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8:56:01 PM ET. 04/19/2014




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AUGUSTA, Ga. — The memory was so old that it nearly rolled in black and white, but Vivienne Player vividly recalls the first time she and her newlywed husband, Gary, flew from South Africa into Augusta, Ga., for Gary’s very first Masters tournament.

“I remember flying in quite low, and the pilot saying, ‘There’s Augusta on the right-hand side,’ ” recalled Vivienne in her gracious South African accent as her husband stalked a putt at the 17th hole of Augusta National late Friday afternoon. “I thought, ‘Wow. We’re headed to the Masters.’ How wonderful.”

How wonderful. Little could she ever imagine her husband would spend an entire year of his life at the place. Late Friday, he doffed his cap at an incredible run, completing play at his 52nd Masters, competing in his record 165th tournament round at The National.

When it ended, when he saw Vivienne and three of his six children and four of his 20 grandchildren (a 21st will arrive next month) waiting for him behind the tiny green scorer’s hut, the emotions inside crested, and the tears fell. Even as early as Monday of this week, he knew they would. Borrowing a phrase from one of his favorites, Winston Churchill, Player had said, “It’s never a bad thing to cry. It’s a cry of appreciation and enjoyment, a cry of gratitude.”

Friday, it was all of those, and more. The standing ovations he’d received through 36 holes and 161 shots (78-83) came to a crescendo at Augusta’s storied closing hole, where he’d ripped a 5-wood from the bottom of the hill between two bunkers in front, running his ball onto the back of the green. At one point, so grateful was Player for the stage, he knelt to one knee. The roar, he says, was 10 times louder than he remembers it being in any of the three years he captured a green jacket. “A feast,” he called it.

“It was something you’ll never, ever forget,” said Player. “You’ll go to your grave knowing you had tremendous love showered upon yourself.”

The little man from South Africa never moved the Augusta masses like Arnie, or wowed them quite like Jack. But no one worked harder, or was more determined, and in the end, few will ever boast the Masters numbers put up by the 73-year-old Player. Three green jackets, including a stunner in 1978, when he came from seven shots behind to shoot 64 and win at age 42. His run of excellence was impressive. From 1959-74, Player finished in the top 10 at Augusta an amazing 13 times.

Still, returning to the Masters each year was more than shooting scores and collecting goblets and trinkets. It was the friends, the fans, the competition, and the beauty of it all. Augusta National was where Player got to know President Dwight Eisenhower, Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, and where he had so many great head-to-head battles against the other two members of the Big Three, Palmer and Nicklaus.

“We still get so excited when we get our invitation in the mail each year,” said Vivienne Player. “And to drive down to Magnolia Lane, to look out that georgeous clubhouse and to see all the beautiful trees and flowers . . . it’s really been a thrill.”

Vivienne held up well until her husband made his way through Amen Corner. He hit a nifty bump-and-run with a sand wedge but failed to convert the putt at 11, hit the green and made par at the short but treacherous 12th, and played the 13th to near perfection, walking with yet another routine par.

“Walking around Amen Corner, and the 13th, which is my favorite hole, it just got very emotional for me, because it’s the last time I’ll be around here,” she said, not able to hold back the tears. “It’s so beautiful, and it’s been such a special, special time for us. That’s quite sad . . . We’ve had a great love affair with Augusta.”

Gary would struggle from that point, however, mostly with the putter, but understably with his emotions, too. How did Rembrandt feel when he painted one last time? Player finished with five bogeys, but the numbers were insignificant. At each tee box and each green, fans stood to salute a small but powerful man who has meant a great deal to a great event.

“I don’t think it’s about what I’ve meant to the Masters,” Player would say. “It’s what the Masters has meant to me.”

Pressed later to consider what his contribution has been, Player said, “I’d like to think that I’ve played with tenacity, never given up – not on a single shot – even to the last putt I hit.”

He’s been an incredible ambassador for the game, from Augusta to Beijing and all other corners of the world, always championing the game on a global level. As the son of a gold miner who worked 12,000 feet underground and was dirt poor – he had to take an overdraft to buy his son a set of golf clubs – Player takes great pride in the fact he never has turned down an interview. He hands advice to young players the way the Easter Bunny gives out candy. Giving, he says, is part of why we all are here on this earth.

He also believes in a Chinese proverb that states “All things must pass.” Friday, it was his time. As he exited the 18th green, four young South African players, including defending Masters champion Trevor Immelman, were waiting to greet and thank Player for the inspiration and guidance he always has been there to provide.

With that, Player called it an era at Augusta National. He visited with the media, then made his way up the hill to the stately clubhouse. With little fanfare as darkness set in, he made his way out the front door, shook the hands of a couple security guards, and then quietly vanished into the Georgia night. Want a sentence that makes one appreciate what we’ve had? For the first time since 1954, the Masters in 2010 will be played without Palmer, Nicklaus or Player in the field.

End of an era? That’s a huge understatement. Incredible to think what one flight into Augusta more than five decades ago would kindle.

And funny that Gary Player was the one saying most of the thanks on Friday.

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