The late Peter Thomson had a golfer’s eye for impending catastrophe. After the five-time British Open champion became a television commentator, he saw victory as nothing more than a flashing warning sign. When Greg Norman walked off a final green after yet another Australian title, arms aloft and wife in tow, grinning like a man who somehow knew he would be posting nude selfies on Instagram into his sixties, Thomson would caution, "Well, I hope he remembers to sign his scorecard correctly".
Superficially, Norman, who, like Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, attracted cries of "Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!", should have become Australia’s most prolific major championship winner. But his record never ended up challenging that of his polar opposite, a man who eschewed showmanship and flair for simplicity and effectiveness. He was a plain winner, his smile wry rather than radiant; perhaps he too knew that the Shark would one day be posting nude selfies on Instagram. Nor has Thomson’s position been challenged, yet, by the current generation of Australian stars, who, like Norman, have all the equipment but not yet that special something.
As anyone who plays a Thomson-designed course knows, he loved links, he loved the British Open, and he loved golf’s ability to rip your heart out when you least expect it. Carnoustie, where this week’s Open is being played, is perhaps the most sadistic of those beasts. In 1999, Carnoustie hosted the most difficult Open since 1938, Paul Lawrie winning with a bruised and battered six-over par, but only after Jean van de Velde suffered every misfortune short of a wrongly-signed card. The Scots say ‘Nay wind, nay rain, nay golf’, and recent warm and dry weather might make this weekend’s Carnoustie less than its authentic self, more reminiscent of 2007, when Padraig Harrington won with seven under par, or 1975 when Tom Watson and Australia’s Jack Newton tied on nine under. Watson won in a playoff before the Dundee course, deemed unreasonably inhospitable, was put into the Open naughty corner for 24 years.
Notwithstanding our crop of current talent, Australians are having to wait patiently for another win in the major championship with which they have held the strongest affinity. It is a quarter of a century since Norman and Ian Baker-Finch delivered three Opens in eight years. It was a quarter of a century before that that Thomson and Kel Nagle rattled off six between them. Nobody hands these titles out, and if they seem to be on offer, there are devils lurking around Carnoustie to snatch them back.
If these things run in cycles, it feels like time. Jason Day is everything you can want in a sportsman: daring, passionate, emotionally open. Despite inhabiting golf’s stratosphere for the best part of a decade, however, Day still has only one major to his credit, the 2015 PGA Championship. So too does Adam Scott, to whom a Normanesque air of Greek tragedy increasingly adheres. All that perfection undone by one fatal flaw. As good a ball-striker as Scott is, with such an unreliable putting game, he would seem made for the defensive golf demanded by the Open, yet his second place to Ernie Els at Lytham in 2012 remains his best finish. Marc Leishman, that big amiable Fozzy Bear with a hint of Animal inside, has been routinely close but not quite there. He deserves a major, but so do many others. A decade younger, Cameron Smith is the leader of the next wave. He might look like a minor character from The Simpsons, but Smith strikes the golf ball very much like Thomson, with great economy and a trajectory that can bore through the strongest headwind.
Annoyingly, the clock ticks on and Australian golf fans wait. We might wonder what Thomson, who passed away a month ago, would say to our great hopes. He was a model for golfers of his time, but not necessarily ours. When there was some antagonism between American golfers and the rest of the world, Thomson was a player for tough conditions, not picture-pretty target-golf courses. He disdained America and its demands for power and length. What frustrated Americans of that time – of any time - was that Open Championship links courses could be ragged and windswept and nasty. Unable to see where the ball was going, the golfer had to trust his swing and also ride his luck, whatever its moods. More than anything, Open courses challenged the golfer’s sense of justice, that effort should be rewarded commensurately. That is golf’s false promise, most of all on seaside links where rogue traps and gorse bush seem literally to jump out of nowhere. The player who could best cope with bad luck – a good shot that delivered a monstrous result - held the advantage.
Should major tournament golf be so hard, or do people want a birdie parade? Much has been said about this in recent weeks, with the punitive US Open won by Brooks Koepka at Shinnecock Hills followed on the rota by the malevolent Carnoustie. Professionals who are accustomed to devouring courses as if they are as tender as a Matt Moran lamb fillet are reduced to scraping for survival, gnawing on nerves and shoe leather. The most self-serving complaint, after Shinnecock, was that ‘People don’t want to see that’. Oh yes, people do! They love seeing the professionals suffering like the rest of us. They don’t always want to see the power hitters and exhibitionists win; very often, they want to see who has the intestines to handle all the disappointment and self-hatred that comes with what most of us think of as a normal game of golf.
Thomson had such innards. He didn’t win at Carnoustie, but in 1953 he had a ringside seat when finishing second behind Ben Hogan, the American with a most Thomson-like game, who was putting together one of the greatest years in golf history. It was Thomson’s second runner-up finish in the Open two years. He hadn’t won one yet, but his first came a year later, and from there he was unstoppable.
If we can presume, one thing Thomson would say to any golfer in these tormenting conditions is that they have to boil the game back down to its simplest elements. It’s just a ball, he liked to say, and it’s just a club you’re holding. Go and hit it, walk on and hit it again. Attaining this simplicity seems an almost insurmountable challenge to today’s stars, who are micro-managed and coached to a degree Thomson thought counter-productive. It’s hard to say how contemporary players can manage that return to nature that is an uncluttered mind, but Koepka, a superb athlete with a seemingly vast wilderness between his ears and now two US Opens in two years, found the trick. As fans of the Australian challenge, we hope that our players are worrying less than we are. Here’s an answer: let us do all the fretting. Let us moan and watch from behind our fingers. Let us lose sleep about whether, come Saturday, you will have made the cut. Let us go back to squirm over clips of van de Velde in 1999. Let us do the suffering on your behalf. You lot, you do what Peter Thomson said. Go hit the ball. Do it 280 times. And then make sure you sign your card correctly.