The pro golf tour is dominated by its Big Three, but frequently the group is thought of as a Big Two and a Half. There is mighty Arnold Palmer and there is huge Jack Nicklaus, a pair that corners a great deal of the publicity, adulation and praise. Then there is little Gary Player. He is only 5 feet 7 and he is sometimes overlooked—but he just may be the best golfer of the trio.
At 27, an age when many touring pros are regarded only in the light of their potential, Player has evolved into an elder statesman of his profession and, like many such figures, his mood has mellowed as his talents have increased. He has made changes in his attitude and technique that are enabling him to play the finest golf of his life. They have also made him a man to listen to and a man to watch.
A few days ago Gary Player stretched himself out on a beach chair under a glorious Bahama sun and talked, in the rambling, disconnected fashion of one whose brain is being blissfully baked, about an interesting and worthy subject—Gary Player. He had taken a short vacation from the tournament circuit and was devoting himself to the somewhat less than arduous duties of his new job as the celebrity pro at Paradise Island, a lavish resort now being completed by Huntington Hartford, the A & P grocery store trillionaire. It was a fairly typical Sunday in Paradise. Gary and his attractive wife Vivienne and their 4-year-old daughter, Jennifer, and their 2-year-old son, Mark (baby Wayne, one, stayed home), had packed their bathing clothes into a straw basket shortly after finishing breakfast and set out from their rented pink stucco house in the Fort Montagu section of Nassau. It takes but a 15-minute ride across the Nassau harbor in Mr. Hartford's elegant ferry and another couple of minutes in one of the Paradise Island jitneys to reach the beach. There, anchored in the soft sand, with his family sunning and swimming near at hand, Gary began to assess why the pro tour seemed to be faced in the past seven months with a new, and quite intriguing, Gary Player.
"When I started out in professional golf," Player said, "my principal ambition was to win the four major championships—the British and U.S. Opens, the Masters and the PGA—and to be the leading money winner on the American tour. I won the British Open in 1959. In 1961 I led the money winners and won the Masters. So in 1962 I wanted most of all to win one of the other major titles. Honestly, I'd rather win one of the major championships than 30 of the other ones. I was very fortunate to win the PGA last year—and very grateful—for if you win one of those big ones you've got to be both fortunate and grateful.
"This year the one thing in my mind every day of my life is winning the U.S. Open."
At this point Player arose from his beach chair, took a golf stance in the sand, cupped his hands together and executed three imaginary swings at an invisible golf ball. "Every time I hit the ball," he said, "I think 'U.S. Open, U.S. Open, U.S. Open.'
"After I won the Masters in 1961," Player continued, "my life changed, and it took a big adjustment for me to get used to it. Now, suddenly, I had to do many things differently. Between tournaments I might have to fly to Boston to give a talk or fly to California for a television match or play an exhibition with Arnold. In the past I would have arrived at a town in plenty of time to play several practice rounds before a tournament. Now I would get there just the day before. That gave me only one day to get my yardages figured out, instead of double-checking them on each hole. I would find myself playing a shot and taking my measurements off a tree I had marked in my mind, and then I would start to wonder, 'Was that really the same tree?'
"There were other things, too. Now I had to get to the practice tee an hour before I was due to play because there were so many interruptions, like signing autographs and talking to people who want to talk to you. I'm not complaining, mind you. All of us want to be successful, and we would rather put up with the nuisances of success than not be successful at all.
"However, it takes time to learn how to live with such distractions. At first, I became very irritable at home. I got to be quite jumpy.
"One thing that has helped me more than anything else," Player explained with his usual candor, "was meeting Billy Graham. I first met him in Asheville, N.C. a couple of years ago when Arnold and I were playing an exhibition there, and he invited us up to his lovely home. We got along very well, and I developed a great admiration for him. Later he sent me a copy of the New Testament, and for some while now I've made it a habit to read six pages of it every day. It's helped me understand that whatever I'm doing is not necessarily the most important thing in the world.
"Once I began to achieve a certain amount of success on the tournament circuit, I felt in my heart that I had the shots to be a champion golfer. But what I didn't have 100% was the right temperament. That's why my relationship with Billy Graham has helped me so much. I have come to believe that it's ordained what's going to happen. You must convince yourself that you are going to try just a little harder than your best, but then if you don't win, you must accept the fact that that's the way it was intended to be."
Ever since he won the PGA championship at Philadelphia last July, Gary Player has seemed like a different man. Until then, 15 months had gone by since his victory at the Masters, and Player's name had not once appeared on the winners' list. There was a strong feeling among those who follow professional golf's fortunes and misfortunes that Gary's career had gone into eclipse. On more than one occasion his game came apart on the final day of a tournament when he seemed to be on the verge of winning.
