Hong Kong Open

Return of Peter the great

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2007, 12:00am


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Three-time winner Thomson a guest of honour

When Peter Thomson first arrived in 1960 to play the Hong Kong Open, he was already a four-time British Open champion (he won a fifth Open Championship later). But despite his fame, he refused to take a cent for turning up in what was then a golfing backwater.

'I never accepted appearance fees. I even paid for my own ticket to fly to Hong Kong,' recollects Thomson. 'I considered it immoral to receive an appearance fee.'

The Australian, 78, will be the guest of honour at this year's tournament - the 49th edition. Thomson holds the honour of winning the second Hong Kong Open, in 1960, and then two more in 1965 and 1967. He then lived in a different golfing world, when players had agendas other than just 'filling their wheelbarrows'.

'In those days, tournament organisers had a hard time raising prize money and as such I was insistent that no appearance money be paid for me. I was offered, but I didn't take it, knowing how difficult it was to get sponsors to back golf,' says Thomson.

'These days, outside the regular tours, everything tends to be a circus with players getting exorbitant sums just to turn up. It is difficult to keep your integrity intact nowadays.'

May all those 'Jerry McGuire-type' agents, whose first cry is 'show me the money', cringe at Thomson's take on professional golf in the 21st century.

It was a different world when Thomson arrived in Hong Kong in the 1960s. The British community in this town was swinging to the beat of the Beach Boys and Dave Clark Five. Around three million people lived here, the population being boosted by a surge of refugees from China fleeing the communists.

'To be honest, I can't remember much about my first visit here. It is a distant memory, although a pleasant one. What I can recollect was that it was a very long drive from my hotel in Kowloon to the golf club along a very dangerous road,' laughs Thomson.

'But the second time I came here [in 1965] I remember beating the club's teaching professional, a guy called Brian Huggett, in a close finish. He was very unlucky not to win.'

When the Melbourne-born Thomson - he now lives in the suburb of Toorak - first arrived in Hong Kong, it was part of a fledgling scheme to push the frontiers of the game in Asia. He was among a group of visionaries who could see the game exploding across the region.

'I had already envisaged a tour played outside the US. I was part of a small group of people who were responsible for setting up the Far-East Circuit which at the time was run by the national bodies of each country,' Thomson reveals.

Set up in 1961, the 'circuit' included stops in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Indonesia, Taiwan and South Korea, and later Japan.

'We were pioneers of a sort in the 1960s. We had to go out and convince sponsors there was some value in backing a golf tournament. We had problems getting local TV to put even one camera on course. It was tough going, but we succeeded.

'I'm proud of this because I could see there was a lot of talent in Asia. We discovered this when we played here.

'I guess it is mission accomplished now when I return to Hong Kong,' he adds.

In his heyday, Thomson was a prolific winner. He won the national championships in 10 countries, including the New Zealand Open nine times. It was true that his first four British Opens were won against fields with very few professionals from the US. But his last win, in 1965, came against a field that included Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

Inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1988, Thomson is kept busy these days by designing golf courses around the world.

'I have designed six courses in China alone. The last one I designed was in Tianjin. I pass through Hong Kong occasionally, on my way to China, so I have not been a complete stranger. But the last time I was out in Fanling was in 1975.

'It has been a long time. I'm looking forward to this year's Hong Kong Open and hopefully I will be able to meet some of my old friends,' says Thomson, who no longer plays competitively but remains an enthusiastic social player.

Make that a treble

Australian great Peter Thomas won the Hong Kong Open three times in the 1960s