2015 not only marked 50 years since Peter Thomson beat the likes of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus to win his fifth Open title (at Royal Birkdale) – but also 50 years in the golf course design business.
With a lifetime in golf, Peter Thomson – recently turned 86 – is truly a pioneer and one of the game’s true renaissance men. A self-taught golfer, as a boy Peter would find golf balls in a tramway cutting that bordered the Royal Park public golf course on the open parklands just north of Melbourne’s CBD. He would then sneak on the course outside school hours whenever he could. From these humble beginnings began a love of golf and the journey of a man whose name would become synonymous with The Open. Peter also snared the Opens of numerous European and Asian countries, plus three Australian Opens, plus he held a remarkable nine-times grip on the New Zealand Open. He would set an all-time winning record on the US Seniors Tour – and go down as the first golfer to win a professional tournament with Callaway golf clubs. With his intimate knowledge of Royal Melbourne GC’s Composite Course, and a brilliant tactical mind, Peter would steer the International Team to its first and only ever win in The Presidents Cup in 1998. – Harley Kruse
Adding to his on-course achievements Peter, along with Commander John Harris and Michael Wolveridge, set up what would be Australia’s first ever truly international golf course design fi rm. On the back of Peter’s golfing success and his pioneering of the Asian Tour with his dearest golfing mate Kel Nagle, his firm would spearhead the development of golf courses and the game in many Asian countries. His firm and its body of work has also been the genesis of many careers in golf course architecture, for which many are extremely grateful.
Peter is also the first and sole Patron of the Society of Australian Golf Course Architects. Stepping down this year, we are proud to have had him as our Patron for the past 23 years. His golf course design firm exists today as Thomson Perrett where Peter is still involved but not as much as he used to be. That being said, as a Thomson without the letter ‘p’, Peter is what the Scots fondly refer to as a “tinker Thomson” – always on the move. As I ventured to Thomson Perrett’s office in South Melbourne to interview Peter about golf course architecture, here was the man of great wisdom still so profoundly efficient and precise of word. True to the Thomson form, having only just been to this year’s Open at St Andrews, he was looking forward to going to the 2015 Presidents Cup in Seoul a few weeks later.
Much has been written about Peter the golfer. This golf course architecture interview, conducted in his Melbourne office, is about Peter’s thoughts and reflections on golf course design… from the man whose name is on course designs that span the globe
GA: Not many successful golfers can claim to have been in the golf course design business for as long as 50 years. What inspired you to get into golf course design?
Well I think it (course design) is deep in just about all of us who have played golf at the highest level. So it’s almost like a natural progression into course design. And whilst not all golf course designers are ex-golf professionals, it certainly helps to have this intimate knowledge and understanding of the game and the courses.
GA: Did your design involvement all start on the back of your fifth Open win in 1965? Or had you been called upon earlier to advise on matters of golf course design?
The company formed was South Pacific Golf and that soon became Harris, Thomson and Wolveridge. The first commission was in New Zealand. As a junior player at Royal Park, where I grew up and learned to play golf, I used to draw sketches of what I hoped to be a better golf course. It was one of my hopes that my plan for the course would be a new one. So design was at the forefront of my thinking
GA: What/where was your first 18-hole commission?
Well at the beginning of Harris, Thomson and Wolveridge, Harris himself came to New Zealand and was invited to make a championship course at Wairakei in the middle of the North Island, on volcanic country which was rather a nice piece of land with established trees (now a nature reserve). That was out first commission. Harris brought a shaper to New Zealand, and Mike Wolveridge did the supervision, and this was a nice combination as it turned out. We had a chance to do some upgrading in the early ’90s and to this day we are very proud that Wairakei is still so highly regarded.
GA: Of the courses you have designed which are you most proud of?
We have been lucky in that we’ve been selected as the golf course architects and planners for golf courses that have been in quality areas (sites and locations)… courses such as Moonah Links and the National Golf Club on the Mornington Peninsula. Designing on such dunes land is a luxury for us and for any golf course designers. We were thrilled to be involved and I think they are our best work which comes when you have such a natural piece of land.
GA: You have been able to observe the Old Course for a good 60 years or more. You even had a house in the ‘old toun’ where you would frequent for many years during the Scottish summer allowing you even more time at the home of golf. What does the Old Course mean to you? And how do you feel about the changes over time and perhaps the more recent changes made to “open-proof” the venue?
The Old Course is the essence of golf. It has been changing gently for 500 hundred years, and will continue to do so… [although] unless the powers that be can get on top of the technology there could be a destructive mood. The poor old lady, the Old Course – and indeed many other great layouts – could be victims. That is my fear.
GA: As a player it was the British links where success was to be had. What is it about links golf and the architecture of these courses that you enjoy so much?
I may be accused of misleading opinion on a singular love of links courses. I’ve enjoyed golf everywhere, including the links part of it, but I don’t think any links course can be seen as better than say Sunningdale, an inland course of heather and pine.
That should be seen as a truth: that an inland course can indeed qualify as the best. Not sure why people are so mad about links golf.
