It didn't make headlines, but one of the Augusta protesters got
past the Pinkerton guards on April 8. The fellow walked boldly up
the clubhouse stairs to the champions' dining room, sat down as
if he owned the place and ordered a tuna-and-tomato sandwich on
whole wheat toast. He then declared his yearlong campaign to get
Masters chairman Hootie Johnson and the Augusta National Golf
Club to change their policies an unqualified success. "I take my
hat off to Hootie and his board," he said with a South African
accent, "for having the humility to say, 'Sorry, we made a
mistake.'" ¬∂ The protester, if you haven't guessed, was
three-time Masters champion Gary Player.
This is an article from the April 21, 2003 issue
The mistake was the club's pre-Martha Burk decision to rescind,
effective in 2004, a 68-year-old decree that guaranteed all
Masters champions a lifetime invitation to play in the
tournament. Player--a lively 67-year-old who shot his age a few
weeks ago in a Champions tour event--had reacted to the change in
his characteristically outspoken way. In public utterances he
described the past champions' exemption as a "debt" owed by the
club, speculated that founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts
were spinning in their graves, and said he no longer felt welcome
at Augusta National. This year's Masters, he added, would be his
last. "I didn't say it with any nastiness in mind," Player said
last week. "I said it to try to be constructive."
The impact of Player's protest is hard to measure because past
champions Jack Nicklaus, 63, and Arnold Palmer, 73, both members
of Augusta National, are believed to have discreetly asked
Johnson to reconsider the matter. Whatever the reason, Johnson
called Player in March to say that he was reversing himself--the
lifetime exemption for past Masters champions would continue. In
that case, a delighted Player replied, the club could cancel the
farewell-to-Gary dinner it had planned for Monday night of
Masters week. Palmer, meanwhile, announced that he would play
this year and next, extending his string of Masters appearances
to a record 50.
For Player, who spent much of his career decrying the apartheid
policies of the former South African government while enduring
the taunts of antiapartheid demonstrators at tournaments, it has
never been a question of whether one should challenge authority,
but how. "People have the right to demonstrate," he said at
Augusta, "but some people, when they demonstrate, they throw acid
in policemen's faces, they hit old ladies, they lie in the
street. They've gone over the brink of freedom and into
militancy. I make a point, when I say what I feel, to try to do
it eloquently. It should be done with dignity."
With that as preface, Player was almost obliged to give his view
of the controversy du jour: Augusta National's refusal to open
its membership to women. He did so, in fact, without being asked.
"I will tell you here and now that they will have women members
one day," he declared, "because it's the right thing to do."
Leaping to a new subject with the agility of a springbok, Player
complained that the recent lengthening of certain holes at
Augusta National was a tragic waste of money--"You could take the
hundreds of millions of dollars spent to change courses around
the world and spend it on humanitarian causes"--and joined
Nicklaus in calling for a tournament ball that cuts 30 yards off
the distances achieved by the low-altitude terrestrial orbiters
currently in use. "Eventually it's going to be done," he said
with a shrug. "Things that are going to be done in the future,
you might as well do."
If Martha Burk had been there, she would have kissed him on the
That Player has enough energy for tournament golf and social
activism at an age when most men are too tired to reach for the
remote should surprise no one. When he was a young man, he would
stand in front of a mirror and say, over and over, "You're the
greatest golfer in the world." (The mirror was initially
skeptical. Player, the skinny, 5'7" son of a Johannesburg mine
captain, couldn't reach any of Augusta National's par-5s in 2
when he played in his first Masters, in 1957.) Unprepossessing
physically until he started lifting weights and practicing yoga,
Player still competes in more than 20 tournaments a year and jets
around the world to monitor construction at the latest of more
than 200 Gary Player-designed courses. When he's home at
Colesberg, his 15,000-acre ranch near Cape Town, South Africa, he
gardens, rides horses, plants trees and builds paddock fences.
"I'm fit as a fiddle, strong as a lion," he says. "My
concentration is good. I'm focused. I'm here at Augusta, this
beautiful place, playing in the Masters. It's a great day!"
Actually, it was a crummy day, a cold, weepy afternoon of
umbrellas and mud, but as his oldest son, Marc, points out,
Player "always sees the glass as half full." Why shouldn't he?
Player is one of only five golfers to have won all the Grand Slam
events. He is the best golfer over 65 in the world. He has his
health, and he's rich.
He is rich, isn't he? In the last couple of years, the Gary
Player Group Inc., a privately held company based in Palm Beach
Gardens, Fla., reportedly has suffered losses on a failed dotcom
venture that tried to sell Gary Player golf equipment over the
Internet. When Christie's, the London-based auction house,
announced last October that Player's vast collection of trophies
and memorabilia was for sale, rumors spread that the golfer was
hurting for cash.
Not so, says Marc, who owns and runs Black Knight International,
the offshore holding company that controls the Gary Player Group.
