"When he first appeared in international competition in the middle 1950s, the swing he had put together was extremely awkward-looking, if not downright ugly . . . In those days when he was somehow scoring in the low 70s with a low-80s swing, several astute judges of golf predicted a huge future for Player, because they sensed that he had the essence of golf in him andM furthermore, was the most determined young man to come along in year. "

'The Story of American Golf - Herbert Warren Wind,

The many present-day observers who had written off Gary Player as a force in golf, to his great consternation, because he had not won a major title or U.S. tour event since 1974 underestimated two factors that have been central to his success: that fierce determination - as strong today as it was more than two decades ago - and his continuing preoccupation with physical fitness.

"It's a wonderful thing to be able to say, at age 42, you're playing better than you were at 32 or 22." Player said Sunday, after his third stirring victory in as many weeks. Winless in limited appearances on the American tour since the Memphis Open of 1974, the little South African who dresses like the Black Knight has ignited the imagination of golf fans the last three Sundays by coming from seven, seven, and five strokes behind during the final round to win the Masters, the Tournament of Champions at LaCosta, Calif., and the Houston Open.

"I'm playing the best golf of my life . . . If a person takes care of himself, there's no reason he can't play winning golf at least until he's 50." Player said after a final round 69 gave him an 13-under-par total of 270 at Houstons Woddlands Country Club, the best 72-hole total on the U.S. tour this year.

As at the Masters, Player watched the last man in the field miss a birdie putt on the final hole that would have sent the tournament into sudden death. This time it was Andy Bean, who had started the day with a three-stroke lead over Player. He missed a 15-footer as Player - cradling his 5-year-old daughter Amanda Lee, youngest of his six children, on his lap - looked on, anxious but pokerfaced.

Player, who has collected $130,000 this month, is the 10th man to win three consecutive events on the U.S. PGA Tour, the first in two years, and the first non-American since fellow South African Bobby Locke in 1947. In the New Orleans Open this week, Player will try to become the first to win four straight titles since Jack Burke in 1952.

It reveals a great deal about Player that, when asked if it required luck to accomplish what he has, he replied without smiling: "Yes, and it's amazing, isn't it? The more you practice the luckier you get."

Player is one of the most diligent workers in golf, constantly adjusting his swing - most recently, his reliable putting stroke - and building up his 5-foot-8, 150-pound body.

"He likes to throw everything into his game. Perhaps it comes from his size, knowing he has to hit the ball harder and truer than some of the bigger power players," Herbert Warren Wind of The New Yorker, perhaps the greatest American golf authority, said yesterday.

"Gary is much younger physically than his age because he has taken such good care of himself, and he may be able to win for quite some years yet. He is as determined as anyone you will ever meet. He believes tremendously in himself and his condition. Few of the top players work any harder than he does, and his fitness allows him to put out as much determination as he does at 42."

Over the years, Player has been religious about lifting weights doing untold thousands of pushups and strengthening exercises, and jogging.

As Wind notes in his book, whether he is on his country farm outside Johannesburg or at his ranch in the rolling hill country 250 miles to the north, Player "loves to take on hard physical chores, such as mending gates and fences, repairing roads, rebuilding barns and other shelters.

His unrelenting search for sinew and stamina has also made him a health food devotee. His passions and discoveries run their courses. At one period he was sure that the master key to fitness was a regular intake of honey, but at other times he has been equally sold on the merits of wheat germs, fruit, raisin, nuts, black bread and bananas."

Player was a good natural athlete, more gifted in sports than studies when he was at school. He excelled at cricket, rugby, swimming and diving, and track, captained the soceer team, and was voted his school's trophy as its best all-around athlete.

He did not take up golf until 15 when his father, a gold mine captain and two-handicaper, invited him to play around at Virginia Park in Johannesburg. The youngster parred the first three holes, then fell apart, but was fascinated by the game and statred practicing with the fervor that has characterized him ever since.

His zeal was undoubtedly enhanced by his fondness for Vivicnne Verwey, daughter of the pro at Virginia Park and the girl he later married. He made himself into a scratch player within 16 months and after graduation became the assistant pro to and protege of his girlfriend's father.

After borrowing enough money to go on the European circuit - he has always carefully observed and patterned his swing after the game's greats, especially his hero Ben Hogan - Player's game improved rapidly.

By the time he made a run at the 1957 U.S. Open, Wind remembers, he had "an extremely good looking, simplified swing. There is a temptation to make the categorical statement that no golfer has ever changed his swing so drastically for the better in six months as Player did between December, 1957, and June, 1958."

Player has gone on to win three Masters (1961, 74, 78), one U.S. Open (1965), two British Opens (1959, 1968), and two PGA titles (1962, 72), making him one of only four players to have won all of the modern Grand Slam titles.