CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For as unpredictable as Carnoustie could play this week at the British Open, Gary Player could be found at the other end of the spectrum Wednesday, doing sit-ups and talking fitness, nutrition and, yes, a little golf.
Player, who won one of his three Claret Jugs at Carnoustie in 1968, celebrated his 50th anniversary of that victory by holding court for more than a half hour in Carnoustie’s interview room.
Here are the highlights:
Asked if he ever imagined himself being back at Carnoustie 50 years after his win, Player instantly cracked a joke undoubtedly aimed at his less-fit peers:
“I certainly did. Being close to 83, you’re lucky to be alive. All my golfing friends are dead now. I’ve got to find new four-balls to play with. No, I certainly didn’t think I’d be back here. I was optimistic, but I really didn’t think I’d be back here to see the greatest tournament in the world being played again, and it certainly brings back wonderful memories.”
How about this story about Player’s first Open?
“Obviously, I have many great memories of this championship, and my first Open is a special memory to me because my wife had just had a baby, and unlike today the guys with their jets and all the money they have, I couldn’t fly home to be with my wife when she had our first child. I saw her when she was three months old. We went up to Muirfield, I thought, I’ve got to win this to make some money. I arrived at the clubhouse at Muirfield. I didn’t know it was as sticky as Augusta.
“I walked in and said, “Good morning, sir”, to the secretary. His name was Colonel Evans-Lombe. He said, “What do you want here?” It was quite a shock. I said, “Well, I’ve come to practise.” He said, “You’re not practising here, boy.” I thought very quickly. I said, “Look, I don’t have much. My wife is coming with our baby. I need the money, and I’m going to win the tournament.” He said, “Not only are you not welcome here, you’re an insolent little bastard.” So I was put back, to say the least, and humbled, but I befriended him, and he was fantastic.
“And he was instrumental in me winning because I was hitting a driver and a wedge to No. 15 every day, and he came out to me one day and said, “One day if the wind changes, you could be hitting a 3 iron.” Those days in the U.S. Open and The Open, we had to play 36 holes the final day. And not to digress, but if you’re tired, you had a 36-hole playoff the next day. Anyway, I hit off with a 6-iron for the next few days off the tee and hit a 3 iron to the green. And the final round when the wind blew hard, I had a 3 iron in the morning and birdied it, 2 iron in the afternoon and birdied it. I went to thank him, and he stood there at the prize, with his hands like this as though he’d won it. But he was instrumental.”
Player also talked about the unpredictability of picking a favorite, yet then did just that:
“It’s impossible, but if you get a feeling about somebody winning, my feeling is Rickie Fowler. I think he’s been very close at majors. I think he’s played so well last week. He’s in a good frame of mind. He’s a marvelous putter. He hits the ball pretty straight, although they tell me — I haven’t been around since I came here two weeks ago — they said the rough isn’t very severe. Hitting a lot with irons. Ernie Els hit with the ball with a driver, runs 60 yards when it hits the ground — all things I was not familiar with.”
Alas, one more story from the great Mr. Player:
“In 1968 we were playing the 14th hole here and there were five of us within one shot. I was playing with Jack Nicklaus, one ahead of him, Maurice Bembridge, Bob Charles, and Billy Casper and myself. The wind was into our face, and I hit a drive up the right-hand side. The other day I did an outing here, and I got in my cart after the outing, and I went there and kissed the ground and said a prayer of thanks because those kind of things don’t happen in your life, only one time. And I stood exactly where I hit the ball from, and the wind was a little bit into my face, and I had 242 yards to go. Were we using the big ball then? Yes. I was the first player to win an Open with the big ball, and that was at Lytham, yes. So we were using the small ball then, I think. I had 242 yards to go, and I hit the ball that far from the hole, that far.
“Now, at that stage, it’s — I’m not that good. That’s a miracle, particularly when you’ve got all that stuff. You’ve only got to look over the spectacles and see other bunkers and heather, you’ve got to put the ball in, at that time, in a 10-foot or 3-yard fairway, which was a path. I don’t know how it’s changed since then. And to then be two shots ahead. And then I came to the last hole two shots ahead of Nicklaus, and that’s why I felt so sad for van de Velde because I took an iron off the tee, an iron for my second and said, if I get a 5, I am playing for a 5. If Nicklaus gets an eagle and ties me, so be it. But van de Velde should have — again, it’s that “if” factor again. He should have hit off with a 5 iron, a 6 iron, and a wedge and won by two.
“I must say, last night at the media evening, which is a very prevalent, important event for me to attend every year because I explained to the media that — and I had to do it very briefly, I was instructed, if it wasn’t for you guys and women in this room, we wouldn’t be playing for the kind of prize money we’re playing for, and young athletes don’t recognize this. The number of athletes that refuse to do interviews — and I’m sure many of you have had that experience, or we’ll give you three minutes — don’t know what they’re doing because you guys are promoting the tournaments. You’re bringing out the crowds. You’re informing the public. You’re making the sponsors happy because the sponsors aren’t going to put up that money unless they get promoted.
“And everything is promotion in this life, whether you promote yourself as an athlete, whether you’re a Callaway, a businessman, whatever you are. When you’re doing articles, you’re promoting your name and for your newspaper. So it’s a very special thank you I said last night in a very brief way.”