Golfer Jimmy Thomson: Huge-Hitter and PGA Tour Winner

Golfer Jimmy Thomson follows through on a swing

Jimmy Thomson was a pro golfer who played on the PGA Tour from the late 1920s into the 1940s. But he was famous for longer than that because of his huge drives. Thomson is often considered among the longest-drivers in PGA Tour history, and was arguably the biggest hitter of the first half of the 1900s.

Full name: James Wilfred Stevenson Thomson

Date of birth: October 29, 1908

Place of birth: North Berwick, Scotland

Date and place of death: June 28, 1985, in Miami, Florida

Nickname: Golf's Sultan of Swat

His Biggest Wins

  • 1927 Virginia Open
  • 1934 Melbourne Centenary Open
  • 1936 Richmond Open
  • 1938 Los Angeles Open
The first two listed were not PGA Tour tournaments, the second two — Richmond and Los Angeles — are official PGA Tour wins. The Melbourne tournament was in Australia.

In the Majors

Thomson never won a major, but twice he came close with runner-up finishes. At the 1935 U.S. Open, Thomson was the 36-hole leader after opening with back-to-back 73s at Oakmont Country Club. He had a 77 in the third round but still shared the 54-hole lead with Sam Parks Jr. But in the final round, Parks had a 76 to Thomson's 78, producing Parks' 2-stroke victory. In terrible weather, Thomson bogeyed four of the final five holes.

At the 1936 PGA Championship, Thomson defeated 2-time major winner Henry Picard, 4 and 2, in the Round of 16. In the quarterfinals he beat Jug McSpaden, 1-up. That produced a semifinal matchup with Craig Wood, which Thomson won 5 and 4. In the 36-hole championship match, Thomson outdrove opponent Denny Shute by as much as 60 yards. But Shute's short game helped him take a 1-up lead after the morning 18. On the 29th hole, Shute made a 30-foot birdie to go 2-up, and Shute won the trophy by the final score of 3 and 2.

Thomson first played in a major at the 1925 U.S. Open, when he was 17, and last at the 1959 PGA Championship. He had six Top 10 finishes total, including sixth at the 1937 Masters and eighth in the 1938 Masters. He reached the Round of 16 in the PGA Championship in 1935 and 1937. Seven other times Thomson finished in the Top 20.

Thomson's Long-Driving Fame

Thomson was renowned in his time as a long driver. In fact, when Thomson started playing tour events in the 1920s, many observers believed he was the longest-hitting tour pro yet seen.

In the 1929 British Open, Thomson hit a drive that reached the green 375 yards away, nipping Ed Dudley's trousers as it bounded by him. Thomson won the 1937 North American Driving Championship, staged in Niagara Falls, New York, with an average of 340 yards on 10 drives.

In 1930, Thomson was in his early 20s and was a pro at Broadmoor Golf Club in Colorado Springs, Colorado. At altitude, Thomson was often able to drive the 380-yard 18th hole. The famous sportswriter Grantland Rice watched Thomson play there and dubbed him "Golf's Sultan of Swat" and "The Bomber of the Rockies."

The 1960 book Golf Magazine's Pro Pointers and Stroke Savers (affiliate links used in this article; commissions earned) included a chapter about Thomson and his driving length. Writing about Rice's nicknames for him, the chapter's author wrote:

"Wherever he went thereafter, Jimmy Thomson's long-distance hitting exploits preceded him. When he appeared on a tee, people stood wide-eyed and openmouthed as he belted the ball, cutting the corners of doglegs, zooming over trees, clearing fairway traps 300 yards out. Thomson gave a golf ball a ride the likes of which had never been seen before."
How far did Thomson drive it in tournament play? According to the 1976 Who's Who In Golf, Thomson averaged around 280 yards in the 1920s and 1930s, and once had a measured drive of 386 yards from an elevated tee. He "was considered the longest driver of that era," the book's editors wrote. Peter Alliss' The Who's Who of Golf puts Thomson's tour driving average at 270-280 yards. That doesn't sound like much today, but it was very long for the era. Remember that Thomson always played with small (by today's standards), wood-headed drivers, and he even began in the era of hickory shafts. Many comments made during the 1930s suggest that Sam Snead was the only pro who was close to Thomson on tour in driving distance.

His length made him a very popular player to get for exhibitions and clinics. Thomson remained famous for his distance long after his tour career ended. For many years the U.S. Jaycee National Junior Amateur Championship gave the "Jimmy Thomson Driving Award" trophy to the junior golf who won the tournament's long-drive contest.

