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Golf great Gary Player is aging as gracefully as he swings a club

The three-time Masters champion, who will join Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus to hit ceremonial opening shots Thursday at Augusta, is in great shape and still shooting rounds that 'break his age' — 76.

April 04, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • Gary Player celebrates after sinking a birdie putt on the first hole of the Par 3 Contest at Augusta National Golf Club on Wednesday.
Gary Player celebrates after sinking a birdie putt on the first hole of the… (David Cannon / Getty Images )

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Gary Player has been eating right (garlic and green beans), working out and staying slim for his return to competitive golf.

"Just got back from the gym," he said here the other day. "I've increased my sit-ups and my weights."

He will be back in the pressure cooker bright and early Thursday at the Masters, going head to head with a couple of pretty fair country golfers. Will he try to be the best of the three?

"Absolutely, absolutely," he said.

One of Player's favorite sayings is that "memories are the cushions of life." When he strolls to the first tee at 7:40 a.m. EDT with two of his favorite cushions and hits a ceremonial tournament-opening tee shot with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, it will be all about memories.

From 1960 through 1966, the Big Three of golf won every Masters. Eventually, they won a total of 13. Palmer, now 82, won four; Nicklaus, now 72, won six. And Player, now 76, won three. Few things could be more fitting at this cathedral of golf than having the three of them, together again, as honorary starters. Palmer and Nicklaus had been doing the duties for a while. Then the Masters decided to add the little South African.

When did you decide you would come back and do this, Player was asked.

"The minute they asked me," he said.

With his arrival come a rush of memories and stories and the kind of enthusiasm that should be contagious for all those in the public domain. Player flies more than 100,000 miles a year, owns and breeds about 200 thoroughbred racehorses, has a foundation that has raised more than $50 million for the underprivileged and has 17 grandchildren who he says keep him young and hopping.

"The horses and the grandchildren eat like it's the Last Supper," he said.

The memories flow faster than the one-liners.

"I met [Augusta National founder] Bobby Jones in the old locker room, and he was like this," Player said, posing like an aged man, bent over. "I had to cut his meat for him. I remember vividly saying to him, 'Mr. Jones, I cannot birdie No. 3. Because [with] that flag on the left, you're lucky if you walk on, never mind hitting a ball there.' ''

Player bent over, again playing the role of the legendary Jones in his waning years, and quoting his response.

"You're not supposed to birdie it. You're supposed to par it."

Player said he played with Ben Hogan in 1958.

"He said six words," Player said. "When we started, he said, 'Good swing, fella.' When we finished, he said, 'Well played, fella.' Afterward, I told that to somebody who knew him well and the guy said, 'Hmm, so he was pretty talkative.' ''

Player won the Masters in 1961, at age 25, and again in '74 and '78.

In '74, he cruised along and, at the 17th hole on the final Sunday, hit a shot he said was the most skilled of his Masters career.

"My caddie had been talking to me," Player said. "He called me Mr. Gary. He said, 'Mr. Gary, I need to get a house.' On 17, I hit a nine iron and the minute I hit it, I knew the tournament was over. The ball was still in the air and I tossed the club back toward the bag and said, 'You just got your house.' We walked up and the ball was inches from the pin."

One of his winning years, Player took his green jacket home to South Africa. Three days after he arrived, he got a call from Clifford Roberts, then the Masters chairman. He asked Player if he had taken the jacket home. Player admitted he had.

"You're not supposed to," Roberts told him.

To which Player replied, "I didn't know that. What are you going to do about it?"

Roberts told him he wasn't going to do anything, Player suggested he "come fetch it." They both laughed and Player promised to never wear the jacket.

"Which I never did," Player said. "I put it in a plastic folder and it stayed there for the rest of time."

Player said his foundation is among his proudest endeavors, said that he and Nicklaus and Palmer recently raised $15 million in one day at an event in Bristol, Va., and said that he wished some of the current players would have a better feeling for giving back.

"I called one of them recently and asked if he would come and help," Player said. "I told him we would send a jet, helicopter him from the airport to the golf course, feed him lunch while he met a few important people and potential donors, and then get him back on the helicopter and plane and back home. He said he couldn't do that because he couldn't miss a practice day."

Player is a walking display for aging well. He said his best score in the last year was a 66, and added, "I break my age every time — well, I have every time recently. I break my age by at least five shots."

Thursday morning, Player will be interested in only one shot, a tee ball that he hopes goes farther than the other two of golf's once-celebrated and now beloved Big Three.

"We were so competitive," he said. "We had our share of beating each other. But the nice thing about it, when we did lose, we looked the other in the eye and said, well done, but I'll get you next week."

After Thursday, there will be no next week. But certainly a next year and many more.

Lots more "cushions" still to come.

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