The Masters golf tournament proved last Monday what it can do to the strongest men and the staunchest nerves. Gary Player, the small, trim South African, was the eventual winner, but in all his 25 years he never spent a more harrowing afternoon as he waited for the victory to drop in his lap. Arnold Palmer, the defending champion, lost his title on the 72nd hole after a few minutes of misfortune that left even his fellow pros gaping in disbelief.
"Just when you think you have it licked, this golf course can get up and bite you," Player had said one afternoon midway through the tournament. And that is just what happened on the last few holes. The Augusta National Golf Club Course got up and bit both Player and Palmer.
Player was the first to feel its teeth After playing a splendid first nine holes in 34—two strokes under par—on this fifth and final day of the tournament (Sunday's fourth round had been washed out by a violent rainstorm when it was only half completed), Player's game rapidly fell to pieces. He bogeyed the 10th. After a journey through woods and stream he double-bogeyed the 13th. He bogeyed the 15th by missing a short putt and finally scrambled through the last three holes without further mishap for a 2-over-par 74 and a 72-hole total of 280.
As he signed his scorecard and walked off the course, Player was almost in tears. He could read on the nearby scoreboard that Palmer, by then playing the 15th hole, was leading him by a stroke. Palmer had started the round four strokes behind Player, and at one point in the afternoon had trailed by as many as six strokes. Now all he had to do was finish in even par to collect the trophy and the biggest single paycheck in golf.
April 17, 1961
When Palmer hit a good straight drive up the fairway on the 72nd hole, he seemed to have the championship won. But the seven-iron shot he used to approach the green strayed into a bunker and lodged in a slight depression. In trying to hit it out with a sand wedge Palmer bounced the ball over the green, past spectators and down the slope toward a TV tower.
Afterwards, Palmer told Charlie Coe, his last-round partner, that he simply played the hole too fast. He did seem hasty on his second and third shots, but then there was an agonizing wait of several minutes while Coe graciously putted out, giving Palmer a chance to recover his composure, which he had quite visibly lost.
When the shaken Palmer finally did hit his fourth shot, he overshot the hole by 15 feet. Palmer was now putting merely for a tie, and Player, who was sitting beside his wife and watching it all on television in Tournament Chairman Clifford Roberts' clubhouse apartment, stared in amazement when Palmer missed the putt.
Palmer's 281 for the four rounds at Augusta was a comfortable four strokes ahead of the next closest pro, but it was barely good enough for a second-place tie with Coe. The lean and leathery Oklahoma amateur, who has been playing topnotch tournament golf for many years, refused to let the Masters jitters overtake him and closed the tournament with his second straight 69.
End at seven
Until late last Saturday afternoon Palmer had played seven consecutive rounds of golf at the Masters—four last year and three this—without ever being out of first place. As evening approached and Palmer finished his Saturday round with a disappointing one-over-par 73, this remarkable record was still intact, thanks to his Thursday and Friday rounds of 68 and 69. His three-round total of 210 was three strokes better than the next best score, a 213 by Bill Collins, the tall and deliberate Baltimorean who had been playing very well all winter long.
But Palmer knew, as did everybody else at Augusta, that his streak was about to be broken. Half an hour after he finished his round, Player holed out at the 18th green with a 69 and a three-round total of 206, four strokes ahead of Palmer.
More than a streak had ended. Long after the erratic climate and the washed-out final round on Sunday have become meteorological footnotes, the 1961 Masters will be remembered as the scene of the mano a mano between Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Unlike most such sports rivalries, it appeared to have developed almost spontaneously, although this was not exactly the case.
When the winter tour began at Los Angeles last January there was no one in sight to challenge Palmer's towering prestige. As if to confirm his stature, he quickly won three of the first eight tournaments. Player won only one. But as the tour reached Pensacola a month ago, Player was leading Palmer in official winnings by a few hundred dollars, and the rest of the field was somewhere off in nowhere. On the final round at Pensacola, the luck of the draw paired Palmer and Player in the same threesome and, although it was far from obvious at the time, the gallery was treated to the first chapter of what promises to be one of the most exciting duels in sport for a long time to come.
On that final Sunday at Pensacola neither Palmer nor Player was leading the tournament and, as it turned out, neither won it. But whichever of these two finished ahead of the other would be the undisputed financial leader of the tour. Player immediately proved he was not in the least awed by the dramatic proximity of Palmer He outplayed Palmer all around the course and finished with a tremendous 65 to Palmer's 71. Thereafter, until the Masters, Player gradually increased his lead over Palmer in winnings and added one more tournament victory at Miami. When they reached Augusta last week, together they had won five of the 13 tournaments to date.
On Thursday, the first day of the Masters, the contest between Palmer and Player developed instantly. It was a dismal, drizzly day but a good one on which to score over the Augusta National course. The usually skiddy greens were moist and soft, so the golfers were able to strike their approach shots boldly at the flag-stick and putt firmly toward the hole without too much worry about the consequences. Palmer's 4-under-par 68 got him off to an early lead, which he shared with Bob Rosburg. But Player was only one stroke back, with a 69.
Even so, it was still not clear to many in the enormous horde of spectators—unquestionably the largest golf crowd ever—that this tournament was to be, essentially, a match between Palmer and Player. A lot of people were still thinking about Jack Nicklaus, the spectacular young amateur, who had a 70; or Ken Venturi, who had a somewhat shaky 72 but was bound to do better; or Rosburg, whose accurate short game and supersensitive putter can overcome so many of Augusta's treacheries; or even old Byron Nelson, whose excellent 71 made one wonder if he had solved the geriatric aspects of golf. (On Thursday nobody except Charlie Coe was thinking of Charlie Coe.)
