Every time the British Open golf championship tried to keep up with its carnival surroundings last week, Gary Player put it back down with some of the finest shotmaking of his career. And by Saturday evening on the Lancashire coast, when the town of Blackpool was given over once again to the old-fashioned sounds of its music halls and amusement rides, there was nothing to do but marvel at what an amazing little athlete the South African truly is. The British Open was not a tournament this time, it was a Gary Player exposition.
Player did absolutely everything so well on a funky sort of golf course called Royal Lytham and St. Annes that he led all the way and wound up winning by four strokes, even though he bogeyed the last two holes and found himself in some pretty absurd postures in the process. By then Player had whipped Lytham and St. Annes and everybody else so thoroughly that he forced a reevaluation of his place in golf.
In several ways this was a milestone victory for Player. Lytham was his third British Open win, his eighth major championship and it lifted him into that special category of competitors who have captured two major titles in a single year, for of course Player had earlier won the Masters.
So let's see now. Eight major championships, huh? That happens to put him in a sixth-place tie with Arnold Palmer, and since one of Palmer's titles was a U.S. Amateur, it means that Player has actually taken more professional majors than Palmer. The leaders rank this way: Nicklaus 14, Jones 13, Hagen 11, Hogan and a turn-of-the-century Englishman named John Ball 9, Player and Palmer 8, Vardon, Snead and Sarazen 7.
Player for some time was considered the third part of what used to be called The Big Three—Palmer, Nicklaus and Player. With Player always last. Then when Lee Trevino came along and Gary went a while without winning one of the biggies, he was out of the club. But starting with the PGA in 1972, Player has taken three more major championships, and he looks good enough, tough enough, confident enough and even young enough at 37 to suggest that he can keep it up for a few more years.
"People have always called me the best golfer of those who traveled all over the world," Player said at Lytham. "What I've worked so hard to become is one of the best golfers in the world, period."
He was that, and more, at Lytham. Fit as always and remarkably confident, he shot rounds of 69, 68, 75 and 70 for 282, and simply wouldn't allow anyone to beat him. "I'm playing the best golf of my life," he said—not that he hasn't said the same a hundred other times. But what he added was not so familiar, and probably right: "I've never been as well prepared. I can't believe anyone else is as ready for this as I am—or wants it as badly."
The only other person who might have been was Player's caddie, the inimitable Alfred Dyer, he of the plantation hat. Known as Rabbit, he started off the week getting as many headlines as Player and signing as many autographs. He was the first black caddie in the British Open. That's one thing. The other thing was, the British thought Rabbit was funny.
"My man complains a lot," said Rabbit one day. "I just stick some paper in my ears, and say, 'Don't gimme no jive, baby,' and I make him laugh, loosen him up." Rabbit occasionally caddies for Player in the States but never abroad. "He's the best caddie I've ever had," Gary said. "He knows distances and he knows me."
Rabbit was joined at Lytham by perhaps the strongest group of Americans ever entered in a British Open, but none of them could ever quite figure out the course or the wind. Well, for one fleeting moment in the third round, Jack Nicklaus did go birdie, birdie, eagle while the South African hit his first bad patch of the tournament. But Lytham's tough holes are on the back nine, and Nicklaus' charge was halted coming in with a double bogey and two bogeys.