Gary Player has something fairly miraculous going for him. Last week the durable South African golfer, doting father and vitamin-powered fitness fanatic, did something no one has ever done before in Houston, Texas—or, taking into account all the ingredients, anywhere else, either. He worked out with barbells, took a putting lesson from his wife, slept through The Late Show, watched his diet, hugged his children—and won his third straight golf tournament. With his dramatic victory in the Houston Open at the Woodlands Country Club, following hard on the heels of his previous triumphs in the Masters and the Tournament of Champions, the 42-year-old Player became only the third golfer in the last 15 years to capture three tour events in a row.
This Ponce de Leon of tee and green has banked $130,000 in the last three weeks, making his wife Vivienne wonder if she should charge on the lesson tee. It was Vivienne who finally persuaded her obstinate husband to try a new putting stroke, and it has turned golden. Player made his share of monsters at Houston, including a 78-foot eagle putt Saturday so long that he allowed "it should have had a passport." But the biggest came on the 17th hole on Sunday, when he nailed a 20-footer for a birdie that drove a stake into the heart of challenger Andy Bean.
After Player walked off the 18th green, his angelic 5-year-old daughter Amanda ran up to him and he swept her into his arms. On the pro tour Player has often been regarded as a curious individual, partial to odd fodder and copybook precepts. In reality he is a splendid human being who has won 113 tournaments around the world, is the best-conditioned athlete in his sport, and is dedicated to golf, his family and his religion. And he is a nice man besides.
Player won at Houston the way he did the previous three weeks, coming from behind and making the shots under pressure down the stretch. He did not have a bogey Sunday, nor did he in his first two Houston rounds. He made three birdies over the final 10 holes, erasing Bean's five-stroke lead in a round of 69 for a 72-hole total of 270, which is 18 under par and the lowest on the tour this season. Bean, 17 years younger, about four feet taller and strong enough to bite the cover off a golf ball, played in the group following Player and could not match him the final few holes, finishing second at 271 on a round of 73.
April 30, 1978
The victory moved Player into a group with Johnny Miller (1974) and Hubert Green (1976) as the three three-in-a-row golfers of recent times. Player's string is the only one that includes a major championship.
Thus the South African brilliantly continued a crusade that started more than two decades ago when he began battling the evils of high cholesterol and the duck hook on one front, and his somewhat pallid image on another. Player's recent performances—six victories in his last nine appearances around the world—have caused a lot of people to take another look at him. Obviously his life-style, which is ascetic, plus the long shadow of Jack Nicklaus, have tended to obscure his accomplishments. But he has outlasted several generations of peers during his 21 years on the circuit and, as far as anyone can tell, could run through a couple more before it is all over. His victories include nine major titles, which puts him well ahead of Arnold Palmer's seven and at least in the vicinity of Nicklaus' 16, especially since there are two U.S. Amateur's in Jack's total. Besides all of this. Player has not had a sniffle in 10 years.
No one on the tour has the little South African's capacity for work. At 5'8" and 146 pounds, he is a paragon who single-mindedly strives to eliminate anything that might interfere with attaining his objectives. His discipline and tenacity are legend. At Houston he slept on the floor, as he has for several months, because of a potentially troublesome lower back. He shunned sugar, white flour, meat, coffee and ordinary tea, and his first meal of the day was literally meal, which he carries with him everywhere, washed down with a special herbal tea. He was in bed—or on the floor—at 10 p.m., faithfully did his multiple exercises and had "practice-range hands" from hitting so many golf balls. And above all he was happy, because for the first time in six weeks he was reunited with his wife Vivienne and four of their six children.
