The Masters championship has always produced a high order of excitement and drama, especially in its closing moments. In 1957 Doug Ford holed out of a trap by the final green to win with a closing 66; Ford again, and Fred Hawkins, missed shortish putts on the last hole that would have tied them with Arnold Palmer in 1958; Art Wall, scoring five birdies on the last six holes, won by a stroke in 1959; and last year Palmer's famous birdie-birdie finish edged him past a heartbroken Ken Venturi to victory by a stroke. The 1961 Masters, as hardly anybody need be reminded, was of a piece with these and all the other spirited finishes in golf.
The end came so suddenly and disastrously that it left the usually self-confident Palmer dazed and shaken, and it left a multitude of Palmer fans nearly as stunned as the defending champion. More happily the end hoisted a wary, partially resigned Gary Player out of a mood of defeat into one of victorious, almost unbelieving ecstasy.
To millions of TV witnesses it must have seemed that with-his horrifying double bogey Palmer simply threw the tournament away. It was not that simple—and in fairness both to Player and to golfing history it must be said, emphatically, that Player won the Masters. It was Player, not Palmer, who proved he was best able to withstand the pressure of a rained-out, incomplete final round and to gather his energies for another tense battle the following day. It was Player who was able to recover from a double bogey and a bogey on two vital holes near the end and finish with two courageous, scrambling pars. It was he, in fact, who came to the last day with a four-stroke lead he had built from an assortment of brilliantly hit shots and brilliantly played holes. The lead proved too big for even the resolute Arnold Palmer to overcome.
Watching Player at the Masters, one was constantly reminded of Palmer. Like Palmer, he is a bold, aggressive golfer who enjoys attacking a golf course. This attitude is evident even as he settles into his stance: his feet shift restlessly until they have established solid balance and purchase in the turf; his arms make a straight, determined line down through the club; his jaw has a straight, determined thrust as he starts his swing. It is obvious that he is going to hit the ball just as hard as he possibly can. When flawlessly executed, as it often was during the five days of play on the long and difficult Augusta National, this kind of golf becomes a tremendously exciting thing to watch. Even on the final round where another golfer with a four-stroke lead might easily have tried a more protective, conservative approach, Player stuck to his style of play and won the admiration of the galleries.
Player's uninhibited exuberance washes over into his conversation. Even in front of large groups of people he chatters freely, and with no trace of false modesty, about himself or his golf. The morning following the tournament he was calm and relaxed for the first time in a week and ready to discuss in detail the shots and the holes that had been most vital in making him the first foreign golfer ever to win the Masters.
"I can still hardly believe I won it, it all happened so suddenly," Player said, sitting in the cluttered, pine-paneled living room of the house he had rented in Augusta for himself, his wife Vivienne and their two small children. "But I had to hit some pretty good shots in that tournament to do it."
Many of the people who saw it will always claim that the four-wood Player hit out of the pine trees to par the 9th hole on the third day (SI, April 17) was his finest shot of the tournament. Player agrees that this was a first-class shot, but he does not rate it his best.
"My best single shot of the tournament—and I really mean this sincerely," he said. "My best shot of the whole, entire tournament was the wedge shot I hit on the 4th hole during the second day."
The 4th hole at Augusta is a long par 3,220 yards, with a sloping green fronted by a steep, gaping trap and flanked by another trap on the left. The hole is made difficult not only by its great length, but by the constantly shifting wind that makes the confident choice of a club difficult. A shot hit with too much club could sail right out of bounds over the right side. Too little club and the ball is likely to plunge straight into the fronting trap. Player had started the second round one stroke behind Palmer and Bob Rosburg and was one under par as he stood on the 4th tee.
"I hit a four-wood from the tee," he said, "but I hadn't counted on such a strong right-to-left wind and my ball ended just above the trap on the left of the green. It wasn't in the trap, but it was sitting up on some sand and high grass and the pin must have been about 75 feet away. I didn't know whether to chip it up toward the hole or explode it like a trap shot. I finally decided to explode the ball and play for a bogey. I hit a beauty, if I do say so myself, and the ball stopped this far away." Player held up his right thumb and forefinger to indicate about five inches. By the end of the day it was quite a vital five inches. Player was tied with Palmer at 137 for a halfway lead.