Every time the British Open golf championship tried to keep up with its carnival surroundings last week, Gary Player put it back down with some of the finest shotmaking of his career. And by Saturday evening on the Lancashire coast, when the town of Blackpool was given over once again to the old-fashioned sounds of its music halls and amusement rides, there was nothing to do but marvel at what an amazing little athlete the South African truly is. The British Open was not a tournament this time, it was a Gary Player exposition.
Player did absolutely everything so well on a funky sort of golf course called Royal Lytham and St. Annes that he led all the way and wound up winning by four strokes, even though he bogeyed the last two holes and found himself in some pretty absurd postures in the process. By then Player had whipped Lytham and St. Annes and everybody else so thoroughly that he forced a reevaluation of his place in golf.
In several ways this was a milestone victory for Player. Lytham was his third British Open win, his eighth major championship and it lifted him into that special category of competitors who have captured two major titles in a single year, for of course Player had earlier won the Masters.
So let's see now. Eight major championships, huh? That happens to put him in a sixth-place tie with Arnold Palmer, and since one of Palmer's titles was a U.S. Amateur, it means that Player has actually taken more professional majors than Palmer. The leaders rank this way: Nicklaus 14, Jones 13, Hagen 11, Hogan and a turn-of-the-century Englishman named John Ball 9, Player and Palmer 8, Vardon, Snead and Sarazen 7.
Player for some time was considered the third part of what used to be called The Big Three—Palmer, Nicklaus and Player. With Player always last. Then when Lee Trevino came along and Gary went a while without winning one of the biggies, he was out of the club. But starting with the PGA in 1972, Player has taken three more major championships, and he looks good enough, tough enough, confident enough and even young enough at 37 to suggest that he can keep it up for a few more years.
"People have always called me the best golfer of those who traveled all over the world," Player said at Lytham. "What I've worked so hard to become is one of the best golfers in the world, period."
He was that, and more, at Lytham. Fit as always and remarkably confident, he shot rounds of 69, 68, 75 and 70 for 282, and simply wouldn't allow anyone to beat him. "I'm playing the best golf of my life," he said—not that he hasn't said the same a hundred other times. But what he added was not so familiar, and probably right: "I've never been as well prepared. I can't believe anyone else is as ready for this as I am—or wants it as badly."
The only other person who might have been was Player's caddie, the inimitable Alfred Dyer, he of the plantation hat. Known as Rabbit, he started off the week getting as many headlines as Player and signing as many autographs. He was the first black caddie in the British Open. That's one thing. The other thing was, the British thought Rabbit was funny.
"My man complains a lot," said Rabbit one day. "I just stick some paper in my ears, and say, 'Don't gimme no jive, baby,' and I make him laugh, loosen him up." Rabbit occasionally caddies for Player in the States but never abroad. "He's the best caddie I've ever had," Gary said. "He knows distances and he knows me."
Rabbit was joined at Lytham by perhaps the strongest group of Americans ever entered in a British Open, but none of them could ever quite figure out the course or the wind. Well, for one fleeting moment in the third round, Jack Nicklaus did go birdie, birdie, eagle while the South African hit his first bad patch of the tournament. But Lytham's tough holes are on the back nine, and Nicklaus' charge was halted coming in with a double bogey and two bogeys.
Player was the only one who managed to avoid any major tragedies on the back side, and he was again three strokes in front by the time everybody was required by tradition to play a final 18 holes. In that last round, Player birdied the first two holes and then drilled a two-iron onto the par-5 6th green. It dribbled up to within seven feet of the cup to set up an eagle 3 and it was checkout time, folks. Neither Nicklaus nor the Englishman Peter Oosterhuis, the closest challengers could ever get within three strokes in the closing round.
True luxury was Player being able to bogey the 15th hole, then bogey the 17th, then hit a four-iron up against the Royal Lytham and St. Annes clubhouse wall and take a left-handed swipe at the ball with a putter, and then two-putt from eight feet for the world's oldest championship.
Everything exciting about this championship had occurred hours and days before, most notably two splendid controversies involving the rules of golf that furnished at least some background patter to the tunes Player was strumming with his irons. First came one of those personality clashes between an American and a Scot, the kind you sometimes get in Ryder Cup play. It was a question of honesty, as America's Hubert Green saw it. And it was a question of somebody not minding his own business, as Scotland's Bernard Gallacher saw it.
During Thursday's second round the two of them were paired with a highly frustrated Lee Trevino—he had shot a 79 the day before—and at the 3rd hole Trevino asked Gallacher to mark his ball, which was just off the edge of the green. Gallacher did so. But a few minutes later, as they were walking toward the next tee, Green told Gallacher he didn't particularly like the massage Gallacher had given the ball as he held it.
"Rubbish," said Gallacher. "I was just holding it in my hand. What business is it of yours?"
