For a long while last week the Masters Tournament sat quietly and drearily under strange clouds of pollen that turned everything from golf shoes to rent cars the color of oatmeal instead of wisteria. But if there were those who wondered if the event would ever get out from under its cloud, they were obviously unfamiliar with Masters Sundays. Once again, the classic exploded like a Confederate arsenal—as it usually does, as the back nine holes of the Augusta National course are designed for it to do. And when the smoke had cleared on Sunday it was utterly amazing to realize that Gary Player had practically leaped out of an antique photo album to win.
What Player did was come from South Africa, middle age, seven strokes behind and 10th place to take the title away in a single afternoon when, starting off the day, he might have been among the last guys you would ever have wanted to own in the office pool. Gary did it with a flaming 64, eight under par, that enabled him to finish the tournament with an 11-under-par 277 and win a wild battle by one stroke over defending champion Tom Watson, Hubert Green and Rod Funseth. But while there were some magnificent shots struck out there among the pines and ponds and shadows, it looked much of the time like the world's greatest game of miniature golf.
On this occasion, in other words, the Masters' climactic insanity was more or less a Putt-Putt championship. Player came roaring down the stretch, holing everything but his ball marker, and then he settled back to watch a horror movie on television starring Watson, Green and Funseth. That he won it sitting down was perhaps proper. In the end, after all the suspense, there was nobody left in town but heart patients.
In truth, for Gary's record-tying 64 to be more than just another statistic, Watson and Green had to miss some putts that were inside the grip of a hairbrush. It may be some consolation to them that it can be said that they proved to golfers everywhere that there is really no such thing as a gimme.
April 17, 1978
To get history out of the way, it was Player's third Masters jacket and his ninth major championship, including three British Opens (1959, 1968 and 1974), a U.S. Open (1965) and two National PGAs (1962 and 1972). He had won the Masters in 1961 and in 1974, and he won his first the same way he won last week's. He finished early and watched on TV as Arnold Palmer double-bogeyed the final hole.
Nevertheless, it was a spectacular victory, and it was surely a reminder of what an incredible fellow the 41-year-old Player is. He will fall down, come out of his shoes, hit on the run and turn the golf swing into something that could more closely be identified with tennis or baseball. But he works hard and outtravels Attila the Hun, and there has never been a tougher competitor. Player doesn't give up when he is on his way to a 76 any quicker than he gives up on a round headed for 64. And it is impossible not to be delighted to see this kind of tenacity rewarded, as it was in the 42nd Masters.
As Player rammed in his closing birdie from 15 feet above the cup on the 18th green, clenched his fist and punched old immortality in the ribs again, and then fell into the arms of his black caddie—well, folks, that was a moment for everyone in sports to rejoice over, whether Player would win or not. That was a fighter, that was a true sportsman, and—Good Lord—that was emotional.
Naturally, there are going to be those who will want to say that this was the most thrilling finish of any Masters. If you're discussing drama, O.K., put it up there with last year when Watson out-dueled Jack Nicklaus. And put it up there with 1975 when Nicklaus outdueled Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller. But this one lacked the quality of those tournaments, because it demanded failure by Player's adversaries, while the '75 and '77 Masters produced brilliant shots followed by more of the same.
For example, the only way Green could have lost the tournament was by hitting a second shot into the water on the 11th hole, and then by three-putting the 16th, and then by blowing a three-footer for a birdie on the last green. Had Hubie made that putt, which was straight in and flat, the Masters would have gone into its first sudden-death overtime, starting on the first hole, which would have forced CBS-TV to throw more new switches than you can find on the control panel of a 747.
Nicely enough, Hubie refused to blame the golden-throated radio broadcaster who may have cost him the green jacket. Green had to step away from his final putt because he was distracted by the voice of Jim Kelly describing the action for CBS Radio. Hubie looked at him and grinned, settled over the putt again—and blew it across the right lip.
"I've known Jim a long time, and he's a friend of mine," Hubert said. "I know he feels bad, but I still should have made the putt. He was doing his job, and I was doing mine." Green shot a 72 on Sunday, and that was just what he needed to shoot to give anyone else a chance. He had begun the day with a three-stroke lead over Watson and Funseth after ripping the place apart on Saturday with a 65 that was, in its own way, as epic as Player's closing 64.
On Saturday, Hubert ate the flagsticks for dessert with a brazen display of iron shots. Even when the soft and slow layout tried to fight him back, he whipped it. The big moment of his round came at the par-5 15th where a poor drive forced him to lay up. Green just took out his trusty wedge and shot right at the pin over the water and got his birdie anyhow.
Like Green, Watson lost it on the greens. Forgetting about all of the little putts he missed earlier in the tournament—two-footers and three-footers for pars here and there—it was going to be the Watson destiny to suffer a hallucinating three-putt from only six feet away at the 14th hole on Sunday. Six feet. Tied for the lead at the time. Fresh from a colossal eight-iron shot into the Poa annua. Fresh from an eagle three at the 13th. And looking for all the world like a man getting ready to end the madness.
The 14th green, however, was one of the very few on the course with a slick area. These weren't normal Augusta greens, and now it was Watson's turn to lose his momentum. He just touched the putt, wanting to let it take a delicate left-hand curve and settle either in the cup or near it. The ball drifted two feet past, and then Watson totally missed the break and rolled the next putt to the right of the cup for a bogey from precisely the same spot where Funseth would do the same thing a few moments later.