You could reasonably wonder what this man might have accomplished if he did not have to contend with jet lag. It is a 10,000-mile, 17-hour trip from his home in Johannesburg to New York, and this mind-addling journey accounts for a large part of the 5.5 million air miles he estimates he has logged during his career. He arrived at the Woodlands Country Club Wednesday for the pro-am with the scream of jet engines still in his ears, having risen at 5:15 that morning in Orlando, Fla. for the trip to Texas. After working out on the practice tee, he joined a pro-am group that included his 16-year-old son Wayne, who is a scratch player. He gave his partners playing suggestions, signed autographs, posed for pictures, held an impromptu driving contest with his son, conducted an interview, emitted a steady stream of compliments and shot a four-under-par 68 that netted him $340 for a fifth-place tie. This had been his first look at the course. "I haven't exactly given myself the best preparation," said Player when asked if he thought he could win the tournament proper. At dinner that night Amanda fell asleep at the table, exhausted from the trip. "She didn't even make it to the salad," said her mother.
Player went out next day and shot a 64 in the opening round, tying the course record, and added a 67 Friday for a 131 that matched the lowest 36-hole total on the tour this year. On Saturday, however, as tornado warnings circulated, Player ran into a hurricane in the form of Bean. He shot a 70 but Bean had a 66, which gave him a three-stroke lead. That left Player exactly where he likes to be for the final round Sunday—slightly behind the leader—and soon it was all over for Bean. Not a bad windup to three weeks of work for the son of a miner in the South African gold fields who turned professional at 17 and earned $60 a month during his first three years.
Player's streak benefited greatly from a putting tip from his wife, who has been after him for years to discard his characteristic short, jerky stroke for something smoother. On the greens Player has never looked like a champion. In fact, 24-handicappers have offered to give him putting lessons. Player once overheard Hale Irwin exclaim, "I don't know how that man has won over 100 tournaments with that putting stroke." He finally got the message from Vivienne, who he thinks could have been one of the 10 best women golfers in the world had she not gone the diaper route. After Player walked off the 18th green Thursday following his 64, Vivienne said to him, "I ought to kick you in the shins for being so stubborn." It was the first time she had seen her husband's new putting stroke.
Player continues to improve even at his age because he has not lost his enthusiasm. And that may be partly because he takes off three months every year to work his 4,000-acre ranch in Cape Province, about 400 miles from Johannesburg. The layout is called Rietfontein, which means "Where the reeds grow on the river." There Player raises alfalfa and has 50 head of cattle and about 100 horses, including the sire of Welcome Boy, the South African Triple Crown winner, an animal Player believes is the best 3-year-old in the world.
In Houston, Player was unusually happy and relaxed because his family had joined him. Only his 17-year-old son Mark, an agricultural student, and his daughter Michelle, 15, who dislikes flying, were home. In the gallery were Jennifer, 19; Theresa, 12; Amanda, 5; and Wayne, who had his 16th birthday last Saturday. Privately Player is excited about Wayne's potential, even fantasizing that the Player family could produce the first father-son Masters champions. Wayne is a long hitter, built like his father, although his swing is more upright, quite similar to Ben Crenshaw's. "Imagine when he gets to be 18," said Player as he watched one of Wayne's blasts split the fairway. "He might be the longest driver in the world."
Earlier in the week, while Player met his wife and daughters in Orlando and conducted some business, Wayne played a round of golf with Lee Trevino. Albert Salinas, Trevino's friend, told Player, "Lee thinks that with proper guidance Wayne could do anything."
"That's right," said Player, the proud father. "All he has to do is play in tournaments."
During the pro-am round, when Wayne bought a hot dog and smeared it with mustard, Player groused at him, "There you go, eating all that white flour."
"Yeah," said Wayne, "but it doesn't make me dizzy like it does you."
The dizziness had concerned Player for about two weeks. At the Tournament of Champions he suffered a spell on Saturday but attributed it to some spoiled food. But when it bothered him again at Houston he wondered if it might be nerves and the strain of being near the lead so often. Finally on Friday he had a doctor wash the wax out of his ears, hoping it would cure the ailment.
