Although there is every reason to believe he will be competing until he's 80, Gary Player and Senior golf will never be a perfect fit. The "ultimate mulligan" implies electric carts, twice-a-week pro-ams and a fair share of what Ben Hogan disdainfully called jolly golf. Gary Player stands for wiry rough and fast greens, the tightening in the stomach and the iron will that conquers it.
Player's love of the game's classic challenges helped him to run away with the U.S. Senior Open at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Conn. While many in the field had one or two low-scoring rounds, only the 51-year-old South African was able to sustain excellence from first drive to last putt, stringing together a neatly descending 14-under-par 69-68-67-66-270 for a six-shot victory over Doug Sanders on Sunday. In the process, Player shattered the tournament record of 279 set last year by Dale Douglass at Scioto in Columbus, Ohio; won a one-sided mano-a-mano battle over the final 36 holes against the hottest golfer on the Senior PGA Tour this year, Chi Chi Rodriguez; and claimed a third leg on a career Senior Grand Slam, a new and still nebulous concept, which is nevertheless the latest of Player's goals.
"I never could have done better at any time in my career," said Player, sounding surprisingly convincing for a man who won all four of the majors before he was 30 and five more after that. "I don't think the players on the regular Tour could score better than the winning scores out here."
A more accurate assessment of Senior talent was offered by Charles Owens, who has a fused left knee and a partially fused left ankle, as well as a bad right knee and arthritis in his lower back. Despite his maladies, Owens was not allowed to use a golf cart, because although carts are permitted in Senior tour events, the USGA bans them in the Senior Open. Owens withdrew on Thursday, exhausted, after he had completed nine holes, walking at times with the aid of crutches. "I understand that under championship conditions we should walk. But we are has-been champions," said Owens.
Player, however, hardly qualifies as a has-been. Indeed, the rounds he posted at the Open are worthy of attention at any level of the game. He used a one-iron from most tees to subtly tame the tight 6,599-yard A.W. Tillinghast layout, never hitting his driver more than three times in any of the four rounds. From the middle of the fairways, Player launched strategically safe approaches that held the small, bowl-shaped greens. And once on, he never three-putted.
"He's a champion, a general," said the admiring 53-year-old Sanders, who closed with a tournament-low 65 to edge Rodriguez for second. It was Sanders's best finish as a Senior. "Gary gets out there and stalks and doesn't make mistakes. With his patience, this was a perfect course for him."
Player had been looking forward to Brooklawn ever since he bogeyed two of the last four holes at last year's Senior Open to lose by one shot to Douglass. His anticipation was rewarded in his first practice round, when he birdied the 1st hole and made a hole in one with a five-iron on the 208-yard 2nd—harbingers of things to come.
But it was clear that standing in his path to victory would probably be the always-entertaining Rodriguez. After winning $399,000 and three tournaments as a Senior rookie last year, Rodriguez has won five times this season. Along with his fans, whom he refers to as Arnie's Leftovers, he was fired up for Brooklawn.
Player's opening 69 put him three strokes behind Peter Thomson and Gordon Jones, and his 68 on Friday lifted him to second, a stroke behind Rodriguez. "I'm so happy to be playing with Gary Player," said Chi Chi, who at 5'7½" is half an inch taller than Player. "He's the only guy out here I can look eye to eye."
In the spirit of the Senior tour, Player and Rodriguez proved to be a crowd-pleasing pair. Chi Chi putted well enough to unsheathe his sword-slashing pantomime. He and Player also congratulated each other for good shots with what Player calls the Farmer's Shake, a vaudeville move in which they stood astride each other balanced on one leg and "shook" the ankle of the other's raised leg.
Despite the laughter, the tension in the final pairing was real. Rodriguez, whose game plan was to attack the course with his driver, began to miss fairways. He three-putted the 1st hole on Saturday to lose his lead, and after three-putting the 18th, trailed Player, who played a flawless four-birdie, no-bogey round, by two. "I almost got rid of my caddie and hired two Boy Scouts to find my drives," said Rodriguez. Later he added, "I've got to get the tee away from Gary. When he hits ahead of me with that one-iron, the fairway starts shrinking."
Rodriguez appeared on the 1st tee Sunday with a plastic shamrock pinned to his right pants pocket, "My real name is O'Connor," he explained, "but I changed it for business purposes." He nervously popped two antacid pills and made par, but lost the honor on the next hole when the apparently nerveless Player knocked a four-iron to four feet and made birdie. With his lead firmly in hand, Player began an inspired run. He birdied the 3rd, 5th and 8th to reach 13 under par and stretch his lead to four shots. It was over.
Afterward, Player, whose outbursts of confidence are legendary, said he is convinced that "I actually play better now than I did 25 years ago."
Player has spent a career pumping himself up with such talk. "I think I've worked as hard as any golfer who ever lived," he said. "I know in my heart that I can still win a major on the regular Tour." As recently as 1984 he finished tied for second in the PGA. In the meantime, he will concentrate on the so-called Senior Slam. He figures he has three legs—the PGA Seniors, the Senior TPC and now the Open. He counts the British Seniors, to be played at Turn-berry in two weeks, as the fourth leg. but he and Arnold Palmer will be the only top PGA Seniors playing. As a warmup for Turnberry, Player is competing in the British Open at Muirfield this week.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, has become Player's biggest fan, at least for the moment. "I hope Gary wins the British Open," says Chi Chi. "Maybe then he'll get the idea to go back to the regular Tour."