"Well, I'm keeping your card," Green said. "And I think I'll leave that hole blank until we get in." Gallacher was outraged, even though Green finally consented to pencil in a par 4, which is what Gallacher had made. Green was embarrassed about the incident. "I'm sorry he's sore," he said. "I gave him the 4 but I'm still not sure he knows the rules."
A day later the question came up as to whether the R & A itself knew very much about the rules. This was when South African Dale Hayes played a "phantom" round, a 73 that will never be recorded in the books because he wasn't, ex post facto, supposed to be competing at all. On Thursday, Hayes, who was in the company of Nicklaus, had lost a ball in the bushes on the 15th. After Hayes and Nicklaus spent the allowed time looking for it, Hayes gave up and strolled back down the fairway and dropped a provisional. But then Nicklaus found the first ball. Hayes picked up the one he had dropped and went to play the first ball. In that instant he violated a well-known rule of golf: once you drop a provisional, that is the ball in play.
It was not until the next day, after Hayes had finished his third round, that the R & A decided he should have a four-stroke penalty; two for playing the wrong ball, one for touching his ball, or something like that—it was not altogether clear—and a fourth stroke, arbitrarily, just for being dumb, one presumed. In any case, it meant that with all those penalty strokes for the second round Hayes had missed the cut and never should have played the third round.
This muddling seemed to fit in perfectly with the circus atmosphere of the unique town of Blackpool. Of all the venues for the British Open, Blackpool, on the Irish Sea, must surely be the funniest. Muirfield near Edinburgh is classy and St. Andrews is ancient and Carnoustie is properly somber, but Blackpool is a goofy bingo parlor/ music hall/ roller coaster gathering place for mill workers and their families.
The fact that the Royal Lytham and St. Annes golf club happened to turn up there one day late in the 19th century at the end of Blackpool's three-pier promenade was due to the fact that the barons of Manchester wanted a course on the sea. So there it sits today, surrounded by homes built of "lavatory brick," tumbling along over the Lancashire sandhills, meandering through the scrub willow, hard by the railway tracks that seem to mark all of Britain's classic courses and frequently lashed by winds off the cold, oatmeal-colored Irish Sea.
With the British, Royal Lytham is the least favorite of all the Open sites, largely because of Blackpool itself, but there were enough people in town to support everything, from the shows on the piers to the gigantic amusement park in the heart of town to all of the postcard-bingo-rockcandy-fortuneteller-fish and chips-disco-casino places, as well as the British Open itself. It merely drew a record 90,625 over four days.
Although Bobby Jones won the first Open held at Lytham, in 1926, and the other four winners have been men of substance—Bobby Locke, Peter Thomson, Bob Charles and Tony Jacklin—the course has suffered, at least until last week, a reputation of being one that fails to bring out the best golf from the best players.
Certainly, it has a bizarre layout. It is surely the only course ever to hold a major championship that begins with a par-3 hole. It is also the only one anybody can think of that concludes with six consecutive par-4s. But it was precisely these last holes, all of which had to be played in head winds and crosswinds, that provided most of the tournament's drama and, in fact, settled the championship.
During the first two rounds when the winds blew the hardest, Player appeared to be the only golfer at all capable of handling Lytham. His 69 the first day was managed despite a double bogey at the long, cruel 17th, and his 68 on the second day just might have been one of the finest rounds he has ever played. He pulled that off despite a couple of painful lies on the toughest holes in the toughest gales.
There he is way out in the gorse and garbage of the par-4 17th, where he had made the double bogey the day before. He's about 100 yards from the hole in 2, and the wind is howling. But Player does something miraculous with an eight-iron, punching it blindly into the teeth of the wind, bouncing it over the sandhills, and the ball creeps up to within six inches of the flag.
Now he comes to the 18th, where the drive sort of has to fit into a space about the size of a discount store aisle. He hits into the rough and is faced with a six-iron toward seven bunkers and the Lytham clubhouse, a green with hardly any entrance at all—and in a bitter crosswind. So he gouges the shot up there about three feet from the cup for a birdie.
This gave Player a 4-3 finish on a day in which most in the field were going 6-5, and also left him with a whopping five-stroke lead through 36 holes or, to get downright historic about it, the largest lead anyone had held in the championship at the halfway point in 40 years.
Things continued along in that unprecedented fashion, rather as Player thought they might. He has been in a rare, immensely confident mood all year, one that sometimes borders on the mystic. He declares, for example, that with what he has discovered in his swing and in his head, it is now impossible for him to hit a wild hook. "I'm almost in a trance," he said not long ago, while refusing to shake hands with friends. "I feel I've got tremendous power within myself now. I don't want to shake hands too often because I don't want to transmit my power to someone else."
So, from black clothes to black magic. What else but this incredible faith in himself, in his destiny, can explain how he could so completely conquer Royal Lytham and St. Annes? And it was, as well, the best thing that ever could have happened to the humorous old place, because there certainly couldn't be too much wrong with a golf course that produces Gary Player as the winner.