Nothing will cure his obsession with exercise. In the gym he looks like any 20-year-old in terrific shape. His upper legs are thick and muscular, his forearms are like rope. Offer Player a set of weights and he'll show up for your tournament. At Houston he was a frequent visitor to the Woodlands' Health Club, where therapist Don Schlossberg marveled at him. "I've never seen an athlete in better condition for his sport," said Schlossberg. During a concentrated 45-minute workout with golfers George Burns and Allen Miller looking on curiously, Player whipped through a series of leg exercises, his face red and perspiring, including 300 lifts with a weighted shoe. His goal is to increase that to 1,000 in the next few years. He also worked on his forearms and swung a heavy lead golf club, first with two hands, then with one, forward and backward. Player can grasp the end of the club's grip with two fingers and hold it outstretched. When Paul Meyer, a 205-pound weight lifter, marathoner and former football player who now manages the health club, tried it, the club fell to the floor. Player beamed.
As a young man, Player was a gymnast. The first $50 he ever made was won on a bet that he could walk on his hands around a snooker table. He still can walk 25 yards on his hands and do 25 one-armed push-ups. He looks so healthy that men suck in their stomachs when he is in their presence.
On the way to the press room during the tournament, an official complained that he was putting on weight.
"I bet you eat meat," said Player, who was drinking orange juice and eating an orange.
"Yep," the man admitted, sounding contrite.
"I bet you eat sugar."
"Yep." (More contrite.)
"I bet you eat white bread."
"Yep." (Very contrite.)
Then Player told the man about the joys of exercising and, as a final argument, raised his leg and asked him to feel his rock-hard thigh. The official was impressed.
The South African is so disciplined and so dedicated to his regimen that one can almost see the headlines if he slipped off the wagon:
PLAYER EATS WHITE BREAD, SAYS HE IS SORRY.
Player's durability comes into clear perspective when you consider that his victory in the Masters made him only the fourth golfer in history to have won PGA tour events 20 or more years apart. The others are Sam Snead (29 years), Gene Littler (23 years) and Don January (20 years). And Player is the only one to have won a major championship in each of the last three decades.
"And maybe in the '80s, too," said son Wayne.
"Not maybe," corrected his father.
"He always was a fighter and had the desire," recalls former PGA champion Lionel Hebert, who was on the tour when Player arrived in 1957. "When he first came to this country he had a terrible hook. He didn't know how to grip a club. But he's a tiger. He's worked harder than anybody. Money's never spoiled him."
The hook has been his main flaw. In 1973, struggling with the aftereffects of an operation to clear a clogged tube leading to his kidney, Player was on the practice tee following the final round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont. Johnny Miller, the winner, had long since departed the club, but Player, under overcast skies and in dwindling light, continued to pound balls. Now he says he has tamed the hook. "It took me 23 years to learn why I hooked the ball," he says, "but I never worry about it anymore. There aren't any giveaways in golf. And there is only one way to learn something; that is to practice and work. I won all those tournaments swinging the club the wrong way. For hitting the ball, the last two years have been the best of my life. A lot of pros practice on the quiet and then say they don't practice. That's like a man bragging he doesn't go to the office. I'm proud to say that I've been a hard practicer. That's what I've tried to teach my family. That they've got to be hard workers."
Player applies similiar aphorisms to his own life and career. A sampling:
"You are what you eat."
"Part of life is accepting adversity."
"Don't say can't. There's no such word."
"Everything you have on earth is loaned."
"If you're healthy, you're wealthy."
"If you want to be the best, you've got to work harder than the best."
"The healthier you are, the happier you are."
Trite? Not to Gary Player.
And he is a proud man. During the pro-am he hit a big drive, then turned to his caddie, Rabbit Dyer, and made a muscle with his right arm. "Feel that, Rabbit," he said, beaming. Later when he pounded another long one, he called out to Wayne, "Match that one, laddie," and chuckled when his son's drive stopped a few yards short of his.
One of the things he is proudest of is his record. Like Jack Nicklaus, he has never had a bad year. Nicklaus' monumental achievements, however, have been made on the American tour, while Player has sometimes all but disappeared from the U.S. scene, as he did in the years 1966 through 1968 or the three years before this one when he failed to win a tour event. But he has continued to win in other countries, a fact not unknown to the caddies. "They always come to him when they need a loan," says Dyer, Player's regular bag toter since 1970.
Dyer says he plans to stick with Player right on up into the '80s and beyond. "He's taught me one thing," says Rabbit. "Never say can't."