The Day Leaping Len took on the Black Knight

5th Oct 2018

There has rarely been a more daunting task in golf then taking on Gary Player on the final day of a tournament, but in 1956, Len Thomas revelled in it.

A fresh-faced 20-year-old was a unique addition to the Western Australian Open in 1956, travelling from South Africa with playing partner Trevor Wilks; no one had heard the name Gary Player. Post that tournament at Mount Lawley Golf Club and in the years to come, the entire world would come to know the “Black Knight”.

Len Thomas is the oldest surviving winner of the storied event, with his last win coming in 1965.

Thomas would come to know Player extremely well throughout his memorable career; their first meeting came at the 1956 Open.

“A legend of the game came here to play golf, it was the first time he had ever been in Australia,” Thomas said.

“He was 20 years old, he hadn’t won anything and no one had ever heard of him.”

Thomas remembers fondly the conversations that were had between the pair, asking Player for advice on whether to turn professional or not.

“He had a link with Slazenger in those days and I was the reigning State Amateur Champion from the previous year- being 16 years old,” he said.

“We had plenty of conversations while playing together (with Player).”

“I asked for his advice about turning pro and told him my intentions, he gave me great advice.”

“We had plenty of laughs but no one, including myself, truly knew how good he was.”

Despite playing a fantastic tournament, Thomas went down to Player on the final day of the WA Open, signalling the beginning of one of the great careers.

He would eventually win nine major championships.

The link between the two didn’t stop in 1956, with former Australian professional Norman Von Nida further developing their relationship in the years to come.

“Norman Von Nida was my mentor,” Thomas said. “He also happened to be the mentor of Player and the late Peter Thomson.”

“Von Nida used to bring Gary (Player) to the NSW Golf Club, and we used play lots of golf together.”

“They are very special memories.”

It wouldn’t be the only time Gary Player would visit Perth either, returning to open Secret Harbour Golf Course, designed by none other than Graham Marsh.

“Initially Player returned to play in an exhibition match during the Heineken Classic at the Vines Golf & Country Club,” Thomas said.

“He played alongside Graham Marsh and American Lee Trevino with the trio drawing plenty of crowds to the tournament.”

“They also played nine holes at the new Secret Harbour course too.”

The 1956 WA Open was a platform for Gary Player to springboard his career, and many have followed suit through a tournament that boasts an illustrious history.

Player will long be remembered as the greatest winner of the tournament; however, the WA Open has plenty more stories to tell in the years to come.

As Len Thomas will attest, it’s a tournament he will never forget.