Matthew Bates continues our series profiling the famed of the fairways with a look at the remarkable career of the evergreen Gary Player. At just five foot seven, Gary Player's opponents towered over him physically, but with nine major championships to his name and a career spanning six decades, the diminutive South African's impact on the golfing world has been huge.
Have clubs, will travel
Player was only the fifth man to win all four major championships, securing a career grand slam. In total he has won the Open Championship and the Masters three times, the US PGA Championship twice and the US Open once. Player is well known to be the 'world's most travelled athlete', and is estimated to have journeyed 15 million miles to compete in his native South Africa and all over the world. And along with America's Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, Player made up golf's 'big three', the trio that dominated world golf in the 60s and are all now good friends.
The Black Knight shows early fighting spirit
Nicknamed the Black Knight for his tendency to wear all black attire, Player was born in Johannesburg in 1935. In 2000 he was voted the South African Sportsman of the Century and he clearly loved playing in his home tournament, winning the South African Open 13 times between 1956 and 1981. Player took some hard knocks during childhood, especially after his mother died of cancer when he was eight years old. But six years later he played his first round of golf, and after taking to the game extremely well he turned professional aged just 17.
Major success at Muirfield reveals Player potential
His maiden professional victory came in 1955, and he didn't have long to wait before his first major win. It came in the 1959 Open Championship at Muirfield, where Player was to overcome a four-shot deficit going into the final round to win by two. Although he had won 20 tournaments before his triumph at the Scottish links, Player had only won once in the US and in the UK. The victory surfaced Player's talent, and he would go onto win three Opens in three different decades, becoming the only player in the 20th century to do so. However, his victory at Muirfield did not feature the best players from the US. His great rivals, Nicklaus and Palmer, did not play, and it was not until the latter was victorious in the 1961 Open that it became a popular stop-off for US players once again.
Player makes his mark in the US
But it didn't take long for Player to prove his ability on the US stage. In 1961, Player became the first non-American to win the Masters despite carding a final round 74. His first three rounds - all in the 60s - were good enough to see him beat Charles Coe, and Palmer, by a shot. A year later, he secured his first PGA Championship, again winning by just a shot, meaning he only needed the US Open to take a career grand slam. And in 1965, Player achieved the feat, defeating Australian Ken Nagle in an 18-hole playoff at Bellerive Country Club. Player didn't break 70 in any of his five rounds, but his consistency brought him the title and a career grand slam at the age of 29.
All-round talent and longevity to match
He may have been struggled in the height department, but the South African didn't have any weaknesses in his game. One of his best qualities was his bunker play, and many consider him to be the best ever player from the sand. In 1998, and at the age of 62, Player became the oldest golfer to make the cut at the Masters, breaking Sam Snead's 25-year-old record, and earlier this year he played in his 52nd, and last, Masters. The tournament, held at Augusta National Golf Club, Georgia, is a special one for Player, and he has always played well there.
A Master at Augusta
Between 1959 and 1974, Player failed to finish in the top 10 on only two occasions, and he regularly broke 80 during his older days - a superb achievement considering Augusta's yardage increases and treacherous greens. Winning the 1978 Masters was arguably Player's finest moment. Aged 42, and seven shots behind the lead going into the final day, Player carded an incredible 64 to win by a shot. His back nine of just 30 strokes is written into golfing folklore, and cemented the South African's place as one of golf's greatest ever players. The fact that he was the last of the 'big three' to play at the Masters is testament to Player?s fitness fanaticism, an obsession that he believes is the main reason for his ability good health and ability to still play good quality golf.
Player continues to build on his legacy
Today however, Player spends most of his time making the most of his business ventures, and he has designed over 300 golf courses around the world. The South African is one of the game's great ambassadors, and although he played in his last Masters this year, he hasn't been forgotten, and is going strong on the Champions Tour, making six cuts from six attempts this season. It doesn't seem to matter how much older Player gets he still has what it takes. The 73-year-old even shoots the odd round under his age.
- Matthew Bates, for Golf.co.uk
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