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This was to have been the Masters in which Jack Nicklaus did battle with the Youth of America, the mop-haired crew that has been winning all those golf tournaments over the past year, even stealing away some that Nicklaus wanted most, like the U.S. Open and the British Open. You had the feeling he was letting the kids have their fun for a while. Now, after practicing hard on the course the week before, out he stormed over the fairways of Augusta, shooting subpar rounds of 69 and 71 the first two days, good enough to move comfortably away from young bucks like Johnny Miller, Ben Crenshaw and Lanny Wadkins. He was ready to take on the challenge of Dave Stockton, Hale Irwin, Jim Colbert and Tom Weiskopf, all younger if not part of the mod squad, all in contention to win the tournament. And then, midway through the third round, as his attention was riveted on them, he was caught and passed on his blind side by an old foe, 37 years old as a matter of fact, a man who won his first major championship while Nicklaus was still an amateur and who spent the week of the 1973 Masters recovering from the second of two operations. Now fit and, as he likes to say, "playing the best golf of my life," Gary Player startled Nicklaus and the rest of the field on Saturday afternoon with a string of five straight birdies that vaulted him into second place, one stroke from the lead. On Sunday he grabbed the lead at the 9th hole, and while he was often forced to share it with a small army of contenders, Player refused to back off. One by one the others did, Nicklaus included, and when it was over, Wee Gary had won the Masters. He shot 71-71-66-70—278, 10 under par, to beat Weiskopf and Stockton by two strokes, Nicklaus, Colbert and Irwin by three.
The last few holes are where a tournament is generally won and lost, and this was no exception. From minute to minute on Sunday it would look like Nicklaus' tournament, then Player's, then Weiskopf's, all of which would make sense, and then it would look like Stockton's again, or Irwin's, or Colbert's, perhaps, and there were even remote chances that it might wind up belonging to Frank Beard or Phil Rodgers or Bobby Nichols.
Two things brought an end to the hysteria: Gary Player, and his inherent belief that this tournament belonged to him. He was playing the best golf. He had been all week. Why wouldn't he win?
Essentially, Gary waded through all the confusion and pressure to put it away with a couple of stifling putts that he had to squeeze into the cups—a pair of nasty six-footers—and then with a string of nothing but superb golf shots over the last six holes, the kind he'd been hitting for four days.
When just about everyone else was looking for a way to lose, even the normally implacable Nicklaus and the pure-swinging Weiskopf, Player gave you the feeling that he was coolly and deadly determined to win. Sure, he usually does. This time he also played the last six holes in two under par with shots that looked glued to the flags, and these were the shots that the others could not produce. They brought Player home to his second Masters championship and his first in 13 years.
If a single blow did it while the Augusta sky was darkening, it was a nine-iron Player hit to the 17th green, on the next to last hole. The moment the ball left the clubhead and was hanging in the humid air, Gary turned away, pitched the club politely to his caddie and started up the fairway, comforted by the knowledge that he couldn't strike a golf shot any better. In that instant he said to the caddie, "We are not going to putt this one."
He must have walked six or seven yards toward the green with his head down before the ball came to rest about eight inches from the cup, accompanied by one of those Masters roars that make the clubhouse totter and the pine trees tremble.
"I knew I was going to win on the 1st tee. It's the best golf I've ever played in a major championship, all the way," Player said later. "I derive a lot of strength from my belief in God. I'm a Bible puncher. When I work for something, I expect it to happen. No one works as hard at golf as I do. No athlete has ever traveled so much as I have. I say all this only to try to make everybody understand what it means to me to win. There's no way to properly describe the gratification from working so hard, and then being rewarded for it."
There is hardly any way to describe the help Player got from Nicklaus and Weiskopf, either. If anyone played as well as Gary did from tee to green throughout the four rounds it was Weiskopf, but he sank only one putt over 10 feet all week. And then in the final, crucial moment of Sunday's chaos, he couldn't get out of his own way.
Weiskopf fell asleep on an iron shot to the 16th hole just when he was tied with Player for the lead, jerking it into the pond. He didn't hang around the hole as long as poor Frank Beard, who made a seven, but Weiskopf's shot led to a bogey and badly damaged his chances, and for the third time in the last six years he had to settle for second place. He shared that with Stockton, who finally ran out of magic but played a gutty Masters, nonetheless.