On Friday, a day as cloudless and lovely as Thursday had been gray and ugly, the plot of the tournament came clearly into focus. Rosburg had started early in the day, and by the time Palmer and Player were on the course—separated, as they were destined to be for the rest of the weekend, by about half an hour—they could see on the numerous scoreboards spotted around the course that Rosburg, who ended with a 73, was not having a good day.
As Player began his second round in a twosome with amateur Bill Hyndman, his share of the gallery was not conspicuously large for a contender. Player began with a birdie on the first hole, added five straight pars and then another birdie at the 9th. On the back nine he began to acquire the tidal wave of a gallery that stayed with him the rest of the tournament. He birdied the 13th, the 15th and the 18th—five birdies, one bogey and 12 pars for a 68.
Starting half an hour behind Player in company with British Open Champion Kel Nagle, Palmer birdied the 2nd, the 9th, the 13th and the 16th—four birdies, one bogey and 13 pars for a 69. The roar of Palmer's gallery as he sank a thrilling putt would roll out across the parklike landscape of Augusta, only to be answered moments later by the roar of Player's gallery for a similar triumph. At one point late in the day, when Palmer was lining up a 25-foot putt on the 16th, a thunderous cheer from the direction of the 18th green unmistakably announced that Player had birdied the final hole. Without so much as a grimace or a gesture to show that he had noticed (although he later admitted that he had) Palmer proceeded to sink his 25-footer, and his gallery sent its explosive vocalization rolling back along the intervening fairways in reply.
The boldness of champions
Anyone who now doubted that a personal duel was under way had only to watch how these exceptionally gifted golfers were playing this most difficult golf course. It is almost axiomatic that golfers who dominate the game of golf for any period of time attack their shots with a vehemence bordering on violence. The bad luck that can so often mar a well-played round of golf is simply overpowered and obliterated by the contemptuous boldness of these champions. Bob Jones played that way. Byron Nelson did, Hogan did. And last week at the Masters Palmer and Player did.
As the third round of the tournament began on Saturday and the duel was resumed in earnest, it was Player's superior aggressiveness that carried him into the lead. This day Palmer had started first. As Player stepped on the first tee he knew that Palmer had birdied the first two holes and already was 2 under par for the day. Player immediately proceeded to follow suit. In fact, he went on to birdie the 6th and 8th as well, to go 4 under par for the first eight holes.
But Player's real test came on the ninth hole, a downhill dogleg to the left measuring 420 yards. He hit a poor tee shot, pulling it off into the pine woods separating the 9th and first fairways. Having hit one of the trees, the ball came to rest not more than 160 yards out. Player then had the choice of punching the ball safely out of the woods to the 9th fairway and settling for a bogey 5, or gambling. The latter involved hitting a full four-wood out to the first fairway and toward the clubhouse, hoping to slice it back to the deeply bunkered 9th green.
"I was hitting the ball well," Player said later, "and I felt strong. When you're playing like that you'd better attack."
Player attacked with his four-wood and hit a shot that few who saw it will ever forget. It struck the 9th green on the fly and stopped just off the edge. From there he chipped back and sank his putt for a par 4.
Palmer, meanwhile, had been having his troubles. They started on the 4th hole, a 220-yard par-3. On this day the wind had switched 180° from the northwest to the southeast, and nearly every shot on the course was different from the previous few days. At the 4th tee Palmer chose to hit a one-iron when a three-wood was the proper club, so he put the ball in a bunker in front of the green. His bogey 4 on this hole and subsequent bogeys at 5 and 7 along with a birdie at 8 brought him back to even par.
Starting the second nine, Palmer was already four strokes behind Player and knew it. Still playing unsteadily, he scrambled his way to three consecutive pars, but on the 13th he hit a shot into the creek and took a bogey 6. Along this same route Player bogeyed the 11th, 12th and 13th. Following the minute-to-minute fluctuations of the contest was getting to be an exercise in arithmetical gymnastics. At one moment Player was 11 under par for the tournament and sailing along with a downy five-stroke lead over Palmer. The next you knew, the lead was down to two strokes.
When the agony of the third day was over, Palmer had posted a one-over-par 73—6 under par for the first three rounds—but there wasn't a hint of defeat or dejection in his voice.
"You have days like that," he said.
"You just hope they don't come too often. It started at the 4th hole, and after that I never pulled the right club out of my bag. The course never played easier than it did today, and I don't remember ever playing it worse. I didn't have any concentration, and I didn't have any judgment."
Player, meantime, had recovered somewhat from his back-nine doldrums. Birdies on the 15th and 16th holes helped him regain his poise, and he finished his round with a 3-under-par 69—four strokes ahead of Palmer.
It was thus that they went into the final round of this extraordinary two-man tournament, for Palmer's two-stroke lead over the nearest pursuers—Paul Harney, the graying young pro from Massachusetts, and Coe—looked as wide and unbridgeable as the Grand Canyon. It simply was not conceivable that anyone but Player or Palmer could win.
Despite his youth, the new Masters champion is already two-thirds of the way toward his major ambition in golf—the winning of the British Open, the Masters and the U.S. Open. "All in the same year?" someone asked him. Player grinned. "I may be greedy," he said, "but I'm not a pig."