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Player Has Found the Fountain of Joy on the Seniors Golf Tour

February 23, 1986|THOMAS BOSWELL | The Washington Post

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — As the sky grew dark on a recent day, one small man dressed all in black stayed on the practice putting green after everyone else had left. He was a rookie on the eve of his first major tournament.

As one putt after another slipped exasperatingly past the hole, the player slapped his hand hard against his thigh and gritted his teeth. Nerves already.

An old fan outside the gallery ropes muttered, "Come on, make one, will ya?," then added, commiserating, "That'll drive a guy crazy."

Finally, the golfer sank a longish one and snapped his fingers happily. "Now that felt good to me," he said. The fan clapped once and actually broke into a gleeful little jog of empathy.

"Soon as I make these, I'll go," murmured the rookie, methodically making three straight six-footers into the heart of the hole. "There," he sighed, confidence restored. Ready to go.

With that, 50-year-old Gary Player, winner of 140 tournaments around the world, a man with career earnings in the millions, ended his last practice session before last week's PGA Senior Championship.

The loyal white-haired fan walked spryly toward the parking lot as though his spirits had been lifted, too.

After his first round, Player was on the locker room phone calling his family in South Africa. "Would you like to know who's leading?" he said, teasing like a proud little boy. "That's right. Had a 68. Let me tell you, I played a round of golf today."

(Player went on to shoot 281 and win the tournament and its $45,000 first prize.)

As he changed spikes, Player beamed.

"I feel like a young man again--injected with optimism, I'd say. Out here, I'm the youngster. Played with Sam Snead last week--the man must be the greatest athlete of all time, 74 years old and shooting his age--and he says to his caddie, 'How come this boy is outdriving me on every hole?' When I was on the regular tour, they all called me 'Mr. Player.' "

Like most famous athletes, Player never thought his sport would still have its hooks deep into him when he was a grandfather. "Twenty years ago at the Masters, when Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and I were the 'Big Three,' we talked about when we'd retire," Player recalled. "Jack and I said we'd both be gone by 35--and glad to be out of it.

"Arnold said, 'I'll play forever, till I can't anymore.' We laughed at him. Now, every year at the Masters, Arnold sees us and says, 'Hey, I thought you guys were going to retire.'

"Now, I know what Arnold meant," said Player, who weighed 150 with a 32-inch waist when he was 25 and now weighs 151 with a 32 1/2-inch waist. "I tell you, this Senior Tour is a bloody joy."

These days, Player and Palmer are discovering (and, come 1990, perhaps Nicklaus will, too) they can actually live out the athlete's most unlikely fantasy.

They can hear the crowds, see their name writ large and win the gaudy prize-yes, they can play the game, really play it with all their hearts-forever. It's almost like beating the house.

The saddest sight in sports is a person in his prime, probably not 40 years old, realizing he's already washed up at the work for which he's prepared himself since he was a child. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that a great athlete dies twice and that, of the two deaths, retirement may seem the sharper pain. Housman's poem, "To an Athlete Dying Young," often seems misnamed; in a way, how many world-class athletes don't die young?

All the qualities sport demands and rewards--love of competition, desire for recognition, dedication to task, ability to perform under stress--are exactly the traits most wounded and warped by forced early retirement.

Those least suited to cope with an athlete's life are athletes. Yet nowhere, certainly not in any American sport, has any true provision been made so great athletes can continue performing under bona fide competitive conditions before large crowds with millions of dollars at stake.

Nowhere, that is, until the PGA Senior Tour began shocking itself with success the past few years.

"It's unbelievable. If anybody had told me five years ago that I'd be playing a 31-tournament circuit with $7.5 million in prize money, I'd have said they were crazy," said Billy Casper, 54, one of golf's greats. "We're having the time of our lives."

Perhaps the most dramatic, unusual and sentimental success story in sports in the 1980s has been the birth and nurturing of this rich, cheerful and booming golf tour for codgers over 50.

There's a lot of spring in the step of the geriatric set here at the PGA National course these days. Anyone who saw the film "Cocoon" knows how a man feels when the pleasures of youth are unexpectedly restored to him after long years of feeling (to paraphrase Yeats) that old age has been tied to him like a tin can to a dog's tail.

Player is among dozens of well-known golfers, including Palmer, who, once again, have a gallery at their heels and feel the delicious stress of battle. There's also the matter of big bucks, like a $40,000 first prize here.

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