Watson fought back to tie for the lead with birdies at the 15th and the 16th, and he still could have forced a playoff by making a par 4 at the last hole. It wasn't to be. Watson not only drove poorly—with a hooked three-wood off the tee—but he also probably chose to play an unwise second shot. He put his approach in the worst spot you could dream up, if what you wanted to make was a four. About 50 feet left of the green, below a slope, impossible to get close. Inventing a shot, he banged the ball onto the green with his putter. But his 10-foot putt for a par was another one of those evil things you can face at Augusta. You would bet your life that the putt breaks slightly left, and once in a while it does. Watson's, though, stayed a hair to the right of the cup, in much the same way that Tom Weiskopf's did in '75 when he needed it to tie Nicklaus.
The third runner-up was Funseth. He wouldn't go away. He had been tied for the 36-hole lead with Lee Trevino, but you figured he would do what he does best: play along silently, collect his $10,000 for seventh place and be happy about it. But Funseth was tied for second with Watson after 54 and within striking distance of Green.
Funseth played well Sunday, and he hung in after the bogey at 14 removed him from a four-way tie for the lead that seemed, momentarily at least, like it had all the tangy ingredients for a Masters swatfest. Finally, Funseth had the same putt for a tie on the 18th green that Player had sunk. He gave it just as good a roll, and he missed it the crudest way possible: by the width of a moth's eyelash.
Player saw a lot of this on television, having teed off 40 minutes ahead of the logical contenders. Through nine holes he was still five shots away from the lead, much less the jacket, but that's when the Masters always catches fire—on the back nine, where five water holes and a considerable amount of history can drive a man to shoot a 30 or a 40. This time Player shot a 30.
Here's how. He hit a five-iron onto the 10th green and dropped a 25-foot putt for a birdie; he hit a seven-iron to the dangerous 12th and made a 15-footer for a birdie; he fell down lunging at a four-iron on the par-5 13th but the shot settled on the green only 15 feet from the pin, and he two-putted for a birdie; he fell down gouging at a three-wood on the par-5 15th but got it to the green and two-putted from 80 feet for a birdie; he dropped a treacherous 15-foot downhill runner for a birdie at 16; and then he struck that six-iron to the 18th and rattled the cup with a 15-foot birdie putt. Rather alarmingly, it could have been a 28. A chip shot on the 11th hole spun out, and Player's eagle putt at the 13th could easily have dropped.
Not many people envision winning golf tournaments when they are as far back as Player was—seven shots behind Green following scores of 72,72 and 69—with only one round remaining. "One of the things I am is an eternal optimist," Player said. "I was playing excellent golf, and I hadn't made any putts. But you have to keep on aiming at them."
Player had recently changed his putting technique from what it had always been—a jab—to more of a stroke. And he was pretty well rested up after having taken three months off from his grueling travels about the globe. Player is usually 33 hours in the air from just about anywhere he needs to go.
In that regard, Nicklaus, who was supposed to win this Masters between dinner courses, stayed roughly 33 hours out of it nearly all the way. He did fire a final-round 67 that caused mild excitement among his followers, but it only drew him into a seventh-place finish. Nicklaus was never in the tournament, perhaps for the same reason that so many less renowned people were in it. The slow greens. And no wind for the last three rounds.
Jack said the greens were "membership speed." And when you added the absence of any breeze, except the occasional puffs that made the pollen cover you with two coats of paint, that made it possible for all sorts of Funseths, John Schlees, Wally Armstrongs, Joe Inmans and even Lee Trevinos to jump onto the leader board. Schlee led the tournament with a 68 on Thursday, and Trevino, with his bad back, a newly developed hook and a hatred for the course, was a co-leader with Funseth after 36. A triple bogey on the fifth hole on Saturday, which resulted from an overzealous three-iron shot and some lousy bunker play, took Trevino out of it. But by then the Augusta National was known to be a "piece of cake," as Nicklaus put it. Fast and hard greens, in other words, separate golfing heroes from pretenders.
Nicklaus was depressed about the slow greens and wondered why the Masters executives didn't scalp them to give them more speed. In the old days it was never a problem. They were all rye grass, so they would be shaved down to a surface resembling entrance-hall marble, and then they would burn up and grow back again. Now the greens are not pure rye, because the club wants to save them for the members, although the course is-always closed for the summer in mid-May.
Meanwhile, there was the pollen—in this case a yellow fertilizing dust from the cones of pine trees. It comes from the male structure of the cones. Of course, you knew that. Mainly, what it does is choke everybody to death and turn contact lenses into cocktail peanuts. The pollen was a weird sight at the Masters, but no more weird than all of those tiny putts that didn't even bruise the cups. Mostly they were missed out of frustration from the inconsistency of the speeds. Although most of the greens were astonishingly slow, three or four of them had swift spots, and with their texture adding new dimensions to the breaks that Masters veterans had memorized, they created doubt and confusion in the minds of players like Watson and Nicklaus. Jack's putting trouble surely eroded the rest of his game. Until Sunday he did not strike very many good shots. Watson and Green did, all the way, but, except in streaks, they weren't rewarded with birdies.
Ultimately, their hearts were torn out by putts you consistently knock away with the backside of your putter. "I'll think about the 14th green for a while," Watson said. "I hit a good putt that didn't go in and a bad putt that didn't come close."
Green did something else. While Player sat and relived what must have been the sweetest victory of his career—having now won major championships almost 20 years apart—Hubert got his putter and some balls and went back out to the 18th green as darkness was hovering over the Augusta National course like the pollen once had.
Six times Green putted for his birdie again from the same spot, which was less than three feet from the cup. Five times he made the putt—right in the throat.
Somebody said, "Want to go get Gary arid start the sudden death, Hubert?"
He grinned as he had at the noise that had broken his concentration when it counted.
"Naw," Hubert said. "Gary's the guy who played good enough to win it. I'm the guy who played just good enough to blow it."
In that respect, it was just like any other tournament. But Gary Player had made it a Masters like none other.