Looking back on this period, however, Player strongly rejects the theory that he was in a slump. "Think about it," said Gary. "I had the best Vardon average [lowest number of strokes per competitive round] in 1961, although most people don't realize it because, as a foreigner, I couldn't receive the trophy, so the PGA doesn't list me in the weekly standings. Last year I was amongst the leaders in the Vardon averages, too. I won more than $45,000 playing in only 19 tournaments, and I won the PGA. So I really don't see how people can think I was in a slump.
"It's true that on several occasions I did blow the lead on the final day of a tournament. But if you look through the record books you will find that 90% of the time the man who is leading a tournament on the last round doesn't win it. Even so, when I won the Masters I was leading, when I won the PGA I was leading and when I won the Australian Open I was leading.
"It is an extremely difficult thing to hold the lead on the last day of a tournament. There are so many people behind you who might easily catch you. I think the only time I would really feel safe is if I had a 15-stroke lead. You've no idea how quickly you can make up strokes on even the best golfer. Why, last year, on the final day at the Masters, Palmer was six strokes up on me at the third hole and after the 10th hole he was behind me. I had made up eight strokes on him in seven holes. You must always make sure you attack a course when you're ahead of the field. You just can't play safe against the kind of competition we face every week."
These observations inevitably led Player's thoughts to the topic of temperament.
"You know," he said, "one of my problems is being conscientious. For instance, I don't think I've ever been late for an appointment in my life. If I have something to do—and I'm not talking about my golf now—it weighs on my mind until I have done it.
"I think that of all the golfers I have known, the one who had the greatest temperament for golf was Bobby Locke. He never let anything bother him, so he could devote himself completely to his game. I remember once before the British Open, Bobby got into an unpleasant dispute with a fellow, but he seemed to shrug it right off. When I said something to him about it the next day, he said, 'Oh that. Well, the Open is only 10 days away, and I can't worry about that sort of thing.' You see, for more than a week before the tournament he didn't allow himself to think about anything else. Now take Tommy Bolt, for example. I think Tommy could be one of the greatest golfers who ever lived if he had Bobby Locke's temperament. Or take Jack Nicklaus. He's more like Locke. Before a big tournament he never allows himself to be bothered by anything that isn't connected with his golf. Arnold, on the other hand, is more like me. You wouldn't know it unless you know him very well, but Arnold is a worrier. He's very conscientious about all the obligations he has on the outside."
During the past year or so there has been much discussion about Player's use of a four-wood off the tee when most of his fellow pros were using drivers. Because he weighs only 150 pounds, people feel that Player ought to drive with the club that will give him the most distance, particularly in competition with men of far heftier dimensions.
"I'll tell you why I use the four-wood so much," Gary said. "About a year and a half ago I was playing somewhere, I can't remember exactly where, and I was hitting my second shot to the green on a par 5. I was using a four-wood, and I hit it to the right and hooked it. I never believed I could get so much distance out of that club. So I began to think about it and experiment with it. I used it off the tee some at Akron in 1961, the year I tied Jay Hebert, and later I used it off the tee when I won the Australian Open. I used it again that year at the Transvaal Open, which was played on a real U.S. Open kind of course—long with narrow fairways—and I won that tournament by eight strokes.
"Here's the way I look at it," Player went on, using the canvas on his beach chair to indicate what would be the fairway on a golf course. "If I hit a driver," he said, "I aim down the middle of the fairway, which gives me a margin for error of only half the width of the fairway in either direction. If I take a four-wood, however, and aim it down the right side of the fairway with a slight hook or draw on it, then I've got the entire width of the fairway as a margin for error.
"I also figure that I can hit a four-wood with a draw or hook about the same distance that I can hit a two-wood straight, so I've only sacrificed one club length. If someone else is hitting a six-iron to the green, I'm hitting a five-iron, and I have the advantage of knowing that when I drive I can place my ball just about where I want it to be.
"In golf, you should always try to play the shot you know best—your 'bread and butter shot,' as Chick Harbert once called it. That's the shot that you can always hit with confidence and know you can repeat. You've got to do what you know suits you best.
"Of course, if I'm playing the 15th at Augusta or the 8th at Augusta, there's no way in the world I can use a four-wood off the tee and hope to get on in two. In fact, at Augusta, there's only one hole where I'll use a four-wood off the tee, and that's the 7th. Augusta is long and wide-open. It is a course that you've got to attack all the time. The Open courses put more of a premium on accuracy than on length, so I'll certainly use the four-wood much more frequently in the Open.
