The pro golf tour is dominated by its Big Three, but frequently the group is thought of as a Big Two and a Half. There is mighty Arnold Palmer and there is huge Jack Nicklaus, a pair that corners a great deal of the publicity, adulation and praise. Then there is little Gary Player. He is only 5 feet 7 and he is sometimes overlooked—but he just may be the best golfer of the trio.
At 27, an age when many touring pros are regarded only in the light of their potential, Player has evolved into an elder statesman of his profession and, like many such figures, his mood has mellowed as his talents have increased. He has made changes in his attitude and technique that are enabling him to play the finest golf of his life. They have also made him a man to listen to and a man to watch.
A few days ago Gary Player stretched himself out on a beach chair under a glorious Bahama sun and talked, in the rambling, disconnected fashion of one whose brain is being blissfully baked, about an interesting and worthy subject—Gary Player. He had taken a short vacation from the tournament circuit and was devoting himself to the somewhat less than arduous duties of his new job as the celebrity pro at Paradise Island, a lavish resort now being completed by Huntington Hartford, the A & P grocery store trillionaire. It was a fairly typical Sunday in Paradise. Gary and his attractive wife Vivienne and their 4-year-old daughter, Jennifer, and their 2-year-old son, Mark (baby Wayne, one, stayed home), had packed their bathing clothes into a straw basket shortly after finishing breakfast and set out from their rented pink stucco house in the Fort Montagu section of Nassau. It takes but a 15-minute ride across the Nassau harbor in Mr. Hartford's elegant ferry and another couple of minutes in one of the Paradise Island jitneys to reach the beach. There, anchored in the soft sand, with his family sunning and swimming near at hand, Gary began to assess why the pro tour seemed to be faced in the past seven months with a new, and quite intriguing, Gary Player.
"When I started out in professional golf," Player said, "my principal ambition was to win the four major championships—the British and U.S. Opens, the Masters and the PGA—and to be the leading money winner on the American tour. I won the British Open in 1959. In 1961 I led the money winners and won the Masters. So in 1962 I wanted most of all to win one of the other major titles. Honestly, I'd rather win one of the major championships than 30 of the other ones. I was very fortunate to win the PGA last year—and very grateful—for if you win one of those big ones you've got to be both fortunate and grateful.
"This year the one thing in my mind every day of my life is winning the U.S. Open."
At this point Player arose from his beach chair, took a golf stance in the sand, cupped his hands together and executed three imaginary swings at an invisible golf ball. "Every time I hit the ball," he said, "I think 'U.S. Open, U.S. Open, U.S. Open.'
"After I won the Masters in 1961," Player continued, "my life changed, and it took a big adjustment for me to get used to it. Now, suddenly, I had to do many things differently. Between tournaments I might have to fly to Boston to give a talk or fly to California for a television match or play an exhibition with Arnold. In the past I would have arrived at a town in plenty of time to play several practice rounds before a tournament. Now I would get there just the day before. That gave me only one day to get my yardages figured out, instead of double-checking them on each hole. I would find myself playing a shot and taking my measurements off a tree I had marked in my mind, and then I would start to wonder, 'Was that really the same tree?'
"There were other things, too. Now I had to get to the practice tee an hour before I was due to play because there were so many interruptions, like signing autographs and talking to people who want to talk to you. I'm not complaining, mind you. All of us want to be successful, and we would rather put up with the nuisances of success than not be successful at all.
"However, it takes time to learn how to live with such distractions. At first, I became very irritable at home. I got to be quite jumpy.
"One thing that has helped me more than anything else," Player explained with his usual candor, "was meeting Billy Graham. I first met him in Asheville, N.C. a couple of years ago when Arnold and I were playing an exhibition there, and he invited us up to his lovely home. We got along very well, and I developed a great admiration for him. Later he sent me a copy of the New Testament, and for some while now I've made it a habit to read six pages of it every day. It's helped me understand that whatever I'm doing is not necessarily the most important thing in the world.