Over summer break in 1982 I set off for England and Scotland at the behest of my college roommate, Paul Thomas, who was from Manchester, England, and whose father, Dave Thomas, was a quite famous golfer from Wales. I, not entirely untruthfully, told my parents I wanted to see and come to respect the birthplace of golf.
Collected at the airport, I remember being whisked off to a charming house where we lunched in a glassed-in portico, surrounded by foliage, every shade of green. The wine flowed. Outside, the rain poured. Golf didn’t appear likely to be on the agenda that day.
As we cleared the dishes, Dave said, “All right, boys, get your clubs, we’ve a tee time in an hour.” Three empty wine bottles littered the table and I was in no shape to play golf. Over-served and jet-lagged, I nevertheless found myself a few minutes later in the locker room of their club with just enough time to take a shower, hoping the hot water would revive me.
When around the corner came a familiar face.
I was drunk and naked. As far as I knew, the familiar face was just naked. Then it hit me: Bond. James Bond.
Just as golf has its unwritten rules, the locker room has its unspoken ones. Chief among them: In the absence of clothes, eye contact must never be broken. And so it was that I locked eyes with Sean Connery.
Connery was a friend of Dave Thomas’ and an avid golfer. In 1999, some seventeen years after our awkward encounter, People magazine would name him the Sexiest Man of the Century. Because we kept our pleasantries brief, I had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to form an opinion on any such matter. But even in the few seconds we sized each other up, it was clear only one of us had a magazine cover in his future.
A short time later, still wobbling but freshly showered, I was on the tee in the company of my hosts. Had I seen Connery in the locker room? “Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I talked to him for a second, as he was coming out of and I was going into the shower, both of us bare-assed,” I said. “Quite awkward.” Had I felt intimidated, Dave slyly inquired. Now, there are a lot of ways that question can be taken, and I wanted to argue on my behalf. The wine, however, was still in my veins, so all I could muster was that I had shrunk in his presence. Metaphorically, of course. In vino veritas, as they say. Dave burst out laughing, the kind of laugh one laughs when they’re in the company of friends.
PAUL THOMAS WAS a hell of a golfer, clever, funny … and handsome – the kind of handsome that made him slightly aloof in a social setting, knowing that the best-looking woman in the room would come to him. He was also a leaner – sometimes against the wall, mostly against the bar. He would order a scotch and woe-ter and never move. Within an hour, people would be gathered around him – the men cackling, the women cooing – as he held court.
Paul (pictured at top, with me at right) had arranged for us to travel all over northwest England and Scotland playing the courses on the Open Championship rota and a few other gems, some 30-odd rounds where we would keep score between us and play for a silver cup we had engraved with a terribly offensive title. Along the way we would also try to qualify for the Open Championship at Royal Troon. His father’s name opened all the doors along the way.
Dave Thomas had won many tournaments and played on four Ryder Cup teams but is best remembered for his play in the Open Championship. In 1958 he tied with Peter Thomson at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, but lost in a playoff. In 1966 Jack Nicklaus beat him by a stroke at Muirfield. Dave was renowned for his driving, having famously driven the green at the 420-yard second hole at Hoylake during a practice round for the 1967 Open Championship.
Upon retiring from professional golf, Dave went into the golf course architecture business with Peter Alliss and the two of them were successful and immensely popular.
Everywhere Paul and I went, the name Dave Thomas glamorously preceded us and unlocked tee times. Along the way we traveled in the company of some of Dave’s famous friends.
Playing Carnoustie with artist Harold Riley one day I asked him what he was working on. “A commissioned painting,” he said, “which I’ve almost completed.” He didn't offer the subject’s name, and the omission made me think it wasn't particularly important.
A few days later when we were back in Manchester, Harold invited us to his large flat. Meeting us at the door, he went off to make some tea and left us to discover the treasures hanging on the walls, both of his making and of long-dead artists. After a while I came to a large alcove with a high ceiling. There in the middle of the room was a painting, unfinished, but finished enough for me to recognize Pope John Paul II. A commissioned painting indeed.
Among Riley’s many requests for work were Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh; Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia; Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester; Pope John XXIII; Pope Paul VI; Pope John Paul II; U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford and South Africa President Nelson Mandela.
I asked Riley if he had ever painted any golfers. “Yes,” he said. “In 1960 I went to St. Andrews to see and paint Arnold Palmer, who had won both the Masters and the U.S. Open that year, but at the time I didn’t play golf and knew nothing of the game or its personalities. I arrived, walked around knowing nobody and was drawn to a man with an unmistakable charisma playing a practice round but didn't know who he was. As I started to sketch him, I was told by a passerby my subject was Arnold Palmer.”
Before I left for home that summer Harold Riley gave me a number of paintings, one of a front-porch scene in Texas (right) because he had asked me about my favorite Texas memory, and another of Arnold Palmer from the 1960 Open Championship.
Riley also told me a story of being called by Ben Hogan for a commissioned painting. When Harold arrived in Fort Worth, Hogan told him not to ask any golf questions, he was there just to paint.
Harold, who by then had fallen in love with the game, complied, but over the course of a few weeks his professionalism and calm manner made Hogan lower his defenses. Talking one night, Hogan revealed he had an interest in painting. To which Harold replied, “Please, no questions about painting, Mr. Hogan; I am here to do a job and am expected to do just that.”