It is not necessarily always good. Whilst I am more known for my wins on links courses, in fact I had a lot of success on the inland heathland courses as well.
Well I think it (course design) is deep in just about all of us who have played golf at the highest level. So it’s almost like a natural progression into course design.
GA: It is said you weren’t that keen on American courses. Did you enjoy playing in America?
I had enjoyed every minute there, but then one day I thought I had had enough of this, playing on poor public courses. There were some horrors. These courses are not used any more on the PGA Tour as they now use the better courses of the country clubs. In those times, for example in San Antonio for the Texas Open, we used to tee off mats!
GA: So there is some truth in that the courses then in the ’50s and ’60s on the US Tour weren’t so good in comparison with those you competed on in Britain and Australia?
The lure of playing in Britain was very strong. Too strong. So during that period after the US golf, I went to Britain, and also won the Dutch, Italian, Spanish and German Opens. That gave me a real kick. And all on inland courses.
GA: Did you get to play some of the great courses in the US? Pine Valley, Cypress Point, Shinnecock for example?
Well yes privately – but not in tournaments. Both Pine Valley and Cypress. I didn’t get to play Shinnecock but played many courses on Long Island.
GA: Which are the links courses, links holes, even links features that have inspired you the most in terms of design?
Well it all comes from Scotland and the top Scottish courses head the quality list.
GA: Aside from your love of the Old Course – “the original blueprint” as you have often referred to it – what are your favourite three links courses that you have played?
Royal Lytham & St Annes and Royal Birkdale. Brora, whilst not a tournament course, is a very worthy and inspiring course. There is a link at Brora with the origins of the game. It’s low maintenance, lots of natural holes, and two lovely burns racing through the course.
GA: Expanding on that I understand Brora has another special link for you in another five-times Open Champion, James Braid. What is that link?
Well I’m honoured to be President of the James Braid Society and Brora is the place, the inner sanctum for this Society. I have immense respect for Braid both designer and player.
GA: Did you ever get to meet James Braid (1870-1950)?
My first visit to Britain and Scotland was 1951 so I missed Braid by a narrow margin,
GA: What about Harry Colt (passed away 1951) – was there any chance to meet him?
GA: These men Braid and Colt were prolific in the game. Of the architects you admire the most, are these two the ones?
Well yes in many ways. I love the Surrey courses made of heather and pine. That’s the category. Sunningdale and Wentworth being examples of the famous ones due to their tournaments. And Colt being Sunningdale. On the subject of Colt’s courses I would seek out and enjoy every one I played. Recently St Georges Hill – the most magnificent course inland and in my mind one of the best inland courses in the world. Magnificent… in a pine forest, the heather… and its architecture
GA: You would go on to win the Canada Cup with Kel Nagle for which a combination of holes in the main paddock were used for the very first time as what is famously known as the Composite Course. Did you have anything to do with selecting this combination of holes?
No; as a player I only gave it my approval. It was the idea of club Secretary Bill Richardson at the time and some of the committee, as the police didn’t want golfers and the expected huge number of spectators crossing the roads.
GA: Is this the superior tournament venue in Australia?
History will show it so.
GA: In 50 years there have been many projects far and wide around the world. What are some of the most spectacular raw sites that you have been presented with?
Well nothing matches the Cups land (dunes country on the Mornington Peninsula) where there is room for another 20 courses.
GA: What was your impression of seeing the sand dune far land at Moonah links for the first time?
I could see ‘golf’ written all over it. Golf holes waiting to be revealed. It excited me so much to be given the task to select and create golf holes. The holes were there waiting to be discovered, unfurled when the day came. We had no constraints on how much land we could use so we could use some very open parts of the site which were so naturally suited to long runs of par-5 holes, for example. Holes 2, and 4 were natural par-5s. There was no attempt to constrain the land for which I wished to create the best possible 18 holes. This was a great benefit.
GA: Would it be fair to say that the Leviathan Course at Moonah Links on Melbourne’s playground of the Mornington Peninsula is a course that has had the greatest amount of your design passion and input?
Moonah Links is my magnus opus. Well it fell to me amongst the partnership of Thomson Wolveridge and Perrett for me to set the tone of the course. All the pent-up design ideas I have had about golf holes (over my lifetime) and ideas of general architecture all fitted in to Moonah Links’ Open Course. We were really bent on creating golf which was naturally there, the best golf holes were already there in nature. It is not difficult to choose holes that give special attention and are worthy of praise. We don’t wish to overstate our case, but it is the finishing holes, the last six holes at Moonah, that I think are unique in the world. We specially designed the 18th hole in a way that would create a lot of drama. The leader, for instance, coming to his last hole… his last green… could find if he didn’t play the hole the right way that he could very well come to grief and see the championship slip from his hands. A strong and long 630-plus-yards par-5 hole.
GA: Was the brief at Moonah Links to design a future Australian Open venue?
