by Jeff Skinner
With his last walk down the eighteenth fairway in a few days, Gary Player will be ending his fifty two year tradition of competing at The Masters. Player has won three Masters and nine majors during a career that has spanned five decades. Player’s love for Augusta is well known. He has enjoyed this tournament and the traditions at Augusta more than any other major. “The love I have received here has been incredible,” he said during his press conference. Gary Player has given much back to the game and his community over the years. The Gary Player Foundation has given over twenty five million dollars to help children throughout the world.
His first Masters win was in 1961 when he was the leading money leader on the PGA Tour. He won again in 1974 along with a British Open that year. Player’s final major was the 1978 Masters when he was 42, the oldest winner at that time. At Augusta the saying goes, “The Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday.” That certainly was the case for Player in 1978.
He started Sunday’s final round seven shots back. He was chasing the leaders Tom Watson, Hubert Green and Ron Funseth. He teed off long before the leaders on Sunday. When Player made the turn he was still five strokes back. However, Augusta in 1978 is quite different from Augusta today. Today going low on the back is a difficult task. In 1978 Augusta was a different course, one that allowed, even encouraged an attack on its greens. Player did just that. He sank a twenty five foot birdie putt on ten to start. Then on twelve he dropped a fifteen footer for birdie. His eagle putt on thirteen just missed the cup and he tapped in for another birdie. He was on a roll. Player was making the classic Sunday charge on the back nine at Augusta that we all cheer for each year. He wasn’t done yet. Fifteen was reachable back then and Player left his second shot eighty feet from the hole. He two putted for birdie and was climbing up the leader board. On sixteen Player holed a downhill fifteen foot putt for another birdie. After the third round Player was asked about his chances on Sunday. “One of the things I am is an eternal optimist. I was playing excellent golf and I hadn’t made any putts. But you have to keep on aiming at them.” His aim had improved on Sunday and he was making the putts he had missed all week. After Player hit the eighteenth green with his second shot he was facing a fifteen foot putt for a birdie and the lead. He sank his sixth birdie for a thirty on the back nine and a final round of sixty four. Had Player been in the last group he would have collected his third green jacket immediately. Instead he had to wait for Watson, Green and Funseth to finish.
The three leaders were having difficulty mounting any charge at Augusta that day. Green hit the pond on eleven and three putted on sixteen. Watson three putted from six feet on sixteen. All three of them had a putt on eighteen to tie Player and force a playoff. It would have been a sudden death playoff for the first time in Masters history. It was not to be. Funseth missed from fifteen feet and Watson missed from ten feet. The most painful of all was Green. He missed a three foot birdie putt on eighteen to tie and go to a playoff. Player had shot sixty four to Watson and Funseth’s sixty nine and Green’s seventy two. Player had his third Masters. For the victory Player won $45,000 and cemented his place in Masters history.
Player’s performance in 1978 was a microcosm of his life. No matter what the obstacle or the odds he was always the optimist. He always saw the possibility of success no matter how dire the circumstances. When he started his final round on Sunday he just kept trying to make each shot and do his best on each hole. In the end his hard work and positive attitude served him well and led to a classic charge on Augusta’ back nine.
As Player was recalling his years at Augusta he had this thought,” Last year I was standing on the first tee thinking, most of my friends, at age seventy three, are dead and I’m still playing in the Masters.” Like he said, he’s an eternal optimist.