2007 Masters: Gary Player is still going strong at 71

Augusta, Ga. | It’s 10 p.m. Friday, and Gary Player is still working the crowd. Shaking hands, slapping backs, posing for photos and regaling guests at a Masters-week reception with anecdotes and philosophy.

Four-and-a-half hours earlier, he had just completed a 77 over Augusta National, coping with course conditions that will be remembered as perhaps the most difficult in Masters history. His Round 2 score was better than those of Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Chris DiMarco, J.J. Henry, David Toms and Robert Allenby, to name a few.

Player’s workday had begun before dawn, when he went through his rigorous routine of sit-ups, push-ups and stretches. For months, Player had been building stamina for walking the hills of Augusta National by running each day up stairs he had built on a hillside at his ranch in South Africa.

At 71, Player is golf’s Energizer Bunny. The 71st Masters was his 50th, and he offers no evidence that he can’t notch another three or four appearances before calling it quits.

“The way I played this week, geez, it’s encouraging,” Player said. “I just feel so confident. When I feel I don’t have any chance of breaking 80, I’m out.”

Player finished 89th in a field of 96. Among the seven players he beat were Camilo Villegas, British Amateur champ Julien Guerrier and U.S. Amateur Public Links champ Casey Watabu, whose combined ages (25, 21 and 23) add up to two years shy of Player’s.

Player said he “played beautifully” in Round 1, but was done in by three unlucky holes. He made triple bogey at the 10th, and doubles at the 12th and 15th on his way to posting 83.

His second round was near textbook, marred only by a double bogey at the seventh. The longest iron in Player’s bag is a 6-iron; he carries three hybrids, a 9-wood, 5-wood and 3-wood. The shortest club he used for an approach shot Friday was the hybrid 5.

Player’s driving was especially impressive. He hit 22 of 28 fairways and averaged 253.7 yards on the two measured holes. His new weapon of choice is the Callaway FT-i square-headed driver, which he first tested – reluctantly – in January.

“I thought it was from Mars,” he said.

And how about this for a septuagenarian: Player had no three-putts on the treacherous Augusta National greens. On the 11 greens he hit in regulation, he needed only 21 putts.

One final stat: His best ball for the two rounds would have been 35-37–72.

The only downer was Arnold Palmer. During a media conference to announce that Palmer would hit the ceremonial first drive, he was asked to comment about Player matching his record of 50 Masters appearances.

“Well, if he isn’t embarrassed, I won’t be embarrassed for him,” Palmer responded. “We’re good friends. He just wants to do one better, and that’s fine. I’m for him.”

But Palmer noted that he played in 50 consecutive Masters, a record Player “can’t touch” because he missed the 1973 tournament because he was recovering from bladder surgery.

Palmer playfully dismissed the suggestion that Player is in such good physical shape that he might play here for several more years.

“Who gives a shit? If you can’t win, it doesn’t matter,” Palmer said, looking down at the stenographer and adding: “That’s s-h-i-t.”

The room erupted with laughter.

There was no disrespect intended. “Hey, he’s my friend and I love him. I can also have fun with him, too,” Palmer said. But when word got back to Player, he was “very hurt.”

“I love Arnold so much,” Player said. “We’ve been friends for 50 years. I’ve stayed at his house, he’s stayed at my house, we’ve traveled the world together. We’ve laughed, we’ve even cried together.”

Player said he’s motivated not so much by setting records as he is delivering a message.

“I want to show the world, and these youngsters, that if you look after your body how productive you can be for a long time in business and contribute to society,” he said. “That’s my main dream, and that I achieved this week.

“I had so many people say to me, ‘How the hell can you, at 71, have this energy and walk around the course and play like this?’ That made my week. So I was just very hurt that Arnold wouldn’t have been a little more gracious. . . . If he would have just said to me, ‘I’m pleased that you’re joining me at 50.’ ”

When a 21-year-old Gary Player made his Masters debut in 1957, holes 11, 12 and 13 had yet to be dubbed “Amen Corner” and nobody sought to make “red numbers” (the over-under scoring method was introduced here in 1960). The Par 3 Course didn’t exist, nor did Butler Cabin. The Masters would be shown on TV (the final three holes) for only the second time, and it was the year of the tournament’s first cut (low 40 and ties). There was no waiting list for tickets and contestants putted on Bermudagrass greens.

The field in ’57 included Gene Sarazen, Henry Cotton, Byron Nelson, Lawson Little, Ben Hogan, Claude Harmon, Paul Runyan, Denny Shute and Craig Wood. Doug Ford won, shooting 5-under 283 over a 6,980-yard Augusta National. Sam Snead was runner-up, Jimmy Demaret placed third and the great amateur Harvie Ward finished fourth.

Player said he was “over-awed” being in their presence.

“I’d been reading about all these guys, and I wanted to see them all,” Player said. “Take a guy like Denny Shute. He could play like hell. Look in the clubhouse and you’ll see a picture in there (of the

Masters field) from 1935. I counted 35 outstanding players who guys today never have heard of.

“Here was a guy like Paul Runyan. He wasn’t much of a ballstriker. But, man, you talk about chipping and putting. He could chip and putt like a demon.”

Player hadn’t yet adopted the Black Knight persona, which he soon would copy from the popular TV western “Have Gun Will Travel.” Player’s father had dropped out of school at 15 to work in a gold mine, but he was crafty enough to advise his son to brand himself.

“My father told me, ‘If you have a brand, and you become a world champion, it can go on forever.’ ” Player said. “And how right he was. Bobby Jones makes more money today being dead.”

The character who inspired Player was a sophisticated gunfighter known only as Paladin. He dressed in black and handed out business cards that featured a chess knight insignia and read “Have Gun

Will Travel, Wire Paladin, San Francisco.”

“I thought, hey, I’m from black Africa. This is it – wear black!” Player said. His logo is an updated version of Paladin’s.

Player never tires of promoting the Black Knight brand – to the point that some consider him a parody of himself. Especially when he boasts of being the most widely traveled person in history, or of a workout regimen that includes 1,000 sit-ups per day, including sets with an 80-pound weight on his chest.

Of those who suggest Player tends toward embellishment, he says: “You’ll always have people who want to pull you down. It doesn’t matter who you are. . . . Everybody I’ve known who has enjoyed a great deal of success, has always got detractors. That’s human nature.

“All I can say is, if you took the world’s men between 30 and 50, I’d beat 80 percent of them in a fitness contest. And I’m 71. So anyone who looks at me, and sees that I have zero body fat, and how I can walk around this golf course, they’d never say that with any authority.”

Player, by the way, tips the scales at 140 pounds. The most he has ever weighed is 166, in 1965, the year he completed the career Grand Slam by winning the U.S. Open.

Asked to quantify his claim as the king of world travel, Player says that one is easy.

He reckons that airline pilots log the most miles of anyone, and the average pilot works about 30 to 35 years. He has been keeping a pilot’s pace since he was 16.

“And remember this, I don’t travel like a pilot who might do two long international flights a month,” Player said. “Think about what I’ve done in the last five weeks: Johannesburg, Singapore, Japan, Hawaii, Houston, New York, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, New York, West Palm Beach, Johannesburg, back here, and I’m going back to Johannesburg on Monday. There’s no pilot who can do that. And I’ve done this for 55 years, all the time.

I don’t think anybody’s even flown anywhere near what I’ve done.”

If, as expected, he’s here again next year, there’s no one likely to match that feat, either.

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