COLUMBIA, S.C. – Gary Player was already a major champion when he played the Masters in 1961. By the time the tournament ended, the South African had defeated Arnold Palmer and become the first international player to wear the green jacket. It also marked him as a rising star.
“Confidence is a very, very big thing in this sport,” Player said by phone this month. “There is such a fine line that winning at Augusta like that meant an awful lot to me.”
Player is now 75 and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first of his three Masters victories. The nine-time major champion will again lead Augusta National’s par-3 tournament with the other members of the game’s beloved “Big Three” of Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
Player will also get to relish the long-ago Monday – the final round was delayed because of rain – when he stared down “Arnie’s Army” with a magnificent up-and-down from the bunker on No. 18. It was a hole Palmer later double-bogeyed to finish a shot behind.
“Anytime you win a major, it means a lot for your career,” Player said. “Winning at Augusta with President Eisenhower, Bobby Jones and people like that, it leads itself to a very special, special victory.”
Player had won the British Open 1959, but had yet to fully establish himself with U.S. golf fans in the era when Palmer – the “King” – ruled. So when Player gave away his four-shot lead to Palmer on Augusta’s punishing back nine with a double bogey on No. 13 and a bogey on No. 15, the “Army” couldn’t wait to celebrate their hero’s second straight Masters win and third in four years.
Player, though, wasn’t through. He made three crucial pars, including one from the bunker alongside the 18th green, that left him a shot off Palmer’s lead.
Palmer maintained that edge and was in good shape on the 18th with a solid drive in the fairway. That’s when things went wrong, Palmer recalled. He said he was distracted before hitting his approach. The 7-iron landed in the right bunker.
“Where Gary got up and down from that same trap an hour or so earlier, I hit a poor sand shot that went over the green and down the slope on the other side,” Palmer said.
A pitch and two putts later, Palmer took a 6, and Player was the Masters champion. Palmer says he long considered it one of his most crushing defeats.
“It was an incredible moment,” Player said.
Player won twice more at Augusta National, in 1974 and 1978. With his last victory, the “Black Knight” became the oldest golfer, at 42, to wear the green jacket. That distinction was eclipsed by Nicklaus’ rousing Masters triumph in 1986. Player was also the oldest person to make the cut at Augusta when he was 62 in 1998.
This time, granddaughter Savannah will caddy for Player at the par-3 event. Player also will host a charity event in Augusta April 10-11.
In addition, he plans to stop by his newest headquarters in South Carolina. Along with offices for the Gary Player Group, work is nearly complete on a signature course, The Cliffs At Mountain Park.
Player keeps a full schedule that has him traveling to courses and events around the world. He competes about five or six times a year, more than enough to keep him happy.
“I’ve had a feast,” he says. “Now, I’m ready to get up from the table because I’ve had enough. There are so many other interests in life.”
Besides being golf’s worldwide ambassador, Player is actively involved in raising awareness on childhood obesity and urging fitness for people of all ages.
“The young people should be eating more vegetables and fruit,” he said.
In all, Player competed 52 times at Augusta National. Few of them compared with that first victory.
Down the stretch, Player knew the fans were behind “their fair-haired boy in Arnold,” he said. But Player said he was fortified by each cheer from “Arnie’s Army.”
Pressure, the 25-year-old Player learned then, was “not to be feared, it was to be loved and it has stuck with me ever since.”
That first victory at Augusta National also helped Player in promoting the international side of golf, something he’s being doing since.
“Winning the Masters proved that I could win in the USA, which was a huge help in reaching that goal,” he said.