(Gary receives royalties on all sales.) "First of all," says
Marc, "there's no auction, no sale date. It's a private sale with
criteria that we set up." Those criteria are that the collection
must go to a single buyer for a minimum of $5 million, Player can
refuse to sell if he doesn't approve of the buyer, the collection
cannot be broken up, and it must be put on public display. The
proceeds of the sale, meanwhile, are promised to the Gary Player
Foundation, which funds the Blair Atholl School for
underprivileged children in Johannesburg, though some undisclosed
percentage will also go to a family trust. "If he needed the
money, why give it to charity?" Marc asks. "The business isn't
benefiting from it, and he personally is not benefiting from it."
But there is a personal motive for the sale, Gary concedes, and
that is his wish that his estate not become a big-dollar pinata
for his two sons, four daughters and 13 grandchildren to take
whacks at. "I die," he says, "and all of a sudden he wants the
U.S. Open trophy, she wants the claret jug, they want the World
Match Play. To have my family fighting and bickering over my
trophies, that would break my heart."
Some heartbreak may not be avoidable. The Palm Beach Post
reported recently that Player's oldest daughter, Jennifer, was
dismayed when she was asked to donate to the sale a charm
bracelet fashioned from Gary's 1959 British Open medal, won the
year she was born. Also opposed to the sale is Gary's 40-year-old
son, Wayne, a former touring pro who worked briefly for the Gary
Player Group. Wayne charged that Marc talked his father into
selling the collection so Marc could collect a commission. On
Monday, though, Wayne backed off from his claim. ("That's
symptomatic of our relationship," Marc told the Post. "I'm not
getting a penny more out of the sale than Wayne or anybody else
in my family that will split the proceeds.") Gary, tired of
extinguishing family fires, says, "It's my will, my memorabilia.
I want my grandchildren to be able to see my collection in one
place, not split up."
The collection is impressive. It includes six sterling-silver
replica trophies commemorating his nine major championships,
dozens of gold medals, an elephant-tusk trophy from the 1980
Ivory Coast Open, seven Kenneth Reed watercolors and the
black-and-white trousers that Player wore at the '60 British Open
to protest apartheid. The Masters loot alone would fill a
pirate's chest: three gold medals and cigarette boxes for his
victories in '61, '74 and '78, two silver medals for second
place, eight Steuben glass vases for low score of the day, 11
glass tumblers for making eagles, and a vase and glass goblet for
making a hole in one in the par-3 contest. There is
also--although it doesn't appear in the glossy catalog prepared
by Christie's--the green jacket that Player took home to South
Africa in 1961 after his first Masters win; he didn't know that
the winners' jackets were supposed to stay at the club.
Responding to critics who are disturbed by the idea of a green
jacket's being sold, Marc Player says that Augusta National has
raised no objection to the sale, as long as the jacket does not
go on permanent display and is not auctioned.
Asked last week if he was holding back any items for sentimental
reasons, Gary shook his head. "None. I don't worship false
idols," he said. Gary smiled, though, when Marc mentioned the one
piece the son would never give up: the Black Knight blade putter
with chrome shaft and rubber grip that Gary found in 1961 while
shopping with Arnold Palmer in the Ginza district of Tokyo. "I
got it out of a barrel for five dollars," Player says, "and it
won more than 100 tournaments and the Grand Slam."
Player made it clear, however, that he'd rather be out playing
golf than home polishing trophies. The problem last week was that
Augusta National has been lengthened considerably since 1957 and,
because of wet weather, it played even longer. Seven holes into
Friday morning's rain-delayed first round, Player was on the
leader board at even par. The rest of his day was an
azalea-framed collage of misjudged pitch shots, tentative chips
and rainbow putts. ("I'm hitting the ball very nicely," he told
Marc after 27 holes, "but I've lost my touch. My short game feels
like a weekend hacker's.") Even so, Player seemed buoyed by the
applause he got. "You're loyal fans for staying," he told
spectators in the gathering dusk. "Dinner must be on the table."
If it was, it was cooked goose. Player was 15 over par when play
was suspended on Friday evening. He lost three more strokes to
par on Saturday morning. But that wasn't so bad, considering he
had to hit three-wood or five-wood to get home on most of the par
4s. Player's score of 82-80-162 missed the cut, but he tied
Nicklaus for first among the over-60 crowd, two shots ahead of
Charles Coody, four ahead of Palmer and 10 better than Tommy Aaron.
The score that really mattered was the one that Player had
settled amicably with Hootie Johnson and the club. "I'd like to
reemphasize how impressed I was with their humility," Player
said. "I had no intention of coming back ever again, because I
didn't feel welcome here. But now I do, and I will come back and
sit on the veranda and be sociable and enjoy the event."
He left, as always, with a smile and a tip of his cap to the fans.
feel welcome. But now I will be back to enjoy the event."