The Masters championship has always produced a high order of excitement and drama, especially in its closing moments. In 1957 Doug Ford holed out of a trap by the final green to win with a closing 66; Ford again, and Fred Hawkins, missed shortish putts on the last hole that would have tied them with Arnold Palmer in 1958; Art Wall, scoring five birdies on the last six holes, won by a stroke in 1959; and last year Palmer's famous birdie-birdie finish edged him past a heartbroken Ken Venturi to victory by a stroke. The 1961 Masters, as hardly anybody need be reminded, was of a piece with these and all the other spirited finishes in golf.
The end came so suddenly and disastrously that it left the usually self-confident Palmer dazed and shaken, and it left a multitude of Palmer fans nearly as stunned as the defending champion. More happily the end hoisted a wary, partially resigned Gary Player out of a mood of defeat into one of victorious, almost unbelieving ecstasy.
To millions of TV witnesses it must have seemed that with-his horrifying double bogey Palmer simply threw the tournament away. It was not that simple—and in fairness both to Player and to golfing history it must be said, emphatically, that Player won the Masters. It was Player, not Palmer, who proved he was best able to withstand the pressure of a rained-out, incomplete final round and to gather his energies for another tense battle the following day. It was Player who was able to recover from a double bogey and a bogey on two vital holes near the end and finish with two courageous, scrambling pars. It was he, in fact, who came to the last day with a four-stroke lead he had built from an assortment of brilliantly hit shots and brilliantly played holes. The lead proved too big for even the resolute Arnold Palmer to overcome.
Watching Player at the Masters, one was constantly reminded of Palmer. Like Palmer, he is a bold, aggressive golfer who enjoys attacking a golf course. This attitude is evident even as he settles into his stance: his feet shift restlessly until they have established solid balance and purchase in the turf; his arms make a straight, determined line down through the club; his jaw has a straight, determined thrust as he starts his swing. It is obvious that he is going to hit the ball just as hard as he possibly can. When flawlessly executed, as it often was during the five days of play on the long and difficult Augusta National, this kind of golf becomes a tremendously exciting thing to watch. Even on the final round where another golfer with a four-stroke lead might easily have tried a more protective, conservative approach, Player stuck to his style of play and won the admiration of the galleries.
April 24, 1961
Player's uninhibited exuberance washes over into his conversation. Even in front of large groups of people he chatters freely, and with no trace of false modesty, about himself or his golf. The morning following the tournament he was calm and relaxed for the first time in a week and ready to discuss in detail the shots and the holes that had been most vital in making him the first foreign golfer ever to win the Masters.
"I can still hardly believe I won it, it all happened so suddenly," Player said, sitting in the cluttered, pine-paneled living room of the house he had rented in Augusta for himself, his wife Vivienne and their two small children. "But I had to hit some pretty good shots in that tournament to do it."
Many of the people who saw it will always claim that the four-wood Player hit out of the pine trees to par the 9th hole on the third day (SI, April 17) was his finest shot of the tournament. Player agrees that this was a first-class shot, but he does not rate it his best.
"My best single shot of the tournament—and I really mean this sincerely," he said. "My best shot of the whole, entire tournament was the wedge shot I hit on the 4th hole during the second day."
The 4th hole at Augusta is a long par 3,220 yards, with a sloping green fronted by a steep, gaping trap and flanked by another trap on the left. The hole is made difficult not only by its great length, but by the constantly shifting wind that makes the confident choice of a club difficult. A shot hit with too much club could sail right out of bounds over the right side. Too little club and the ball is likely to plunge straight into the fronting trap. Player had started the second round one stroke behind Palmer and Bob Rosburg and was one under par as he stood on the 4th tee.
"I hit a four-wood from the tee," he said, "but I hadn't counted on such a strong right-to-left wind and my ball ended just above the trap on the left of the green. It wasn't in the trap, but it was sitting up on some sand and high grass and the pin must have been about 75 feet away. I didn't know whether to chip it up toward the hole or explode it like a trap shot. I finally decided to explode the ball and play for a bogey. I hit a beauty, if I do say so myself, and the ball stopped this far away." Player held up his right thumb and forefinger to indicate about five inches. By the end of the day it was quite a vital five inches. Player was tied with Palmer at 137 for a halfway lead.
The following afternoon Palmer started out 35 minutes ahead of Player and birdied the first two holes. The gallery was immense, maybe 35,000, and Palmer might have won the tournament right there if his pursuer had been a less determined golfer than Gary Player proved to be.
"Look at this," Player said and held out a small scrap of paper on which he had penciled the hole-by-hole recap of his four rounds to refresh his memory. "During the four days I had six birdies on the first two holes. This was certainly a key part of my winning. You start off like that and you're in a good position, a good frame of mind to play the rest of the round. Take Saturday for instance. There I am out on the putting green waiting to tee off and looking at the scoreboard. Arnold starts out 3-4; birdies on the first two holes. Why, I'm shocked, I'm frightened stiff. Suddenly he's two shots ahead of me in the tournament."
If Player was scared it was not apparent to the huge crowd that surrounded the first tee. The first hole at Augusta is 400 yards long and a difficult one to birdie, especially when the pin is placed on the ridge directly behind the trap on the left. Player aimed his tee shot right up the middle and hit it as hard as he could.
"I had only an eight-iron to the green," he continued. "The pin was on the left side of the green and as I hit the ball my only thought was to knock it right into the hole. I aimed the shot about 15 feet to the right of the pin, so as to avoid the trap on the left, and brought it in just a little. When the ball stopped the people around the green applauded very kindly and I knew the shot had been a good one."
