Gary player has specialized in the outrageous since the days when he would travel all over the world carrying 50 pounds of exercise dumbbells in a suitcase. But get this: The little guy still thinks he can win more major titles than any player who ever lived.
By conventional count, Player's nine majors are 11 behind Jack Nicklaus's record of 20. But after winning his second consecutive U.S. Senior Open Championship—with an 18-hole playoff 68 to Bob Charles's 70 at the Medinah Country Club near Chicago on Monday—Player considers himself only four behind the Golden Bear. You see, he counts all Senior "majors" (including the British Seniors Open), of which he has now won five, and throws out Jack's two U.S. Amateurs. Outrageous. Of course. But Player was outrageously good at Medinah. After gritting out a tie with Charles after 72 holes at an even-par 288, Player came out firing in the playoff, never leading by less than two shots after the third hole. His four-birdie, no-bogey round featured 16 greens hit in regulation, the most a player reached in any one round during the entire championship.
"I'm only starting my career," said Player. "Jack has many years left. Never say that somebody is the best in midstream. Judge us at the end."
The playoff matchup had a pleasing symmetry. Both Player and Charles are prototypes of today's globe-trotting touring pro. Player has won more than 100 titles worldwide—including his nine majors—while living in South Africa. Charles emerged from New Zealand to become known as the finest lefthander, and one of the best putters, who ever played.
August 14, 1988
Although Charles is as laconic as Player is effusive, they have more in common than their heavyweight frequent-flier portfolios. Their wives, Vivienne Player and Verity Charles, were schoolmates in Johannesburg and were in each other's weddings. Both men are gentleman farmers, Player raising horses, Charles sheep. Both are 52 and seem immune to the aging process. Going to Medinah, Charles had three wins and was No. 1 on the Senior money list for 1988 with $311,908, while Player, also with three wins, was third on the list with $248,500. Although he is no longer a consistently great putter, a fact he attributes to deteriorating vision, Charles insists that years of working on his swing have him striking the golf ball better than ever. Indeed, he was peerless from tee to green at Medinah. Tied with Player entering the final round at one-under-par 215, the New Zealander usually outdrove the South African and hit his approaches closer to the hole for most of the final round. When Charles dropped an eight-foot birdie putt on the par- 5 14th, the lefthander led by three with four holes left.
"I had the tournament in the bag," he said.
But suddenly the bag sprang a leak as Charles began making little errors with major consequences. He bogeyed the 15th and 16th because of his first errant drives of the day. Player, with steady pars, was only one behind. Then at the devilish 17th, a 151-yard par 3 over Lake Kadijah from an elevated tee to a roller-coaster green, Charles watched Player hit a nine-iron well past the pin. He then hit his own nine-iron over the green. "It was a wedge," said a rueful Charles. "I can't believe I made that kind of mistake." When he couldn't keep his downhill chip on the green, Charles recorded his third straight bogey.
Meanwhile, Player came up short on his 40-foot birdie putt, leaving himself a testy downhill nightmare that had nearly as good a chance of going off the green as going in. Somehow, Player, who had missed four gimme putts during the week, summoned all his remarkable fortitude to make a perfect stroke and tie Charles.
"I won't forget that putt," said Player. "I'd hate to have to make it again with four tries."
Charles bounced back on the par-4 18th with a superb eight-iron approach 10 feet from the hole. After Player left his 20-foot birdie putt just short, Charles had a relatively flat left-to-right putt for the championship. He pushed it badly.
"Gary has the advantage," said Charles, shaken. "I blew the tournament today, and now he has a chance to win it tomorrow."
So Medinah No. 3 had refused to allow anyone to break its 72-hole par of 288. Although the course had been shortened—from the 7,000-plus-yard monster that it will be when the club hosts the 1990 U.S. Open to a less ferocious 6,881 yards—Medinah was still the toughest course ever used for a Senior Open. Even with ideal conditions, the average score for the entire field was 78. There were only three rounds in the 60's besides Player's playoff 68, and during the week there was not one eagle.
Long as the course was, it was Medinah's fast, sloping greens, called "cruel and diabolical" by Charles, that drove the twitchy seniors to distraction. The exception, at least for two rounds, was Billy Casper. On Thursday, Casper took only 26 putts to shoot a 69, which tied him for the lead with Walter Zembriski. On Friday, it looked as if Casper, still putting well, might cruise to a second Senior Open title—he won in 1983—to match his two U.S. Opens. His 71 put him at 140 and gave him a three-shot lead.
But the 57-year-old Casper opened the third round with a bogey on the first hole and followed with a double bogey on the second when he stroked a five-foot par putt 20 feet long. He never recovered, eventually finishing in a tie for 10th at 294.
Into the breach jumped Zembriski, a 53-year-old former painter/steel-worker/mini-tour player who learned the game at the Out of Bounds Golf Club in Mahwah, N.J. While making four front-nine birdies on Saturday, Zembriski was higher than he had been when he earned his living by walking the beams of unfinished skyscrapers. He led until he hit his tee shot at the 17th into the water. When he did it again, he had a quadruple-bogey 7, which sent him on his way to oblivion.
Now the leaders were Player and Charles. Both were struggling with their putters but somehow pulling out a bundle of pars. It was a formula that worked at Medinah, and it was no accident that each hit 53 of the 72 greens in regulation to lead the field.
All weekend Player had counted on his brand of relentless golf to win. He was thankful he could take the same approach into the playoff.
"A major championship means too much to a man's career to be decided by one hole," said Player. "Even 18 holes is too short. Anything can happen."
Even Gary Player becoming the best player in history? Better get out there, Jack.