That was the clients wish and instruction. To plan and build a course that was going to be set as the course at which the Australian Open would be played every year. It was after the Canadian system/style at the Glen Abbey course near Toronto. That idea whetted the appetite of the Australian Golf Union (Golf Australia) at the time so altogether it was a great thrill for us to see it in tournament action.
GA: When building such a course for Melbourne’s astute golfing public, who are spoilt for choice with quality courses along with two new courses at the National next door, did this bring an extra level of responsibility to deliver something special?
It had a strange, short life this responsibility. Once the course was seen to be so different and so powerful that it was then clearly ranking No 1 in our minds… we waited for the accolades. But we realised there was other thinking in people’s heads. And perhaps there was a bit of shock how this [type of course] could happen under our noses. People would say “well if it is so good why aren’t they playing on it?” And I have to say [of the difference to the norm], nature was there and we couldn’t deny it. There is a bit of Old Course, a bit of Royal Birkdale and a bit of Muirfield about it and perhaps golfers as conditioned by the sandbelt courses, and perhaps having not played on British links, were not ready for such a different course.
GA: The brief at Moonah Links was to design a future Australian Open venue and also to be a public fee-paying course. So what did that mean to you as a designer to design a true test of golf for the best professionals and some of the best in the world?
Well you are now talking about the [model of] the Old Course at St Andrews which is still today after 500 years such a course for the public and the same time a course for the surrounding clubs and indeed for championship golf. Moonah is special in how it turned out. It is unique amongst golf courses in Australia. There are five holes with bunkerless greens and that’s following the pattern set by the Old Course at St Andrews. We feel we have been faithful to that design thinking and to copy that philosophy as much as we could.
GA: So is the strategy of these bunkerless greens about the angles of the greens along with the tightness of the turf surrounding them?
There are ways other than bunkers of making the golf holes difficult, by using slopes around greens and sheer and tight undulations. At Moonah links there are a variety of large and small greens. In design we set a problem for the golfer to solve, which is usually in the form of a bunker, but also, as used in Scotland, the trap can be set without a bunker by using slopes that take the ball away from the target if not a sharp and accurate shot is made. At Moonah Links one advantage too over the Old Course is that the elevated ground above the golf allows good spectator viewing. Moonah Links Leviathan also got a reputation for being a strong
That should be seen as a truth: that an inland course can indeed qualify as the best… Not sure why people are so mad about links golf.
test of golf. The Australian Open was played there two times plus two other PGA events and those tournaments proved what an examination of golf it is. I remember referee Andrew Langford-Jones commenting that is was a very easy course for control of a tournament in regards to the rules of golf. On Moonah Links’ Open course not once were the rules officials called out to the course for a ruling. The spaciousness and the land itself allowed this.
GA: Whilst there are five holes with bunkerless greens at Moonah Leviathan there are holes bunkered with the pots placed in the middle of the fairway. On one of these bunkers you were observed, much to the onlooker’s amazement, playing out backwards for a one-shot penalty and then advancing to the green. Other former pros have influenced courses in Sydney suggesting not to make their bunkers too deep and too unfair so members can have an easy bunker shot at the green. What is your thinking around this?
There are no such rules! [On fairness or needing to advance bunker shots forwards] Again referring to the Old Course… where else should bunkers be except the line of play – and be a penalty?
GA: Would you like to comment on the loss of the Australian Open from Moonah?
I can only hope that the Open can come back to Victoria one day, and indeed Moonah Links, but I am not confident. *It was said to me that the reason the Open was taken away from Moonah Links was because sponsors didn’t want it down there to entertain their customers. I find this a bit silly when all the big tournaments overseas are on courses about an hour to hour and half away from the main city [like Muirfield, Carnoustie, Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach].
GA: I recall in the days of the Hope Island project you saying words to the effect of “make the journey to the green difficult and reward the golfer with flattish greens and gentle putting”. Is this still part of your design philosophy?
It was part of Hope Island’s design philosophy but like all our other designs, not all of it. The idea is to create a variety of golf.
GA: Finally, your trademark design feature would be the use of the pot bunker, perhaps the purest and simplest form of sandy hazard. Why the pot bunker?
Well the pot bunker is a copy of the original bunker. Bunkers at St Andrews. Our in-house rule almost is that we adopted that style. That trademark of design.
GA: A certain efficiency or economy of construction, design, placement and maintenance perhaps?
All of those things are in the favour of the pot bunker.
GA: From a playing point of view, perhaps the pot bunker present players with a smaller footprint of sand to be negotiated rather than one huge sandy bunker. Is that a better outcome?
I find it fairly obvious that most people can’t play well from those big-spreading bunkers. It is the hardest shot in golf and for a membership to adopt big and expensive bunkers is most questionable.
SAGCA Vice President Harley Kruse landed a part-time job with Ross Perrett as a Landscape Architectural student in 1989, then went on to work for TW+P for 9 years. He caught up with Peter for this interview at the Thomson Perrett office in Melbourne. Thanks to Ross Perrett for arranging the interview.
*Golf Australia in October 2015 secured a new eight-year deal with the NSW Government for the Australian Open to be played in Sydney.