Player had been left with an uphill putt of 12 feet and again his only thought was to hit it straight into the hole. He played it four inches to the right and hit it firmly. The monstrous roar from the gallery told anyone who could not see the ball drop that Player was acting rather peculiarly for a man who was frightened stiff. He had his birdie, and on the second hole he had his second birdie.
"After Arnold's 3-4," Player said, "I guess I thought I'd just chop it in there 3-4 myself. It was a wonderful feeling to get those shots back so fast."
A quick recovery
Player dropped them and one more in the back nine with three straight bogeys, but two quick birdies on the 15th and 16th testified to the determination of this little South African. He finished the day four strokes ahead of Palmer, who had shot a 73.
On Monday, following a very tough 11 holes during Sunday's washed-out rounds, Player started out once again with birdies on the first two holes and coming to the 13th was still two shots ahead of the fast-closing Palmer.
"I'll have nightmares about the 13th hole for the rest of my life," Player says. He should—and he has company. The 13th is an intriguing par 5, bordered and crossed by Rae's Creek, which offers tremendous temptation for the golfer willing to gamble. Amateur Billy Patton lost the 1954 Masters on the 13th when he gambled on the final day and took a 7. Palmer won the 1958 Masters on the same hole when he took a calculated risk on the final day and scored an eagle 3.
Player hit his drive off the 13th tee deep into the trees lining the right side of the fairway. Even so he had a clear shot out onto the adjoining 14th fairway. He could have played from there to the 13th green, according to Player, with a seven-or eight-iron. After anxiously checking over the situation, Player instructed the marshals to swing back the gallery, packed six deep along the right side of the 13th, to give him a clear shot into the 14th. This proved to be a sluggish and frustrating operation. Player kept pleading with the crowd to move back, but it was too large and unwieldy. After several minutes in which no progress had been made, he gave up in despair and looked to the 13th as his escape route.
Impatient to a fault
"I should have just sat down and waited, an hour if necessary, until the gallery had been cleared," Player said. "I couldn't really blame the crowds, but it gave me a terrible feeling, playing the last few holes, to think that I might be losing the tournament simply because I didn't have the patience to play the shot I wanted to play. If it had been an earlier round I probably would have waited for the gallery to get clear, but my four-stroke lead was being cut and I was too excited and worried about the delay to think clearly."
Player finally tried to smash the ball out of the woods and onto the 13th fairway with a two-iron. Even under ideal circumstances this is a difficult club to use, and here Player's lie was not a good one. The ball hooked sharply to the left and caromed into the creek that borders the 13th hole on the left. It cost Player a penalty stroke to lift out. He then hit a three-iron to the back edge of the green and proceeded to three-putt from 35 feet for a double-bogey 7. The four-stroke lead Player had carried into the final round was completely gone.
If Player's courage and ability to play golf under extreme pressure were in question after his disastrous 13th, there could have been no question about them when he had finished the 18th. "There are times in a tournament," as Bobby Jones said during the presentation ceremonies, "when a man thinks he's never going to play another hole in par." But after bogeying the 15th to fall one stroke behind Palmer, Player picked up a regulation par on the short 16th, then fought and won two nervy pars on the 17th and 18th.
"There's no doubt about the importance of those pars," Player said, continuing his analysis and frowning thoughtfully. "Those were damned good pars. I hit a nine-iron down over the 17th green and had a helluva tough chip coming back. Then I sank a 12-foot putt. Getting down in two from the back of that green was hard to believe. On the 18th I hit a really rotten drive and had a four-iron to the green. I tried to hook the shot in, but it went dead straight instead and into that trap on the right. I played a helluva trap shot out of there." He paused and smiled for a moment, thinking about the shot. "I don't even remember how long the putt was," he continued. "I hardly knew what I was doing. But I guess it was from here to the base of that lamp. That looks like about six feet.
"After going seven-four-six on the 13th, 14th and 15th holes I was feeling pretty disheartened," Player admitted. "But I still felt I had a chance to win. I'd finished with three pars and I felt pretty good about that. There's no hole on that course you can't double bogey. Palmer still had to get those pars to beat me and the only time you win is when the ball goes into the hole."
Palmer's collapse seemed inexplicable to the people who saw nothing but a steady succession of pars coming up on the scoreboard as he played down the stretch. But it may have been building up for two days. A great deal had been drained out of Palmer when he had been forced to whittle away at Player's lead on two consecutive days. After three birdies on the front nine, the signs began to show on the last few holes. Along the sidelines observers who had watched Palmer come from behind to win last year's Masters and had seen him come charging up to win last summer's U.S. Open with a final-round 65, commented on the singular lack of vigor in Palmer's play. He missed birdie putts of 10 feet or under on four of the five holes immediately preceding the 18th. His amateur playing partner, Charley Coe, not a particularly long hitter, had driven equal to him on 14 and 17 and had outdriven him cleanly on 15 and 18. Palmer was hitting the ball straight enough but it was not ripping off the clubhead with the familiar Palmer gusto. His shots appeared almost to have been thrown out ahead by a sore-armed outfielder. Missing also was the broad, confident Palmer smile and his habit of hitching up his pants, both indications that Palmer thinks things are going well. He was tired and tense from two days of high-pressure golf and this all came disastrously into view on the very final hole.
Player was troubled, too
But Player had been under tremendous pressure too, possibly even more. As many a disheartened tournament golfer will readily admit, it is a hard assignment to keep the lead in the last round when Arnold Palmer is behind you scoring birdies. Gary Player's survival says more clearly than even he can tell you what a very good and very tough golfer he is.