PAUL AND I both failed to qualify for the Open that summer, but Paul said we were better off because now we could have some fun. “Some fun,” as it turned out, meant drinking champagne in the Bollinger tent all week at Royal Troon, always on the dime – or rather, the quid – of old rivals and friends of Dave Thomas. Dai Rees, a three-time runner-up in the Open Championship and captain of the only Great Britain & Ireland Ryder Cup team to beat the U.S. between 1933 and 1985 (in 1957), Peter Alliss and a host of others kept us properly hydrated.
Thursday, after the first round of the Open, Paul and I were stumbling out of that tented paradise of bubbly when we ran into Jack Nicklaus. Jack recognized Paul immediately and gave a warm hello. As Paul introduced me, I was at once agog at the sight of the greatest player of all time and amazed that he actually knew my roommate. Jack said to Paul – on my grandparents’ graves, I swear, he said – “Come watch me hit some balls, I played like crap.”
Jack had indeed played like crap, opening with a 77. He was obviously very desperate because sitting behind him on the range were two college kids, their awe overcome by champagne, telling him how to take the club away.
I remember after a series of the most gawd-dang beautiful drives he turned to Paul and said, “Is that about how you hit them?” To which Paul replied, “A bit farther but not quite as straight.” Jack smiled. He smiled right at us as if he were living vicariously through us at that moment and not the other way around.
Paul told him what he thought of his take-away and then Jack finished by hitting six perfect drives in a row that hung in that humid sea air long enough for me to look at the ball, look at Jack, look back at the ball and then look back at Jack.
Jack invited us to dinner.
You know the scene in the movie “Titanic” where Leonardo DiCaprio, playing penniless artist Jack Dawson, ends up at the first-class dining table of Rose DeWitt Bukater, her fiance and their privileged friends in a clash of social classes? That was Paul and I that night.
I was seated next to Jack.
The greatest player of all time was excusably a little less gregarious than he had been at the range. Struggling for something to ask Mr. Nicklaus, I managed the question, “Who do you think is the greatest driver of a golf ball ever?” Figuring to get a humble nod to Hogan or a matter-of-fact self-acknowledgment, I had asked a question I thought I knew the answer to.
Jack looked at me for a second, then nodded in Paul’s direction and said, “His father, Dave. Dave Thomas is greatest driver of a golf ball I ever saw.”
I had heard stories about Dave’s talent for hitting colossally long and straight tee shots, but these stories tend to be more heroic in the telling and I had made allowances for that. I never looked at Paul’s father the same way again.
Dave Thomas' swing
ALMOST TWO MONTHS after I arrived in England, I was standing on the 18th tee of St. Andrews Golf Club. After 30 or so rounds, hard as it is to believe, Paul and I were dead even in our competition for the silver cup engraved with the terribly offensive title. His tee shot sailed out of bounds right and broke the window of a milk truck. I found the expansive fairway, chipped on and, as Paul argued with the owner of the milk truck, putted out for a very unappreciated victory.
Fast-forward to the Open Championship of 1995 played that year at St. Andrews. Paul and I were reunited. Paul had been the Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year on the European Tour in 1985 but already had given up golf and moved into the course design business. He came out to watch me and some fellow University of Texas Longhorns as we played a Tuesday practice round.
Justin Leonard and Bob Estes were all square with Mark Brooks and myself when we came to 16th hole, a 423-yard par 4, with OB right and three bunkers up the left called the Principal’s Nose. As the hole was playing downwind, I went with the risky play and tried to drive the green, fitting my tee shot between the train tracks and OB stakes on the right and the bunkers on the left. My drive finished on the front of the green.
Brooks arched his eyebrows, gave me a grim look, then hit a 4-iron up the left side. As we walked off the tee, he berated me for immaturely and needlessly taking on the risk of the OB and the bunkers when providence or some old sage had provided a little hump just to the right-center of the green that allows one to run a ball up from the far left side of the fairway short of the bunkers and use those contours to feed the ball into birdie range. In Mark’s view, that made the driving-the-green play a wanton risk.
Puffing on a cigarette and pausing to hit his approach, he otherwise never stopped the scolding. I thought about telling him that I had played dozens of rounds on the sacred ground back in a foggy youthful summer but I let him go on and then I two-putted for birdie. As we were walking to the 17th tee he added, “you never go for that green.”
“Got it,” I said.
I missed the cut, had dinner with Paul in the Auld Grey Toon and headed for home on Saturday, arriving at my condo in San Antonio on Sunday in time to turn on the TV and see who was winning the Open.
On the 16th tee stood Mark Brooks, tied for the lead in golf’s oldest championship. On my grandparents’ graves, he had a driver in his hands. His tee shot found one of the Principal’s Nose bunkers and his ball cuddled up against the lip. Mark made double bogey on 16 and missed the playoff between John Daly and Costantino Rocca by one.
A few weeks later as I was parking my car at Warwick Hills in Flint, Mich., site of the Buick Open, I saw Mark getting out of his car. As he started walking toward me I had a mental Rolodex of quips ready. He was walking with his head down, sucking on a cigarette like a kid sucks on a thick milkshake. I was certain he hadn’t noticed me.
Twenty feet away, still walking and without looking up, Mark pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and barked, “Don’t you say a (bleeping) word. The situation had changed!”
This past summer I heard from my good friend Ken Schofield, formerly the executive director of the European Tour and now Golf Channel’s erudite voice from that continent. He said Dave Thomas (pictured at right) was in a bad way and in the hospital. I reached out to Paul and extended my deep condolences.
Dave Thomas passed away on Aug. 27, 2013, at age 79. I felt the pull of melancholy as I remembered the summer of 1982. His time had passed so quickly. So had the time since I had heard him laugh the laugh that one does when they know they got the better of a friend.