I don’t normally publish articles offered to me for reprint, but I’m making an exception in this instance. At this year’s British Open, Padraig Harrington is attempting to win his third consecutive championship. That’s a feat not equalled since Australian great Peter Thompson did it in 1954 – 1956. This interview with the now-eighty-year-old Thompson is courtesy of Gary Firkins and Thomson Perrett & Lobb Golf Course Architects
The Open Championship returns to Turnberry this year. You played in the 1977 Open, which Tom Watson won – what are your memories of the course?
I played there in the British Matchplay Championships, I think in 1957, so I was very familiar with the place having had a lot of serious rounds there in the Championship. As a matter of fact, I lost to Christy O’Connor on the final hole in our match, in the semi-final, so I was very familiar with the course and rather liked it, actually.
What sort of course is it and what sort of player do you have to be to do well there?
The course was resurrected after the war, when it had served as an airfield, and was put together again in a nice way – I think it is impossible to criticise. It is a top class course, one of the category A courses, I’d say. But it needs wind, like all the seaside courses do – wind and a bit of dryness to make the lies tighter on the fairway. Then it is as good as anything in Britain.
You were the last player to win three consecutive Opens – 1954, 1955 and 1956 – and, of course, Padraig Harrington has the opportunity of winning his third successive Open this year. What do you think his chances are?
Well, I think his chances must be good. If he’s good enough to win two, he’s good enough to win three. But the extraneous issues, such as how well other people play, come into the picture. He’s quite capable of winning three in a row, but whether the other players allow him to do that is in the lap of the gods, I would say.
Will he be under extra pressure?
There is no doubt there is pressure on him to perform, and that can have its toll on a fellow’s performance. He can’t really free-wheel it and let it happen – he has got to make it happen and I think that is a big burden to carry.
What about Tiger Woods, what you think his chances are?
Well of all the players that will be assembled there, he is the cleverest of the lot because he really spends time figuring out a course and how to play it and how to keep out of trouble, although he is pretty good at getting out of trouble, too. But the way he performed at Hoylake was magnificent. So he is a specialist on the seaside links, like all great champions are, if I may say so, and I think he will be a very formidable opponent, for everybody.
You mention Hoylake, which was one of the courses where you won one of your consecutive Opens, the final of those coming in 1956 at St Andrews. Tell us about that experience. You mentioned the pressure that Harrington might be under – was the fact that you were going for three Opens in a row playing on your mind, was it an added pressure?
It wasn’t really because when I started off on the first day I was very pessimistic, I wasn’t playing well and I had a driver I didn’t like. I wasn’t putting that well, so I though, well, I would be very lucky to get into the top half a dozen in this event. But as time went by I found that everyone else was having similar troubles. In the end I was the one that was high and dry, just a stroke ahead. You know, to win you have got to be very grateful to the people who lose, that’s been my philosophy all my life.
You mentioned the equipment and that you went into an Open not particularly happy with your driver. That would seem inconceivable now.
The golf clubs we used were pathetically bad, truthfully – they were like broomsticks. If you had a good driver with a good head on it and the right loft, you would hang onto it as long as you could, but inevitably the wood used to deteriorate so you had to change it. Playing pro golf you are hitting a lot of shots and the wooden head begins to wear out quite frankly. Also, they have wonderful slide-on rubber grips now but in those times, in the 50’s, we wrapped the leather grip around and had to do this every week to get a fresh tackiness. So we battled with equipment and right up to the last minute people were changing their clubs hoping for something better than last week.
And what about the golf ball, because in your day you were playing with a smaller, wound golf ball, which presumably used to spin a lot more and was susceptible to the wind. What about the golf balls you were playing with then and the balls that the top professionals use today?
Well there is no doubt that the 1.62 smaller ball was more difficult to play with. I mean you had to play better with a small ball to get a good score. That was why I was so against it when they changed the size, it wasn’t really helpful in the examination of skills. A small ball and a dry course was really a hell of a test – they don’t have that now.
Peter, you usually travel over from Melbourne for the Open Championship. Next month (August), however, you are celebrating your 80th birthday and I guess while you must be happy to be celebrating such a landmark, you’re probably missing not being in Scotland to see the Open Championship?
I am missing it already, truthfully. But an 80th Birthday is something special. I would prefer a 70th Birthday, but I have had that already and my family is assembling, so it will be an emotional time for us.
I guess you will be keeping a close eye on the golf on television?
Indeed, I will.