CARLSBAD, Calif. — Not too many people with golf sticks in their hands can claim to have done something Jack Nicklaus never did. And wishes he had.
One who did is down here at the Tournament of Champions this week--and hardly anybody even knows who he is. He may be the biggest secret since the Japanese naval code. His name is not Hogan, Hagen, Jones, Snead, Nelson or Sarazen. But he's done something none of them ever did, either.
His name is frequently misspelled. Even when it isn't, it doesn't matter. It might as well be Smith. Nobody knows him anyway. Only his banker wants his autograph. He might as well play in a mask.
He may be the greatest anonymous player who ever lived. It's for sure he's as good a striker of the ball as any of the comparative celebrities around him.
Even the fact that he's a foreign player doesn't entirely explain his mystery status. Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros and now Bernhard Langer are rock stars by comparison. But they haven't done what he's done either.
Peter Thomson has won the British Open five times.
Now, this is not to be equated with the B.C. En Joie Open, the La Jet Classic or the Canon-Sammy Davis Jr. Hartford Open. It's not only the most venerable tournament in the world, it's the most prestigious. In most areas of the world where golf is played, it's known as the Open. To a European player, every place else is Bridgeport.
Someone once estimated that winning the U.S. Open is the equivalent of winning five or more regular tour events. If so, the British has to be worth at least as many.
Jack Nicklaus, greatly to his annoyance, has won three British Opens. He tried mightily to win more. He has won 19 majors. He has won 70 tournaments altogether. It is entirely probable that he would exchange any five of them for another British Open. It is even possible that he would exchange at least one of his other major victories for another British Open win.
It is not too exaggerated then to evaluate Thomson's British wins as worth 25 tour wins.
So, why isn't he a portrait in coast-to-coast clubrooms? Why isn't the big four Nicklaus, Palmer, Hogan and Thomson? Why does he need two references to cash a check? Why can't he leave home without his credit card? Why should a man who has won the granddaddy of all tournaments five times need the same introduction as someone who never made the field there? Why shouldn't he be the author of "Winning It the British Way"? Why shouldn't he be Peter the Great instead of Peter the Who?
There's an old saying in show business: "If you didn't do it on Broadway, you didn't do it." If you're going to make a great catch in a World Series, you'd better hope you do it in Yankee Stadium or Shea Stadium. Otherwise, you might as well drop it.
In the mid-1950s, after he had scored only the first three of his British Open victories, Peter Thomson got introduced to the fact that he was doing it off-Broadway, on the barn circuit. He wanted to talk his way into the then-fledgling Tournament of Champions, which was held at that time in Las Vegas and was the first to have the format where you had to have won a tournament to qualify.
The founder of the Tournament of Champions, Howard Capps, was unsympathetic. "If I let the British Open winner in, I'll have to let the winner of the Brazilian, Mexican, Hong Kong and Philippine opens in," he explained with what was, to him, logic.
That was Peter Thomson's exposure to the fact that he had to excel on the American tour to get anybody to look up when he entered a room.
Actually, Peter Thomson was also the first Australian--outside of Jim Ferrier, who became an American citizen--to win an American tournament. Playing only sporadically here, he won the Texas International tournament in 1956, defeating Cary Middlecoff and Gene Littler, no less, in a playoff. He was second in an L.A. Open. He was fourth in the U.S. Open, fourth in the Masters.
Meanwhile, he was winning nine New Zealand Opens, three Australian Opens, the German, Dutch, India, Spanish, Italian, Hong Kong and Philippine opens. But that, he was to find, was about like winning a $4 Nassau in Adelaide, or the 4-and-under flight at Dycker Beach.
Only two golfers in history have won as many or more British Opens. One is Harry Vardon, who is to golf what Ty Cobb was to baseball. Vardon won six British Opens but all of them before World I, when golf was as aristocratic a sport as art-collecting. The other multiple winner, who tied Thomson, is Tom Watson, who needs no introduction.
Peter Thomson is the only golfer who is on the Seniors Tour because he lost an election. His campaign for the Australian Parliament missed by 1,100 votes, out of 44,000 cast. The Aussie electorate was probably as unimpressed with the only Aussie ever to win the British Open as the original Tournament of Champions was.