Match-play golf, where only the holes count and not the total number of strokes, was dropped from the U.S. pro circuit ten years ago and maybe it is a good thing that it was, for in an era of big money and terrific pressure, where the coddled stars of the pro tour are often as temperamental as coloraturas, the swinging might become a right chop to the chin instead of a feathered seven-iron to the flagstick.
Last week at the fourth annual Piccadilly World Match Play Tournament, held on the West Course of the Went-worth Club just south of London, eight of the world's best professionals butted well-groomed and well-tanned heads together in a knockout tournament that is rapidly becoming one of the most intriguing golf events of the year. When it was over, two grimly classical grudge matches had been fought out over the club's green, hilly, tree-lined acres, and Arnold Palmer, by defeating Australia's Peter Thomson on the last hole of their 36-hole final, had brought abounding joy to the hearts of the U.S. touring pros.
On the U.S. tournament tour, Thomson, a curly-haired, diffident, intelligent fellow from Melbourne, is about as popular as a shank or a three-putt green. At 38, Thomson is a masterful golfing technician who can hit a ball any way he wants to except far. He has won the British Open five times but, after 17 years of playing intermittently in the U.S., the only Stateside title he has for his efforts is the Texas International Open. Somewhat bewildered by his lack of U.S. success, he has left behind him a collection of unflattering remarks about the crude power game so popular in America and the long, heavily watered golf courses that nurture it.
Much of this conflict came to a barb-filled climax at the Alcan golf tournament at St. Andrews two weeks ago. There Thomson, playing simultaneously in a lesser event, finished first with a score of 281 that was two shots lower than that posted by Gay Brewer and Bill Casper, who tied for first in the $129,000 Golfer of the Year tournament.
"I find it a little embarrassing to have shot the low score with all these Golfers of the Year here," said Thomson at the closing ceremonies. "Maybe I should just be called the Golfer of the Week."
Thomson's words had hardly drifted off in the breeze from St. Andrews Bay before Mason Rudolph grabbed the microphone and pointedly said: "I enjoyed the golf Peter Thomson played this week. I've been on the tour for nine years, and this was the first time I've had the pleasure of seeing him win a tournament." Parry, thrust and ouch.
The following week at Wentworth, Thomson and three Americans, Palmer, Casper and Brewer, were included in the World Match Play field of eight and sparks were sure to fly as often as golf shots. But Thomson versus the United States was a confrontation that had to wait until the finals. First there was a wonderfully tense clash of egos between Brewer and South Africa's Gary Player to be settled.
After winning the Masters last April, Brewer stated—as others before him have done—that there is no such thing as the Big Three (Palmer, Nicklaus, Player), a remark that soon became translated around the golfing world as "Who's Gary Player?"
The black hairs on the back of Player's muscular neck bristled.
"Yes, he said those things, but who am I to say anything," said Player, who at 31 has won all four of golf's major titles. "I believe in humility, that two wrongs don't make a right. I believe in letting your clubs do the talking."
The clichés may have been bad, but the Player-Brewer match was fantastically good. It was a taut contest with no pleasantries exchanged. Player shot a four-under-par 70 in the morning round, but was three holes down to Brewer's almost flawless 67. However, he fought back in the afternoon, evened the match at the 30th hole and eventually won on the 39th, the third extra hole, in near-darkness.
After a quick, reluctant handshake the two golfers climbed into a waiting Daimler limousine and rode in elegant splendor and biting silence back to the clubhouse.
"I'll have to admit I was playing with an extra bit of determination today." Gary said later, "Gay has said some nasty things about me in the past, but I think Gay Brewer is a very great player." Parry, thrust and turn the other cheek.
The following day Player lost to Thomson, who had advanced by defeating this year's British Open winner, Roberto de Vicenzo, on the last hole of another good match.
Now Thomson was pitted in the final against the majestic, muscular, implacable figure of Arnold Palmer, who had played very solid golf in beating Canada's George Knudson and then Casper.
Palmer was inspired by the determination of the aggrieved—he epitomized, after all, the type of golfer that Thomson did not care for. "I like to beat anyone I'm playing, no matter who he is," said Arnold on the eve of the finals. "But I guess you could say that all U.S. players especially enjoy beating Peter."
"The Americans? Oh, I imagine they like to beat me," said Thomson in his turn. "But don't they like to beat everybody, even themselves?"
The match was even better than the one Brewer and Player produced. Palmer, bull-strong, extroverted, magnetic, presented a sharp contrast to his opponent, whose golf is crisp, neat and unemotional. But if the two felt personally antagonistic it was not obvious. Their manners were impeccable, and past differences were set aside as they attacked the golf course in a rain that sluiced down through most of the day.
Thomson, sinking some nice putts, held a three-hole lead as late as the 10th, but after the first 18, which each played in 70 shots, the two were all square, and after the first nine holes in the afternoon the match was still tied.
Then Palmer suddenly erupted with an explosion of distinguished golf. He floated a six-iron over the trees guarding the 190-yard 28th hole and holed the seven-foot putt he had left. One up. He hit a two-iron to the par-5, 480-yard 30th hole that bounded in four feet from the cup. Two up. He punched a nine-iron shot at the green of the 437-yard 31st hole that came off an embankment flanking the left side and rolled right to the cup. Three up.
But then Thomson, still looking cool and unperturbed, began to play some very hot golf himself. A birdie and an eagle cut Palmer's margin to one going into the 34th hole, where Thomson hit an iron stiff to the pin. But Palmer followed Thomson's approach with an eight-iron 15 feet short of the hole, and then hit a birdie putt that ran up the green to the left of the cup, started swinging to the right and toppled in on its very last turn.
That last turn proved to be the coup de gr√¢ce. They halved the 35th and, when Thomson hooked into the rough on the 495-yard finishing hole and failed to reach the green in two shots, the match was over. In winning, Palmer had scored 12 birdies and an eagle, while Thomson—almost as remarkably—had made 11 birdies and an eagle. It was championship golf.
The moment the match ended, Thomson walked over and shook Palmer's hand. It was obvious that what had begun as almost a bloodletting had ended in something very near to a mutual admiration society.
"Arnold isn't flogging at the ball the way he used to," Thomson said. "I was beaten by a better man."
The better man was impressed, too. "It was one of the best matches I've ever been in," said Palmer. "Peter played such excellent golf I really enjoyed the whole thing."
No parry, no thrust. Just a lot of sincere respect.