Still focused after all these years, continuing to beat the scorecard as well as the calendar, Gary Player last week jogged onto the Senior PGA Tour as a champion at the age of 50, the dreaded half century. Thanks to vitamins, sit-ups and nuts and raisins, Player looks and acts the same as he did when he arrived in the United States from South Africa in 1957 with two pairs of pants and a knit tie he used as a belt to hold them up. He plays about the same, too.
At the Quadel Seniors Classic in Boca Raton, Fla., Player won his rookie start on the still good, ol' boy circuit, shooting 73-64-68, a healthy 11 under par over the Boca Grove Plantation course, for a three-stroke victory over Ken Still and Jim Ferree. How great it must be to turn 50 and still have a knockout punch.
Player started slowly, putting, he said, "like a sausage," but he made eight birdies in the second round, another six in the third, and once he had the lead, he was like a dog with his favorite bone, striding confidently down the fairway while the rest of the field tagged along in golf carts, complaining of their aches and pains.
Winning is probably the South African's favorite elixir. This was his first victory in the U.S. since he won three straight events, including the Masters, in 1978. "Obviously, he is happy to be a young 50 instead of an old 49," says his 23-year-old son, Wayne. As an old 49, Player had finished second at the Tallahassee Open, and at 48 he had placed second in the PGA Championship.
The senior golf circuit is the sport's success story of the '80s, with 30 events and prize money totaling $7.5 million set for 1986. Player, who turned 50 on Nov. 1, has been aiming at it for several years, figuring that his devotion to physical perfection—talk about someone ahead of his time—would serve him well among the moldy oldies.
Player won $30,000 at Boca Grove, where he is a touring professional. In 1958, when he made his first big check, finishing second in the U.S. Open in Tulsa, he took his wife, Vivienne, by the hand and whispered in a nervous, apprehensive voice, "I think we've made $3,000." Later, when they found that his prize money actually was $5,000, Player fell to his knees laughing. "My God," he said, "we're rich."
It was in Tulsa that Player was paired for 36 holes with Ben Hogan. Player felt as if he were looking at God. Later, in the locker room, Hogan stared at him and said, "Son, you're going to be a good player." Player swelled.
"Do you practice much?" Hogan asked.
"Yes sir," said Player.
Hogan nodded. "Increase it," he said.
Heeding Hogan's advice, Player went on to win all four major championships and 130 titles worldwide, becoming the Magellan of golf as he circled the globe while doing his exercise regimen and sleeping in the aisles of airplanes. By his own reckoning Player has logged close to six million air miles, most of them, unfortunately, before the advent of frequent-flyer bonuses.
So identified is Player with the benefits of healthy living that the big news last week was not that Player at 5'7" and 150 pounds appeared as svelte and rugged as always; it was that after about 25 years of looking for a skeleton in his refrigerator, the cynics finally found one. Reese's Pieces. Yes, those little candy pellets that E.T. wolfed down. Talk about mellowing.
Besides Player, several other golfers, including former pro football player John Brodie and Chi-Chi Rodriguez, made their senior debuts at Boca Raton. Brodie made a good showing for an old quarterback turned pro golfer turned amateur golfer turned television commentator turned pro golfer again. Times change. During a couple of seasons on the "junior" circuit years ago, Brodie won a total of $429. Early in the second round last week he was tied for the lead; he finished with 67-71-75, a tie for 13th place and $3,500.
Not surprisingly, Rodriguez was all but licking his chops about being a new old guy. "I want to be the best senior golfer in the world," he said. Chi-Chi eventually returned 68-72-71 and won $7,700 for his fifth-place tie.
But Player was the rookie in whom most people were interested. For the first round Friday, his amateur partners imitated a Player trademark: Ken Hoff, Wayne Rauch, Mac McCreary and Fletcher Sessons showed up in black shirts and pants. The real Player, who confounded his mimics by wearing a blue shirt and white slacks, shot a 73, one over par, in the first round, seven shots off the pace of co-leaders Dan Sikes and Still. Player's putter was giving him trouble, the kind that normally is maddening, but the senior tour is a little different. These guys are thrilled to be playing their retirement. Witness Billy Casper. Not especially lighthearted on the junior circuit, Casper made a special trip to the dining room late one afternoon in Boca just to say goodby to his pro-am partners. Watching this scene, one downbeat remarked, "In the old days, Billy said goodby to 'em on the 1st tee."
So when Player walked off the course Friday, he was pleased to find Bill Kuehn of Austin, Texas waiting for his autograph. "I drove 1,200 miles just so I could see your first senior tournament," said Kuehn. "Sir, you have made my day," said a smiling Player.
Player went to the putting green and got some tips from Wayne, and on Saturday it was a case of different strokes for the same folks. He made eight birdies and almost canned a handful of other long ones. He said it might have been the best putting round of his life, certainly of his new senior life. His 64 moved him into fourth place, four strokes behind Still, who was still in the lead.
In the final round, Still, 50, appeared jittery and Player took the lead with birdies on the 7th, 8th and 10th holes. "I knew then that it was Laddie's tournament," said his longtime caddie, Rabbit Dyer.
It also was the beginning of a beautiful friendship—Player and senior golf. They were made for each other. Player likens himself to a fisherman, because he can go anywhere in the world and practice his craft. But he's got it a little wrong. He's the fish, still swimming in competitive waters. He's out there now. He's the shark.