2009 Masters: Gary Player plays in the Masters one last time

Augusta, Ga. | The memory was so timeworn that it nearly rolled in black and white. Vivienne Player vividly recalls the first time she and her newlywed husband, Gary, flew from South Africa into Augusta 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,’ ” said Vivienne in her gracious South African accent as her husband stalked a putt at the 17th hole of his 52nd and final Masters. “I thought, ‘Wow. We’re headed to the Masters.’ How wonderful.”

How wonderful. It was 1957.

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 his record 165th – and final – 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 is due next month) waiting for him behind the tiny green scorer’s hut, the emotions inside crested, and the tears fell. He had known they would. Borrowing a phrase from one of his favorites, Winston Churchill, earlier in the week, Player said, “It’s never a bad thing to cry. It’s a cry of appreciation and enjoyment, a cry of gratitude.”

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 was so grateful for the stage, he knelt on one knee in salute. The ensuing roar, he says, was 10 times louder than those Sundays when he won green jackets.

“It was something you’ll never, ever forget,” said the 73-year-old 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 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 to ’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 trinkets. It was the friends, the fans, the competition and the beauty. Augusta National was where Player got to know President Eisenhower, Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, and where he had so many great head-to-head battles against his more famous Big Three cohorts, Palmer and Nicklaus.

“We still get so excited when we get our invitation in the mail each year,” Vivienne Player said. “And to drive down to Magnolia Lane, to look out that gorgeous 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 one last time through Amen Corner. Player made par in the swirling winds at 12, then played the 13th to near perfection, making an easy par. It was there she got emotional.

“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. We’ve had a great love affair with Augusta.”

Player thought he dealt with his emotions pretty well until he made the long, uphill walk toward the green at 18. At each tee box, each green, fans stood to shower gratitude upon 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 said humbly. “It’s what the Masters has meant to me.”

A self-made man whose father was a gold miner in South Africa, Player takes pride in knowing his success arrived through good old-fashioned hard work. He is one of the game’s great ambassadors, and few have given as much back to the game.

He also is a firm believer that all things must pass. Last week, it simply was his time. As he exited the 18th green, four young South African players, including defending Masters champion Trevor Immelman, were waiting to thank Player for his inspiration and guidance.

With that, Player called it an era at Augusta National. Soon, he’d exit the Champions Locker Room and vanish into the Georgia night. Consider this: The 2010 Masters, for the first time since 1954, will be played without Palmer, Nicklaus or Player in its field. Sobering.

End of an era? A huge understatement. Incredible to think what one flight into Augusta carrying a 21-year-old rookie more than five decades ago would kindle.

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

Welcome to Golfweek.com's comments section.
Please review the posting guidlines here: Golfweek.com Community Guidelines.
All accounts must be verified using Disqus email verification