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He Picks Putts Over Politics

December 17, 1995|Jim Murray

LA QUINTA, Calif. — So, the 2006 World Cup soccer final is going to be played in South Africa.

Interesting, huh? Five years ago, South Africa couldn't even be in it, never mind host it.

South Africa has been a sports pariah for years. A case of the world saying to them Gidouddahere! Close the door on your way out. You want apartheid? We'll give it to you.

Zola Budd, their premier distance runner, had to move to England to be eligible for the Olympics. A New Zealand team was once barred from organized rugby because its team scheduled a game in South Africa. Last month, South Africa was host to that sport's championship.

Apartheid went out, to the intense relief of most of the rest of the world.

And no one was more relieved than Gary J. Player, the golfer, the man who may be South Africa's most celebrated sports export.

Player stood on a green at the Citrus Course here the other day, where he was playing in the Lexus Challenge charity golf tournament for Childhelp USA, and recalled the dark years when his homeland's policies shadowed his career.

"It was a nightmare. I never knew what to expect. For 18 years, I was barred from playing in Japan. I was barred from playing in Denmark, Sweden, some other European tournaments."

Where he could play, he had to walk through picket lines. "They threw telephone books at me on my backswing. They rolled golf balls across the green as I was lined up to putt. They threw ice in my eyes."

They even kicked his ball in the rough. "In the 1969 PGA, I was playing the best golf of my career. And then the protesters struck. I remember on the 10th green, I was playing with Jack Nicklaus when they charged the green and took gouges in the turf. Yet, I lost by just one shot to Raymond Floyd and even made a birdie on 17. I had a one-foot putt on 18 and someone screamed as I tapped it--and I missed it by four inches! I had to keep one eye on the ball and one eye on the spectators."

The world had decided that the sins of the forefathers should be visited on the sons. Player himself was an apolitical type who was at first surprised, then dismayed at the world reaction to his homeland's policy. He himself did not believe in apartheid and said so at every opportunity. Not his fault, he protested. Yes, it is, countered the activists. Gary Player was a highly visible target on which to register their outrage.

He suffered indignities. Where he could play, he was harassed, hounded. He had an African American caddie, Rabbit. Rabbit dined where Gary dined, often stayed where Gary stayed, drove or rode where Gary did. Player even took him to South Africa in defiance of custom.

It didn't matter. The activists were implacable. They usually are. They considered it a small price to pay to bring down apartheid. No professional ever had to play in the hostile atmosphere Player did. Incredibly, he won anyway--21 times on the American tour.

Some guys have to learn to play with a loop in their backswings, a yip in their putts, a bent forearm or even a limp. Player's handicap was the gallery.

It's possible Player is the most overlooked great player in history. Look! You have heard of Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen? Icons of the game, right? Portraits on the wall, statues in the Hall of Fame.

Do you know that only one other player in history has done what they did--namely, win all four of the major tournaments? The British Open, U.S. Open, the PGA and the Masters? And that other Player is Gary. The fourth one to complete the career slam.

Gary won the Masters three times. He won the British Open three times. He won the PGA twice and the U.S. Open in 1965.

He is the last tour player to win three tournaments in a row. In 1978, he won the Masters, the Tournament of Champions and the Houston Open and was leading the New Orleans Open going into the final round the next week.

He was second in the U.S. Open twice. And second in the PGA twice and second in the Masters twice. But, usually, when he got that close, he won.

Player got minimal help from nature. He is only 5 feet 7 and 145 pounds. He had a swing that was as painstakingly constructed as a toll bridge. It was controlled, not particularly rhythmic. But it was repetitive. And diabolically productive. It landed the ball where he wanted it landed.

If you were looking for Gary Player, try the fairway. He was seldom off it in his prime. You rarely saw Player in the trees or on a road or O.B. or under debris. Seve Ballesteros might have won British Opens from the parking lot, but Player won them from the short grass. If he was in a bunker, you weren't sure it wasn't on purpose because he was the best sand player in the game. He could have shot 69 in the Sahara Desert. He could one-putt an ice floe.

He always dressed in black. He struggled for acceptance. Where other stars couldn't care less, Player wanted to be liked. He gave his entire purse to junior golf when he won the Open in 1965.

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