"You have to remember that I expect to be outdriven by Arnold and Jack, so it doesn't bother me. Arnold weighs 25 pounds more than I do and Jack 50 pounds more. Yet I'm confident that by the time I'm 30 I'll be hitting the ball almost as far as they do—not quite as far, but almost. This is because I have started doing my exercises again. Every day I can feel myself getting a little stronger. It's amazing what a man can do with his body in three years by exercising. Until about a year ago I was doing a lot of push-ups and other exercises that built up my chest, but those aren't the best muscles for golf, I decided. So I stopped my exercises for awhile. Now I'm doing things that build up my arms and shoulders and legs. Like this."
Whereupon, Player got off his beach chair and did a deep knee bend on one leg. "Try that," he said, "and see how difficult it is. You do a few of those, and you can really feel it. Three years ago I wouldn't have dreamt of using my four-wood off the tee, but I can do it now because I'm stronger where it matters. It's not that I haven't confidence in my driver; even now, I use my driver a lot more than my four-wood. I love my driver. But there are many times when it makes more sense to use the four-wood and be sure you know exactly where you are going."
It was time for lunch, and the Player family changed clothes in a nearby cabana. Gary emerged in the uniform that has become his trademark across all the golf courses of the world—black slacks and black turtleneck sweater precisely tailored to his trim figure. Up came Pancho Gonzales, who is the resident tennis pro at Paradise Island. Gary addressed him as "Richard," not Pancho. It reminded one of how considerate and well-mannered Player has always been, qualities that have endeared him to his fellow pros when it might be easy for them to resent him as a South African who has made an annual practice of raiding the treasury of U.S. professional golf.
Gonzales on this day was anxious to get Player's opinion on an idea he had for shortening the shafts on his wood clubs. "I can hit my irons straight consistently," Gonzales told Player, "but I spray my woods all over the place. Supposing I shortened the shafts so that I could swing my woods the same way I do my irons. Wouldn't that be a good idea?"
Player advised against this expedient, and in doing so he underlined another aspect of his personality—his enormous interest in the capabilities of the human body. In fact, Gary looks after his own body the way a sky-diver takes care of his parachute. "Richard," he said, "you're very tall and very strong. If you shorten the shafts on your clubs, you won't be able to hit the ball with as full an arc. You should take advantage of the gifts that God has given you."
During lunch Player observed with approval the brown sugar that is served at Paradise Island. "It's much better for you than white sugar," he said, "because it's unprocessed. You should never eat processed food if you can avoid it. If you eat food made from wheat, it should be made with brown wheat rather than processed wheat, which is white. The same with sugar. People are always doing things with food that ruin its natural qualities. They'll take a good fresh vegetable and boil all the vitamins and food values out of it."
Player gives a great deal of thought to his diet and is extremely careful about what he eats. "I always use honey instead of sugar when I can," he said. "And I always eat one banana and one avocado every day, because they're full of all the best natural oils. One of the best things you can do is to take some raisins and other dried fruit and nuts and grind them all up in a mixer. A bowl of that is delicious and very nourishing."
That afternoon Player repaired to the Arawak Golf Club, Hartford's Paradise Island course. Only nine of the club's 18 holes are ready for play, but every afternoon while Player is in residence at Nassau he shoots a practice round with guests of the hotel who care to sign up for the privilege.
Having hit a couple of fine drives off the first tee, Player strode jauntily down the fairway swinging his arms in the military style that characterizes his golfing gait.
"You know," he said to one of the others in the foursome, "getting this affiliation down here was one of the greatest breaks of my entire lire. How can you beat this life? I can spend the morning on the beach with my family and devote the afternoon to golf, and by evening I feel tired and just wonderful. I can't help remembering that before I won the Masters I relaxed on the beach for a week at Delray. It's wonderful what sun and salt water can do for you.
"They're even thinking of building a house down here for me, which would be a perfect situation. I always enjoyed having the children on the tour with me, because I'm more relaxed when I'm with my children. Playing with them gets my mind off golf for awhile, because one thing they can't talk about is golf. But there is no discipline for them on the tour, what with the moving from city to city and the eating at odd hours. Down here the whole family is happy. When they're happy, I'm happy."
As he played along, Gary gave an occasional pointer to the men playing with him, and he turned out to be a good teacher. One of the men had a habit of saying "no" every time he hit the ball, as if he expected it to do something disastrous. Finally, Gary said to him, "You mustn't say no all the time like that. When you hit a golf ball you must always feel that the shot is going to succeed."
All the while Player marched along with the air of a man at perfect peace with his surroundings. His robust spirits seemed to add many inches to his stature. For more than a year now the public has affectionately cast him in the role of David against the Goliaths of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Yet Gary now looked far larger than his actual dimensions.
"If you were a millionaire and could do anything in the world you wanted," Player asked the man walking beside him, "what would you do?"
"I suppose I'd do pretty much what I do now," the man said.
"So would I," said Player. "I just love to play golf."