Some dud golfers win the Masters Tournament: Tommy Aaron 1973, Charles Coody 1971. You get the idea. But only great players win the Masters more than once: Jack Nicklaus five times, Arnold Palmer four times, Gary Player three times. In the past six years, only Player has won it twice. He is the defending champion.
No one knows it. The guy is invisible. They brought in Jack Nicklaus and put him on a chair in front of 200 literary masters. For an hour, he answered questions about how bad he is playing. Then they brought in Gary Player, put him in the same chair and about 10 scribblers paid attention while Player answered three questions and left.
He left in a blue snit, which was parked outside for his getaway.
When four or five reporters hailed down the fleeting Player, he snapped at them. "Why didn't you ask these questions in there?"
"Because everybody was writing Jack Nicklaus stories and we couldn't hear you," he was told.
"Fire away, laddie," Player said with a smile.
Player is a phenomenon. Last April, at 42, the South African became the oldest Masters champion. This is his 22nd year on the United States golf tour. He may play forever. He is a physically fit, 5-foot-7, 150-pound specimen, and he burns to win. Only last week, in his third tournament aftar a five-month layoff that was the longest of his life, Player finished second at Greensboro. He can win here.
Player believes he is the best golfer in history. He says no one ever traveled as far and won as many tournaments under such varying conditions.His 21 U.S. tournament victories and $1.5 million in earnings are only a fraction of the whole. For print, Player praises Nicklaus and bows to Palmer. In his heart, Player is the best.
No one saw him at Augusta last year, either.
Until he shot 64 the last day and won it.
Then he reprimanded newspapermen for having forgetten about him. The ink-stained wretches deserved the reprimand, for in their infatuation with Nicklaus and obsession with Palmer, they ignored the palpable determination of Player. No one who saw Player's face that last day could doubt the man's will. His gaze was enough to melt steel. He worked a miracle instead.
"Gary, last year you said people forgot about you and you wanted to prove something to them," a man said. "Do you still feel that way, that you have to prove something?"
The muscle at the hinge of Player's jaw made a little ball under the skin, He said, "I have nothing to say about that, I have proved it for 20 years."
Player then delivered a little lecture.
"In the States, if you do not win a tournament every year, they think you have had it. Jimmy Connors does not win Wimbledon every year. If he wins Wimbledon twice in his life, that is very good. I cannot-no one can-win major golf tournaments like they are going out of style."
In April of 1978, anything seemed possible for Gary Player. By making birdies on seven of the last 10 holes, he won the Masters after starting the day seven shots behind. The next week, again seven shots down, he made a 67 the last day to win the Tournament of Champions. He made it three in a row by winning at Houston and lost the next week only after sharing the 54-hole head.
On a smaller accomplishment, Nancy Lopez became a folk heroine. Gary Player went home to shovel manure on his South African farm.
First he played in 16 straight tournaments, here and around ht world. Then Player took five months mostly off from golf-playing only three tournaments. For those five months, he worked on his 4,000-acre thoroughbred horse farm in South Africa.
No genteel land baron, this Player.
"I do anything everybody else does on the farm," he said. "I helped put up 21 miles of fencing. I helped lay many tens of thousands of bricks. I shovel manure, I shovel sand, I milk cows. No man does anything on my farm that I don't do myself."
Someone asked, "But can you make as much money farming as you do golfing?"
"I will answer that seriously," Player said. "In 20 years, that ground will be worth a whole lot of money. My golf game, in 20 years, may not be worth as much. If on a farm like mine, you get one real champion race horse-if you get a Secretariat, a Seattle Slew, a Mill Reef-you can make more money that I ever have in golf."
"Would you quit golf then?"
"No, no. I do not play golf for money. I do not think Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus plays for money. You play to be a champion golfer. With that comes money. But that is not the main thing. The main ideal is to play great golf."
At 18 or 19, Player said, he was an assistant pro in a club near Johannesburg. "I made 60 rand a month, about $80, and a man offered me 500,000 pounds- $1 million today- if I would give him half my winnings for the rest of my career. I turned him down. I do not play for the money."
Nicklaus,39, said he might not want to play golf 10 years from now. Palmer, 50 this fall, cannot play well at the highest levels. Player is not ready to put boundaries on himself.
"I said I wanted to be the first man to win the modern Grand Slam and then I would quit," Player said. I did it. And I was 29. So I said I would play until I was 35 and never hit another golf ball. I paid off a $300 bet to Bobby Cole on that one. I am 43-and I might be playing until I am 63," Player laughed loudly.