On a recent Saturday evening, just two weeks after he had won the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Gary Player sat in a Houston motel room almost drowned in a sea of news clippings, letters and telegrams. There was an uncharacteristic expression of worry on his alert young face.
"I just don't know how I'll get all these things answered," he said in a distraught voice, picking up a few of the envelopes and letting them flutter back to the bed.
In the room with Player were his wife Vivienne, his 2-year-old daughter Jennifer and his baby son Mark, born last February. Even the presence of his family, who had flown over from South Africa four weeks earlier to join him on the professional golfing tour, was not enough to lift Player's spirits noticeably.
That day Player had shot a respectable par 70 over a course that was acting very skittish, and he appeared to be in serious contention, only three strokes behind the leaders. But the following day his score went up to 72, and he dropped another four strokes back to finish in a tie for ninth. "I don't seem able to get up for this tournament," he had complained several times during the course of the four-day event. "I'm flat. I can't feel anything, and my concentration isn't good. There are too many things on my mind, and there's been so much excitement and so many decisions to make these last two weeks. It isn't a good atmosphere for playing your best golf."
This was hardly the Gary Player who had charged so self-assuredly week after week through the winter golfing schedule, winning two of the tournaments and far more money than anyone else on the professional golf tour and then going on to a climactic, hairline win in the Masters. For the time being, Player had become a nervous, harried man whose temper had grown thick and whose patience was wearing thin. He was finding the public adulation a heavy added burden to carry in his golf bag.
Just a few weeks before, despite an impressive list of achievements in six years of tournament golf, Player had been regarded merely as another of the fine golfers on the tour. Except when he was paired with Arnold Palmer, who attracts crowds like a white sale after Christmas, he was able to play in a relatively unfrenzied atmosphere. His day's work done, he could retire to his room in the local motel, enjoy a few records on the portable stereo phonograph that he carries with him everywhere, dine (almost always on steak) with a couple of friends, conduct his outside business with a few phone calls and get the 10 hours of rocklike sleep that he considers indispensable to his fitness.
Suddenly he felt like Marilyn Monroe at a San Quentin prom. The question many began to ask was, would Player's emergence as a celebrity ruin him as a competitor? It will take more than the Houston Classic and other tournaments to tell, but there is much in the Player background to suggest that his case of nerves is only transitory. Player himself has as much as intimated that his fame as a golfer is all part of a plan that began in 1955, when he was 19. In that year Player became aggressively certain that he would succeed. His father, then a foreman in a Johannesburg gold mine, borrowed money to send him to England. He made enough there to cover his expenses, and in the five years since Player has purposefully stalked his golf ball across the fairways of Great Britain, North America, Australia and his native South Africa in search of victories. His arms swinging at his sides like a British guardsman on parade and his figure clothed in an inky costume more suited to Hamlet than golf, Player resembled a kind of ravenously hungry raven, and like a raven he got mostly what he wanted.
At 20, back again in England, he shot a brilliant five-round score of 70-64-64-72-68—338 to win the Dunlop pro tournament and later was fourth in the British Open. After an exploratory year in the U.S., he returned in 1958 to finish second to Tommy Bolt in the U.S. Open at Tulsa. The next year he won the British Open—at 23 the youngest man to win it since the days of Disraeli.
Those were the highlights of Player's career when he arrived in Los Angeles early this year. "I have," he said one day in his vivid Springbok accent after completing a practice round, "several ambitions in golf. I want to have won the three major tournaments—the British Open, the Masters and your Open. And I want to see how much money I can win on the American tour."
Player thereupon undertook a formidable assignment. He played a major PGA tournament every week from the L.A. Open on the first weekend in January until the Sunshine Open in Miami two weeks before the Masters—a total of 12 consecutive tournaments. In between, he compiled a statistical consistency that was, to put it mildly, amazing.