The man in the white trench coat stood at the edge of the fairway as Gary Player, recently arrived from his native South Africa, prepared to hit a three-wood to the fourth green at the Pensacola Country Club. It was a cold, blustery day, and others in the gallery were similarly dressed; yet there was something unusual about this man. Perhaps it was the way his eyes roamed over the crowd, even after the ball was in the air, as if he were searching for a lost friend. Maybe it was the slight bulge at his hip, like a man carrying a revolver. Which indeed he was. The man was Sergeant Bill Lynch of the Escambia County sheriff's office, and he, together with three deputies, was walking all 72 holes of the Monsanto Open with Player last week so that, as Sergeant Lynch put it, "Gary could afford to keep his head down."
Chances are that wherever Player goes this year—Augusta, Minneapolis, Westchester—there will be a Sergeant Lynch and several deputies nearby. Sometimes, as in Pensacola, the security precautions will escalate as the gallery surrounding Player grows. Approaching the TV holes (16, 17, 18) in the final two rounds last week, Player had picked up a gallery of several hundred, and his four-man plainclothes escort was augmented by a number of uniformed peace officers sprinkled through the crowd.
Last year at the PGA tournament in Dayton, Player was jostled during the third round by protesters demonstrating against his country's apartheid policy. Nothing violent occurred—a cupful of ice was thrown in his face, and someone threw a program at him as he was about to drive—but it was unnerving, and it awoke the golf world to the possibility of a more serious incident.
Since then the climate has hardly improved. Recently Arthur Ashe was denied a visa to South Africa to play in the national tennis championship, so it was not surprising when many people raised the question of whether Player should be allowed into the U.S. Already black militant Harry Edwards had promised to make Player's life on the tour miserable, but with the Ashe affair, the tempo increased. Player's Negro caddie, Ernest (Nippy) Nipper, who has carried his bags on the U.S. tour for the last 10 years, got a warning that there would be trouble if he worked for Player in Pensacola this year. That warning was directly responsible for Sergeant Lynch and his contingent of bodyguards. Earlier it was rumored that Harold Henning, another South African golfer, had received a series of phone calls telling him that he had better not enter the Andy Williams tournament in San Diego. Henning never publicly confirmed the report, but the fact is that he phoned Tony Jacklin, told him to remove his watch from his golf bag and mail it, pay his caddie $60 and let him have his clubs. With that, Henning went home.
Finally, in what can only be regarded as a curious sort of backlash, Lee Elder, a black golfer, was threatened with death by another black at the recent Doral-Eastern Open. Elder was standing on a tee when a man ducked under the ropes and said: "You are a dead man. Not now, but maybe the next hole. Or the next. But you're dead." Minutes later Mrs. Elder, in her husband's gallery, received the same threat.
It was in this unsettling atmosphere that Gary Player arrived in Pensacola to play the Monsanto Open, the first of four tournaments he will use to sharpen his game for the Masters. Even before he had hit a shot Player made headlines by issuing a three-paragraph position paper that said, in effect, that he wished sports could be above politics, that he deplored the Ashe edict but that he would not criticize his country when he was away from it. He also announced that he was willing to play a series of exhibition matches with Elder, Charlie Sifford and Pete Brown, all black pros, with proceeds going to the United Negro College Fund. (The original idea was for Player to play one match against all three, but when The New York Times misinterpreted the announcement, Player's business manager, Mark McCormack, decided to let it stand.)
Player's offer received mixed reviews. Some thought it was still further proof of what a great, unprejudiced human being Player is. Others regarded it as a patronizing ploy, and a rather hurriedly thought-up one at that. And, since no one had bothered to ask the black pros about it beforehand, there was a lingering doubt about its propriety. Elder and Brown indicated they were willing to take up Player's offer, but Charlie Sifford was dubious. "I'm not saying anything until I find out what it's all about," said Sifford, who added: "If he wants to do something, why doesn't he vote for a Negro to be invited to the Masters?" In any case, Player himself seemed totally sincere.
Player had finished his announcement by stating that he would say no more on the subject of race. But that proved impossible. Everywhere he went at Pensacola people kept stopping him and shoving microphones in his face, trying to get him to elaborate. In the locker room after the second round he was asked to take a call from an NBC reporter. "Look," Gary was saying a minute later, "I am not a racist." It was a theme that recurred all week.
Player's host in Pensacola, Jim Naes, said the subject dominated the atmosphere around his house while Gary was there. "I told him he should try to forget it," said Naes. "If you keep bringing it up, it's bound to affect your game. But the papers and magazines won't let him." Whether his observations reflected Player's thinking is problematical, but Naes put one question to a reporter in Pensacola that unquestionably had occurred to many, including Gary Player. "Don't you think," Naes asked, "that the Communists are behind all this?"
Player, too, had questioned reporters about the situation. He wondered openly if he had done the right thing in offering to play the exhibitions. What were people saying about it? Had anyone met Arthur Ashe? What is he like? Do you think there's a chance that a Dayton will happen again?
Among his fellow pros, Player's presence had far greater competitive implications than political ones. Oh, sure, there were some bad jokes. On the day the pro-am was rained out Steve Reid kidded Player as the two waited out the storm. "Don't let this weather bother you, Gary." said Reid. "The water will get in the gunsights and make it harder to aim."
But that's all. The pros, in spite of the events since the last PGA, are rarely concerned with real-world problems. The major issues at Monsanto last week were: Will Frank Beard survive now that Kentucky has lost to Jacksonville in basketball? Can Tom Weiskopf achieve proper loft on his putter by bending it in the crack of his motel door? And does Tommy Shaw really bleach his hair? What Player represented more than anything was one of the best golfers in the world, there to make life more difficult for the rest of them.
Overshadowed by Player's personal problems is the fact that he had an outstanding year in 1969. He played in only 16 U.S. tournaments, and in 10 of them he finished fifth or better. He won the Tournament of Champions, was second three times and third three times more. He won $124,000, or more than $7,000 per outing, easily the most of any player on the tour.
At Pensacola, Player showed what makes him so remarkable a golfer. His intensity and concentration are fierce. When he talks his big brown eyes open wide, riveting the listener to a spot. He is constantly picking his game apart, analyzing, analyzing. Between shots he may take 10 practice swings—with or without a club in his hands—checking the shoulder turn, the hip turn, the follow-through. At 33, he is still a marvelously conditioned athlete, crew-cut, neatly attired, aggressive in his gait. When he makes a bad shot he does not sulk, whine, slump his shoulders dig a second divot or sling the club toward his caddie. What he does is burn inwardly. Inside him somewhere his desire to excel takes hold and does not let him collapse.
When he arrived for his first round at the Monsanto last week his apprehension was apparent. He seldom looked at the galleries that trailed him, exchanged only a few words with his caddie and, in general, behaved like a man with something on his mind besides golf. But on the third and fourth days, as the Florida sun broke through and his putts started to drop—and, most important, there were no incidents—his manner brightened visibly. He began chatting with his gallery during delays on the tee, waved at friends and kept up an animated (for Player) chatter with his caddie.
He did not win at Pensacola—young Dick Lotz did, with a steady 9-under-par 68-70-69-68—275—and you might even say Gary was not playing well. But he shot a 71-71-68-73—283 to finish tied for eighth and pick up $4,075. And consider this: he had been in the country less than a week, he had been unable to sleep well because of the time change, he had a splitting headache, a digestive problem and he was hounded by the press every step he took. Besides, he was using the larger U.S. ball for the first time since last summer, which caused him to leave many of his approach shots short.
Finally, he had four men with guns out in his gallery to remind him that, well, anything might happen.