In 1954 Thomson was quoted as saying that George Bayer, then playing on the PGA Tour, was the longest wood and iron player he had ever seen. Bayer was a golfer who kept trying to dial back his power in order to focus on improving the other parts of his game and better compete on tour, only to face flocks of fans urging him to let it fly.

Thomson knew exactly how that felt, having once explained, "Being tagged a long hitter was something I had to live with. You're constantly on display, and people who are watching you expect something big to happen. I tried never to disappoint them. But there was so much emphasis on my long driving, both by myself and the public, that I completely eliminated myself from the rest of the game."

More About Jimmy Thomson

Jimmy Thomson was born in the golf hotbed of North Berwick, Scotland, four years after a cousin, Jack White, won the 1904 British Open. His father Wilfred Thomson was a golf professional, and like many Scottish golf pros in the early 1900s, the elder Thomson got an offer to move to the United States.

In 1921, the Thomsons were on a boat that delivered Wilfred to America (Bobby Cruickshank was also on that voyage), where Jimmy's father became the pro at Country Club of Virginia in Roanoke.

Jimmy caddied and worked in the pro shop after school. It was from his father that Jimmy learned and developed the game that would eventually land him in the pro ranks.

His first victory of note was in the Virginia state open in 1927. Although his driving distance immediately got him noticed, it took nearly another 10 years before other parts of his game flourished enough for Thomson to really make an impact on the PGA Tour.

He came close at the 1934 San Francisco National Match Play Open, reaching the championship match before losing to Tom Creavy. But the years 1935-38 were Thomson's tour heyday. His two runner-up finishes in majors and all his other Top 10s in majors happened during that stretch. And so did his two PGA Tour wins.

In 1936, Thomson won the Richmond Open in Virginia. He was also second in the Los Angeles Open, second by one stroke to Henry Picard in the Hershey Open, and runner-up in the Canadian Open.

Thomson had no wins or runner-up finishes in 1937, but was a consistent-enough contender to finish 10th on the money list, his highest finish. That led to his biggest win at the 1937 Los Angeles Open, by four strokes over Johnny Revolta.

Thomson had another chance at the Los Angeles Open in 1942, but lost an 18-hole playoff to Ben Hogan. Hogan shot 72 and Thomson 73.

By that point, Thomson had also been working as a club pro and was starting to focus more on that, and on teaching the game, than tournament play. He had already given hundreds of clinics and would give hundreds, maybe thousands, more.

In the late 1930s, Thomson was one of the golfers included in Spalding's "Keystones of Golf" tour. Along with Bobby Jones, Lawson Little, Horton Smith and Harry Cooper, Thomson kept up a grueling schedule of travel, golf clinics and exhibition rounds with his fellow travelers to promote the game. The tour resulted in an instructional film released in 1937, narrated by Jones, and in which Thomson is featured. Spalding also made Jimmy Thomson-branded woods for years after Thomson's tour success ended.

Thomson, like many pro golfers who served stateside in the military during World War II, also played many exhibitions to raise money for wartime charities. For example, in 1943 Thomson led a team of five Coast Guard golfers against Sam Snead's squad of five Navy men, with Snead topping Thomson 66 to 69.

Thomson continued giving clinics for servicemen for many years to come. In 1957, for example, he went on a 25-day tour of overseas American military bases.

In the 1960s, Thomson took over as pro at Shackamaxon Golf & Country Club in New Jersey. He also had the title of Golf Director for Dunlop Sports.

Interestingly, for a period of his life Thomson had many connections to Hollywood and the stars of the entertainment industry. One of his wives was Viola Dana, an actress from the silent-film era. They were married from 1930-45. He also appeared in multiple movies.

He was featured giving golf lessons to Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman in the 1942 short, Shoot Yourself Some Golf. (In the opening credits, Thomson is identified as the "world's record holder for longest drive.") He played a golf pro in the 1951 movie about Ben Hogan, Follow the Sun. Thomson appeared as himself in the 1954 Martin & Lewis movie The Caddy. He was in several other theatrical shorts, too, including Swing with Bing (with Bing Crosby) in 1940 and All American Swing Stars in 1948.

Thomson was 76 years old when he died in 1985. He is a member of the Metropolitan PGA Hall of Fame.

A collector's item today is the 1940, magazine-style instructional Hit 'Em a Mile! How to Drive a Golf Ball by Thomson. He produced another instructional book in 1959, A Quick Way to Groove Your Swing, in conjunction with a training aid he'd been hired to promote. Thomson is also one of the featured instructors in the 1940 book, Golfmasters: A Sure Way to Better Golf (14 Champions Write a Book).

Photo credit: Fairfax Corporation. 1934, American golfer Johnny Thompson swinging his club high over his shoulder, New South Wales, 10 November 1934, viewed 25 April 2023

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