Gary Player would threaten the peace of mind of the most hardened snake oil salesman. He will snatch up the most unlikely remedies, grab eagerly at the least convincing hick bait in the whole Fieldsian repertoire, and return two days later, his eyes glowing fanatically, with tales of vigor restored and magical properties absorbed. He is a man who can be conned by anyone, and by no one.
All through his utterly remarkable golfing career he has appeared to be at the mercy of obsessions. For a long time he walked the courses of the world with his small, heavily muscled body clothed in black. It was his belief that this would draw the sun's rays in on him, adding solar energy to the power being generated by a diet of exotic wholesomeness. He put food into his stomach with the same care as other people put drops in their eyes. Sometimes his source of strength was religious, so that when he was asked to identify the factors that contributed to a great round, he would answer simply, "Jesus," which put a strain on the prose of some of the more secular golf correspondents. Often he attributed his achievements to sheer fitness, the functional efficiency of a body punished by push-ups and regular running, occasionally in hotel corridors if there was no more appropriate space available. Much of this came across as gobbledygook but it had one consistent virtue; it worked. Player went on winning titles and fattening his bankroll.
He did it again last week on the long, narrow fairways and above all on the subtle, shelved greens of the Wentworth west course in Surrey, England. Not content with taking the Piccadilly World Match Play Championship for the fourth time in its eight-year history, Player had Jack Nicklaus beaten by the 32nd green in their 36-hole final, a repetition of the humiliation he inflicted on the big man the last time they met at the same stage of this tournament in 1966. That kind of form is enough to give even monkey glands a good name.
During the first two days of the championship Nicklaus had overshadowed the other seven members of the invited field. Overcoming the determined and graceful resistance of the little Taiwanese Lu Liang-huan on Thursday and laying waste the confidence of England's Neil Coles on Friday, Nicklaus gave the impression of building insuperable momentum. With Arnold Palmer removed in the first round of the knockout series by Bob Charles (after a match that went to the 37th and left Palmer complaining of being jostled by a badly marshaled gallery), Jack was a clear favorite with London bookmakers going into the final.
But Player, who had been suffering from a disabling hook since arriving in Britain three weeks before, quite suddenly ceased the feverish search for a cure that had made him turn to counselors as various as a former British Open champion, Henry Cotton, and a traffic policeman, one Eric Humphreys. The outlandish experiments with his stance, one of which involved raising the left heel so much that he was almost standing on one foot, were quietly abandoned, and without undue acknowledgment he took the advice of Bob Charles and his own caddie, Alfie Fyles. He concentrated on keeping his head still, resisting the inclination to come off the ball while forcing extra length from his tee shots.
Player's first-round match with Tony Jacklin was made relatively easy by an illness (vaguely, if fashionably, diagnosed as "a bug") that put the Englishman in bed with a temperature and barely able to close his hand on a teaspoon. When Jacklin struggled the short distance from the $1,000-a-week mansion that he, like the other competitors, had been allotted in the Ascot area, he was still feeling so unbelligerent that his doctor prescribed a lacing of vodka in the orange juice that he drank on his way round the course. Such a recommendation would have troubled Player, who thinks alcohol is all right for cleaning out wounds. His drink in the brief lunchtime interval between the two rounds of the 36-hole match was, as usual, a Coke and it washed down a couple of bananas and a wad of rice stuffed with nuts and raisins. This menu not only suited his own arbitrary dieting laws ("If you eat too much, all the blood rushes to the stomach") but allowed him to maintain his relentless schedule of practice. "I have hit as many balls as it is humanly possible to hit in three weeks," he said with satisfaction after his victory over Jacklin. "At night I hit them until it is dark, until Alfie Fyles is following their flight by ear, and even today at lunch I squeezed in as many shots as I could."
Against Bob Charles in the semifinal, Player seemed to be gaining assurance, hole by hole, and he won the match 2 and 1. Gary likes Wentworth better than any course in the world and now it was restoring his faith in himself like the handshake of an old friend. With its benevolence toward him, and his own austerity and industry, he believed he could win the final.
The majority of those who had been following the progress of Nicklaus thought differently. He had entered the tournament after a period of comparative idleness and his game creaked slightly in practice. His first round on Thursday was delayed for more than an hour by fog that settled like cold steam over the frosty landscape. When it lifted, the air held its chill for another hour and Lu Liang-huan, thinking wistfully of the China Seas, began stiffly and was 4 down after half a dozen holes. Then the sun began to climb warmly in a Sahara sky and Lu went to work. He has a beautiful, liquid swing, and watching him is like observing a good dressage horse. It is impossible to focus on one phase of the swing, for each movement flows into the next so smoothly that, as a fellow once said of Julius Boros, it is like molasses coming out of a pitcher. By the 16th, Lu had made up for his initial disasters and gone one hole in front. The lead disappeared swiftly in the afternoon but before Lu went out, 2 and 1, he had obliged his opponent to do something that Nicklaus was to find increasingly difficult in the 48 hours ahead: sink long putts.
Nicklaus did manage to bury one or two in his semifinal with Coles (who earlier had eliminated Charles Coody) but his overall superiority was so pronounced that he could afford to be fairly relaxed on the greens. Nicklaus strode out in pursuit of his booming drives, clumping his feet down with heavy confidence, hitching the sleeves of his yellow cardigan like a truck driver marching back to have words with a timid motorist. Coles trudged forlornly behind him, a good player very demoralized. Nicklaus was 5 up after 18 and his lead was never reduced.
Jack was entitled to go to bed pleased with his day's work and the prospects for the next one. The back trouble that had caused an alarmed midnight scramble for doctors and masseurs on the eve of the championship, briefly imprisoning him in traction equipment, had not returned and he slept on the thought that his long game was as sound as ever and the hope that his putting would improve.