"I always feel great there," says Palmer. "The course is kept in such good condition, and the atmosphere is wonderful. I guess you could say I feel that in the Masters I have some kind of home-court advantage."
Gary Player looks the same at any golf tournament. He wears his characteristic black costume, he frowns while concentrating on the course and is smiling and chatty after a good round. But Gary Player at the Masters is a completely different golfer from the one who plays at the U.S. Open or almost any other tournament. At the Open he is prudent and cautious—an approach to the game for which he is noted. He hits the ball straight, and he weighs all the percentages. At the Masters he is more like a pirate wielding a cutlass. He slashes the ball as hard as he can, he hooks his tee shots, he cuts boldly across corners and over creeks.
"It's the only chance I've got against long hitters like Nicklaus and Palmer," he claims. (A slight exaggeration. First, Player is not a short hitter; second, he has often proved that he can hit a fairway wood as close to the pin as most pros can a five-iron.) "I know that I have to take risks or I can't win. This also means that I must prepare differently for the Masters than for other tournaments. For the Open I am always concentrating on establishing my rhythm, on developing shots that will land softly, on keeping the ball in play. At Augusta I must worry much more about hitting the ball far than hitting it straight. I work on increasing my club-head speed every time I swing. I work on hooking the ball to get more roll."
Changing the nature of a golf swing can be treacherous, but Player has proved he is a superb technician who can get away with it. In the last 10 months he has won tournaments on four continents. In June he won his first U.S. Open and then, despite recurrent neck injuries, went on to take the World Match Play title ( England), the Canada Cup ( Spain), the World Series of Golf ( Akron), and the Australian Open. He made $70,000 in only 13 official appearances on the U.S. PGA tour. Then he warmed up for his return to the U.S. this March by winning three tournaments in South Africa.
The fact that Player's 1966 American debut was hardly a success—he missed the cut at Orlando—does not indicate what can be expected of him at Augusta. It always takes a little while for him to adjust to conditions here, including getting accustomed once more to the larger American ball. He also has a problem with altitude. "I practically have to learn how to judge distance all over again," he says. "Golf with a small ball at 6,000 feet in Johannesburg is not the same game as it is here with a big ball at sea level. But I feel quite confident. My game will certainly be ready by the time the Masters starts."
One new reason for Player's confidence is his putting. Last year he changed his stance, placing both feet close together. "My putting has improved beyond all recognition," he says. "I used to be very streaky, sinking everything one day and nothing the next. Now I can say to myself in all sincerity that I'm a good putter, a consistently good putter." This will be especially important on Augusta's big greens.
With a hot putter and his bold approach, Gary could turn out to be more than a match for all the length of Nicklaus and Palmer.
As he stands here on the 6th tee at Augusta, Billy Casper seems to be overshadowed by his surroundings. This, in a strange way, has been his history at the Masters. He has consistently come into the tournament as a strong contender and yet, because of bad early rounds, has never been able to mount a strong challenge.