AUGUSTA, Ga. – There will be tears. Gary Player wasn’t about to kid otherwise.
“I’m a damn big baby. I cry so easy,” he said Monday. As the room got quiet, you could almost sense that the 73-year-old legend was trying to prepare himself for what his world will be like come Friday, when he walks up Augusta National’s 18th fairway for the final time in the Masters.
So he did what he has often done in times like this: he dug deep to quote a man whom he has always cited as a hero, Winston Churchill.
“He said, ‘It’s never a bad thing to cry,’ ” Player said. “It (will be) a cry of appreciation and enjoyment – a cry of gratitude.”
This was all part of the prelude to the 73rd Masters, this announcement from Player that it would be his 52nd and final appearance as a competitor. In his news conference, the proud man from South Africa was his vintage self, his quoting of Churchill going hand in hand with points of discussion about obesity, the worldwide water shortage, manners, physical fitness and golf courses stretched to outrageous lengths.
But no matter on which tangent he took, Player always circled back to his passion for the Masters, for Augusta National and for the people who have supported him all these years.
As the grand man talked, it was impossible not to let the mind wander. The thought occurred that when 2010 rolls around, it will be the first time since 1954 that a Masters field will not include Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus or Player. You can shed a tear at such a thought, of course, or you can treat it as further testament to golf’s glory, because unlike every other sport, our greatest game offers icons who are able to grace the stage well into their golden years.
OK, so maybe they can’t deliver birdies and eagles or majestic shots, but they can proudly provide an even stronger foundation at a time when so much is falling apart. Player first saw Augusta National in 1957 (“I was in absolute awe; overwhelmed, in fact”), two years after Palmer made his debut and two years before Nicklaus arrived.
Over parts of six decades, the Big Three helped bring the game to the mainstream, and nowhere did their skills and personalities converge quite like they did at Augusta National. Combined, they won 13 times (Nicklaus six, Palmer four, Player three) and in one glorious stretch (1958-66), they earned eight green jackets.
“The battles that I had with Arnold and Jack. . . .,” Player said, though it was the way his eyes sparkled that conveyed even more of a message.
Ah, but none of these great men has discovered a way to combat the passage of time. So it is that Palmer bowed out of the Masters in 2004, Nicklaus did so the next year and now Player.
“I am getting old,” Player said. “I suddenly realized that most of the players in the field weren’t even born when I first played here.”
More than likely, none of them will leave a mark on this tournament to match Player’s. Three times a winner, his 52 starts is a tournament record. He set a record at the age of 62 in 1998 for oldest player to ever make the cut at the Masters until it was broken by 63-year-old Tommy Aaron in 2000. Only Sam Snead (31) and Nicklaus (37) played all 72 holes in more Masters. When you consume how flavorful is the international story to today’s golf, give Player his due.
“It’s nice to feel that possibly my wins I experienced here encouraged the international players to realize that they could win,” said the Masters’ first non-American winner. That was 1961, and since then, 10 others have donned green jackets.
The list includes fellow South African Trevor Immelman, whom Player will introduce at Tuesday night’s Champions Dinner. It’s a part of the Masters flavor that he promises to remain faithful to, because while his playing days here will conclude, “I’m still going to come to this tournament.”
With his legacy firmly cemented, Player gives 1978 the nod as his favorite. Starting the final round seven behind Hubert Green, he made birdie on seven of his final 10 holes, shot a backside 30, signed for 64, and won his ninth and final major championship, at 42, no less.
The lowlight? He didn’t deny that 1962 still stings. Palmer drained an improbable birdie putt from long range at the 16th, pulled off some dramatics at 17 and beat Player in a playoff. Though he forever will cherish his friendship with Palmer, Player scowled, even 47 years later.
“When you finish second, only your wife and your dog remember it,” Player said. “And that’s if you’ve got a good wife and a good dog.”
There was laughter all around, and why not? This was a moment to celebrate, because Player’s commitment to his craft and devotion to this tournament are priceless commodities, the likes of which we can hope to see again, though we can’t be sure. For now, we can ponder the chance Player would join Palmer for the ceremonial first tee shot in 2010.
“I’m not going to say well, he (Augusta National chairman Billy Payne) should ask me,” Player said.
But if he did? “Of course I would.”
Then he stopped, leaned forward in his seat, and reminded us all why it is we embraced these legends and cherished the magical ride they provided.
“I’ll even exercise harder to make sure I out-drive Arnold.”
Well played, Mr. Player.