Peter Thomson: One of the best sportspeople we’ve produced
PETER Thomson used to chuckle when the inevitable comparisons would be made with Greg Norman as to who deserved the mantle of Australia's greatest golfer.
Thomson, who died on Wednesday aged 88, would always defuse the debate by smiling before answering "Karrie Webb", a winner of seven major tournaments compared with Thomson's five and Norman's two.
Norman's fans point to his superior record in the US; 20 wins on the US PGA tour, compared with Thomson's sole victory at the 1956 Texas International Open.
Unlike Norman, Thomson chose not to base himself in the US, preferring the then vibrant Australasian tour in our summer and Europe during the winter.
But a pivotal moment came in his career, when at age 54 he attempted to break into the lucrative US Senior PGA tour.
He struggled early, leaving himself open to barbs such as the only reason he won five British Opens was because the best US golfers of the 1950s rarely played the tournament.
So he went home to Melbourne and practised, adapting his preferred run and carry style to one more suited to US courses, where it was soft, target golf.
Then, from September 1984 to October 1985, he won an amazing 11 times in a period of domination at senior level never seen before or since.
It gave him great satisfaction to silence his critics, and he would answer them in the same smooth-sounding voice that matched a swing some still regard as the most uncomplicated the game has seen.
Far from the eccentric teachings that rear their ugly heads in today's world of golf, or "paralysis by analysis" as Thomson referred to them, he just walked up and addressed the ball with a minimum of fuss before sending it low and surprisingly long for such an effortless action.
Mark Allen, who was in his early 20s when Thomson first took an interest in his career, has no doubt where the Thomson swing rates.
"His swing remains the best I've ever seen - it's hypnotic because you just want to keep looking at it," he said.
"Ernie Els, Steve Elkington, Justin Rose today; all great swings, but none are better than the man known as 'Thommo'.
"He was also the clearest thinking golfer, no, make that sportsperson, in our history.
"To him, golf always remained a simple sport - if Greg Norman thought like Peter Thomson, he might have won 25 majors and been regarded as the greatest ever.
"The clearest thinking sportsperson in our history."
Allen may or may not be correct, although there are similarities between Thomson the golfer and Sir Donald Bradman the cricketer.
The self-taught Thomson didn't require books or videos to hone his skills, just as Bradman hadn't as a youngster, hitting a golf ball with a cricket stump in Bowral.
But when both were well past their best, the trust they had in their techniques ensured they could match it with men decades younger.
Allen recalled a tournament in Victoria where he was struggling to reach the 16th
green during a practice round with a 3-iron.
He kept bashing irons into a "five or six-club wind", only for all but one to fall short, prompting the watchful Thomson to intervene.
"Mark, Mark, what are you doing? Give me that club. Now, just hit the ball without spin and it will fly through the air nicely," Allen recalled.
"And he took my 3-iron at age 60-something and hit it onto the green, without spin.
"He rolled the shoulders back and hit a 3-iron off the deck without any spin - it was unbelievable."
A decade or two earlier, Bradman, also in his mid-60s, found himself at lunch with fearsome pace demon Jeff Thomson during a rest day in an Adelaide Test.
Thomson could only bowl fast, even when not trying to, yet Bradman, without pads, played him with ease for 15 minutes in a neighbour's backyard net.
Thomson, like Allen, still shakes his head today.
So just where does Peter William Thomson, AO, CBE, rate in the order of great Australian sportsman?
Impossible to put him ahead of the incomparable Bradman, but certainly in the same sphere as runners Betty Cuthbert, Herb Elliott and Cathy Freeman, swimmers Dawn Fraser, Shane Gould and Ian Thorpe, tennis players Margaret Court and Rod Laver, or cyclist Cadel Evans and squash diva Heather McKay.
His five British Opens have only been matched by Tom Watson in the past 100 years, and for mine he is firmly in the best dozen sportspeople we have produced, with Bradman clearly the best and the next depending on your love of a particular sport.
But if you are the best in your sport, you belong in rare air - and Craig Parry believes Thomson is our greatest ever.
"He has to be the ultimate male player in Australia's history, given he won five majors, travelled a lot, and won over four or five decades," said Parry, who played a key role under Thomson when the Internationals won their only President's Cup over the US at Royal Melbourne in 1998.
"He was fantastic, absolutely fantastic.
"He handled a lot of egos in that team with aplomb and didn't speak unnecessarily.
"He didn't ramble on for the sake of it, but when he spoke, everyone listened because he had such respect.
"That he went back and beat the best over-50 men in the world on the US PGA Senior Tour tells you how great he was.
"He wiped them, and could have kept doing it but had made his point, and was happy to move back to Melbourne for the next stage of his life."
That involved a successful golf course design business for the next 30 years with Ross Perrett, who is recovering in a Melbourne rehabilitation centre after a recent stroke.
Parry said their courses reflected much of Thomson's playing style.
"Their courses are demanding on the tee shots, whether it be Moonah Links, Long Reef or a number of other courses," he said.
"They have undulations just like a links course and you could see from Peter's play, as in being a good driver and very accurate, how he designed a golf course."
For Perrett, Wednesday was the end of a partnership that changed his life.
"It is with great sadness that I say goodbye to my friend and business partner of over 30 years in Peter Thomson," he said.
"He was a humble champion of great integrity and intelligence who will be sadly missed but clearly never forgotten.
"He was a pioneer of golf design in Australia and paved the way for all of us who enjoy working in the field.
"I first worked with Peter and Michael (Wolveridge) on Hope Island and Twin Waters in the late '80s.
"We worked together on projects in Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Thailand, Japan, China, Scotland, Italy, Ireland and the Middle East.
"Peter had a wonderful ability to reduce complex issues and apply a healthy dose of common sense to achieve practical results.
"My thoughts are with Mary, who has been his rock through life, and Peter's wonderful family, of whom he was so proud."