in Dallas.

But it was links golf that had taken his fancy since he first came to the UK to play an Open in 1951. Thomson loved to play the ball along the ground, and he did not mind the fact that weather conditions could change dramatically.

At Hoylake in 1956 he was the tournament favourite and he opened with 70 to be tied-third, but this only told part of the tale. He’d been on track for a course record until closing with a pair of bogeys.

“The players out late in the day had it much more difficult than the early starters,” he penned for The Argus newspaper.

“This is what can be so cruel about playing in the British Open at Hoylake. I had an easy time comparatively yesterday, but I could easily strike the worst of the wind teeing off late today. I had another chance to make the course record by ending with two pars. But the wind proved too strong.”

However by the halfway mark he had posted another 70 and found the lead. A 72 in difficult conditions on the Friday morning put him at 1-under and three shots ahead, with the final round to be played the same afternoon. He even had time to cobble his newspaper column and send it back home, extraordinary in itself.

“Despite chances missed I was happy enough to increase my lead over the field to three strokes. Conditions were moderately rough, the wind being strong. Now, for some hard work this afternoon to bring home the bacon.”

The Australian would not be denied. He closed with a 74 in the afternoon to post 2-over and beat Belgium’s Flory Van Donck by three shots. His prize was 1000 pounds sterling.

In The Argus, he set himself a target for the following year: “Now I have achieved my ambition by winning my third successive British Open golf championship I've developed a new one… I want to make it four in a row.”

Of course, that never materialized. At St Andrews in 1957 Thomson was runner-up to the South African Bobby Locke, before resuming his winning ways in 1958, and again in 1965.

Only four men have won the Open in three consecutive years – Thomson, Bob Ferguson (1880-82), Jamie Anderson (1877-79) and Young Tom Morris (1868-70).

Morris won four consecutive Opens in three straight years, then won again in 1872, with no Open played in 1871 for reasons that are worth recording.

He’d earned the right to retain the challenge belt by winning three on the bounce, and in 1871, the R&A could not decide how to proceed in the absence of a trophy, and there was debate about whether the championship should remain at Prestwick, where it had been held since 1860, or rotate around other Scottish courses.

Ultimately, they skipped a year and there was no champion in 1871, but Morris won again in 1872, making him the only man to win four consecutive playings of the Open.

Peter Thomson’s Open record is rarely discussed in terms of the hat-trick between 1954-56 because it is only a chunk of a bigger set of amazing numbers.

Only one man has won more Opens –Harry Vardon with six.

Between 1952 and 1958 Thomson was either first or second in seven straight Opens. By the time he played for the Claret Jug the last time in 1984, he had logged five wins, three runners-up and a third, and an incredible 20 top-10 finishes in the game’s oldest and most prestigious event. It beggars belief.

He was also Australia’s first Champion Golfer of the Year when he won the 1954 Open at Birkdale. Since then, the club has been joined by Greg Norman, Ian Baker-Finch, Kel Nagle and last year, Cameron Smith.

At the venue of one of his greatest triumphs, it would be a nice piece of symmetry to see an Australian rise to the occasion in 2023.

Material sourced from: The Peter Thomson Five by Tony Walker, The Miegunyah Press Aussies at The Open by Tony Webeck and Steve Keipert, Golf Digest

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