Many of the itinerant golf professionals were putting in Japan last week, satisfying their yen for all that Pacific Masters money. Most of the rest were back in the States getting ready for yet another quick 72 holes of PGA housing-development golf, or announcing plans for the opening of the newest drive-in ball wash. But outside raw and chilly London indomitable Gary Player was interested in a different cup of tee. Player won the stylish Piccadilly World Match-play Championship at Wentworth on the fourth hole of sudden death, defeating a relatively unknown but absolutely resolute Graham Marsh of Australia after they had tied at the end of the 36-hole final. And somewhere back in South Africa a surgeon must have smiled. Eight months ago he had rerouted a good chunk of Gary's indoor plumbing, and his repairs had clearly worked.
Player's dramatic victory unfolded as darkening skies and a thumping wind lent a stark and ghostly appearance to the course late Saturday afternoon. Drawing on a will that seemed hard enough to cut glass, Player rolled in a twisting nine-foot putt for a birdie on the par-5 fourth extra hole, gaining the victory when Marsh then missed his birdie attempt from four feet. The triumph, worth $25,000, strengthened the claims of those who say Player is the best in the world at match play, the head-to-head competition that is the distilled essence of golf. It was the fifth time Player has captured the Piccadilly championship in 10 tries. He has won 18 of the 23 matches he has played in the tournament.
Player's two opponents en route to the finals hardly resembled the cream puffs of Joe Louis' monthly fight cards, but he made both of them look like French pastries anyway. First he took on Tony Jacklin and disposed of him as easily as one might crumple a piece of tissue paper. He had the Englishman six-down with six holes left in their opening-round match Thursday, finally winning 3 and 2. Next day he rattled U.S. Open champion Johnny Miller with another 3-and-2 win, building a margin of five-up with 10 holes left. Afterwards Miller complained to some of the press that Player used "gamesmanship tactics" by controlling the speed of play on several occasions.
It was not the only bit of tension in which Player was involved. On the 35th tee of the final match, Marsh stopped Player as he prepared to swing and pointed out that he was ahead of the markers. Player reteed his ball and subsequently lost the hole to Marsh's birdie, falling one-down with one to play. Since he believed he had teed up originally in the exact same spot from which Marsh had driven moments earlier, Player was fuming. Walking from the 35th green he wagged his finger at Marsh and appeared to admonish him. Both of them later dismissed the incident as "nothing," and Player went on to birdie the par-5 36th to send the match into extra holes.
The Piccadilly proves, among other things, that while we generally can outplay the British on the golf course, they can give us cards and spades when it comes to staging an event. The Piccadilly annually invites eight of the world's best professionals for three days of 36-hole matches over the west course at Wentworth, regarded as England's premier inland golf layout. The course lies in the Thames Valley not far from Windsor Castle, an area where nabobs of high finance, as well as pop singer Donovan, make their homes.
The west course is called the Burma Road because it winds through heavy woods and over rough-hewn terrain, and although its par of 74 is a bit overrated in relation to a length of just under 7,000 yards, it still is an exemplary test of golf.
The guest golfers in the Piccadilly are treated like royalty, housed near the course in beautiful estates completely stocked with regulation maid and butler, given expense money and guaranteed at least $5,000 in take-home pay. The golfers are also assigned chauffeur-driven limousines for the duration of the tournament. "It sure beats listening to a courtesy-car driver talk about her hair," said one. It is a very nice championship indeed, and the only problem the British seem to have in running the Piccadilly is that in its 10-year history no Briton has ever managed to win it.
The real surprise of the event this year was Marsh. Before opening day British bookmaking houses had him an outsider at 11 to 1, with Player at 9 to 2 and Weiskopf at 11 to 4. Even most of Marsh's fellow competitors knew little about the former schoolteacher from Perth.
The bare facts are that he is 29 years old, bears a striking resemblance to Player, has a brother, Rodney, who is the wicket keeper for Australia's national cricket team, and can play golf like heck.
Tom Weiskopf was quizzed on Marsh after the Aussie beat Masters champion Tommy Aaron with five birdies and an eagle on the last 16 holes in one of Thursday's opening-day matches.
"I played with him a couple of years ago," said Weiskopf.
Is he long off the tee, a good putter, or what?
"I don't remember," shrugged Weiskopf, who thought a moment longer. "He's a nice guy."
Mr. Nice Guy defeated Weiskopf 4 and 3 in Friday's semifinals, making just two bogeys in 33 holes. "I tried to keep the pressure on, to not give him anything," explained Marsh. "He had the name. I had nothing to lose."
Even Gary Player was impressed.
"I'll tell you, laddie, I never thought you could do it," Player said to him. "For you to beat him after the year he's had is quite remarkable. Because he has had some kind of a year." Besides the British Open, Weiskopf had won the World Series of Golf, four other tournaments and more than $325,000 in prize money. But Marsh's credentials are far from shoddy.
At one time this year he held open championships from five different countries. For the last two years he has led the scoring in the Asian Order of Merit and this year he has collected more than $110,000 while playing in Europe, Asia and way points—the only golfer ever to win so much while disdaining the rich U.S. tour. In fact, Marsh says he never even has visited America, much less eaten a golf-course hot dog, and has no plans for the U.S. circuit, although he would like an invitation to the Masters.
Before the tournament Weiskopf was miffed at drawing Lanny Wadkins as his first-round opponent. He felt that the American attorney, Mark McCormack, might have been manipulating things. McCormack, who had the idea for the Piccadilly and still serves on the tournament's international advisory council, has all of Tony Jacklin, Tommy Aaron and Gary Player, and some of Graham Marsh in the athlete-representation field. It looked to Weiskopf as if someone did not want two non-clients like him and Wadkins in the finals.
"All I'm saying is, if there's eight players, let's draw them out of a hat," he said. "I went to an official and asked him about it and he said they seeded the four major-championship winners and drew the rest." Eventually, Weiskopf calmed down.
As it was, none of the four Americans acquitted themselves well. Tommy Aaron continued in a slump that began just after his Masters victory. Weiskopf sent Wadkins home and was himself an easy mark for Marsh. And Miller was recovering from an ear infection. The British hopes, Tony Jacklin and Peter Oosterhuis, also were disappointing. Oosterhuis has won the British Order of Merit the last three years and finished third in the Masters last April, but recently he failed even to qualify for the PGA players school tournament.
Gary Player's performance, meanwhile, was even more exceptional when you take into account the two operations he underwent in February—a tricky one to repair his bladder and another to remove a cyst from his leg. Through the summer his weakened game had him depressed. "It was like trying to swing the club with a brick on it," he said.
But when he arrived at Wentworth he announced that he was a new man. "All of a sudden it dawned on me the proper way to take the club back," he glowed. "I now have an anti-hook golf swing and I expect to win more tournaments during the rest of my career than I have to this point." As evidence, Gary noted that he broke 70 in 12 of his last 14 rounds on the PGA tour, a string that included a win in the Southern Open.
So at the Piccadilly, close by a queen's castle and a rock singer's home, it all came back to him, all of the old skills and mental discipline, and under cold and darkening skies along the Burma Road everything looked bright as new.