Player recalls his Masters triumph

2011-04-09 19:12

If the old saying, “knock on the door long enough and it will open” is indeed true, then there is no better case to illustrate it than Gary Player’s triumph in the 1961 Masters.

This year marks the 50th ­anniversary of Player’s memorable Masters ­victory in which he stared down the legend of Arnold Palmer and walked away with a win that shocked ­American golf.

But it was in a hotel room in ­Australia five years earlier that ­Player laid the foundation for his ­second ­Major win.

“In 1956 I was invited to play in the Ampol Tournament in Melbourne.

“I was leading the tournament by four shots going into the final round,” says Player.

“That Sunday evening I was in my hotel room. There was a connecting door to another room. I was practising my putting against this door and hitting putt after putt after putt against it. The next thing I know the door opens, and Jack Kramer – one of the greatest tennis players in the game – is standing there.

“The first thing he said was, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ Then he saw me and said, ‘Gary, what’s wrong with you?’ I said to him, ‘Jack, I’m leading the tournament by four shots and I’m practising because I’m going to hole a lot of putts on the final day’.

“I went on to win the tournament, but it was an important lesson for me. Instead of sitting there the night before the final round and worrying about my four-shot lead, I was doing something positive and practising.”

Player drew on this experience as he prepared for the final round of the Masters with a four-shot lead over Palmer.

He needed all of his resolve to stay relaxed, because the final round was rained out – forcing another ­painful wait until it could be played on the Monday.

“I had to teach myself to relax. I kept telling myself, ‘Tomorrow I have the chance to become the first foreign winner of the Masters’. I made sure I didn’t have time to worry about the nerves and choking,” says Player.

Even Palmer admitted: “Such a wait can be murder on a leader’s psyche.”

The overriding feeling has been that Palmer lost the 1961 Masters by ­making a double bogey on the last hole rather than that Player won it.

It is true that Player signed for a 74 on the final day while Palmer closed with a 71, but as America struggled to come to terms with the shock defeat of its favourite golfing son, there was little mention of the bunker shot at 18 that won it for Player.

“I kept my focus during that final round and made a great up-and-down from the bunker on the last hole to save par. Arnold went into that same bunker and ended up making a ­double-bogey six,” says Player.

There was also the incident on the 13th hole which almost cost Player the title.

He had pushed his drive right of the trees and knew that he could play his second up the 14th fairway and have a sand wedge to the green, but to do so Player needed the gallery to move. They refused, and the course marshals did little to help.

Only 25 at the time, Player naturally felt like the outsider and did not make an issue of it.

Instead, he decided to chip onto the fairway; but he hit it too hard and the ball rolled into Rae’s Creek, from where he took a double bogey.

“You have to understand that in 1961 Arnold was building his reputation and was at the height of his ­powers,” says Player.

“He’d already won three Majors, two of them the Masters. In 1960 he’d had a memorable season, winning eight tournaments including two Majors. To the fans he was ‘The King’. His fans became known as ‘Arnie’s Army’. And into all of this in 1961 comes a young upstart from a country most ­Americans have never heard of, and he is challenging their hero.

“The Americans were screaming for Arnold to win that week. Arnold was already a giant in the game, and any young golfer would have felt that presence looming over him.”

To his credit, Palmer has done his best to not let anything detract from Player’s victory that week.

“While I have always considered that one of the most crushing defeats of my career, it takes nothing away from the victory of Gary. He shot his first three rounds in the 60s and made those final tough pars when he had to for what he must consider one of the most important victories of his life. He can certainly be proud of it on the 50th anniversary of that ­significant occasion.”

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