For a long while last week the Masters Tournament sat quietly and drearily under strange clouds of pollen that turned everything from golf shoes to rent cars the color of oatmeal instead of wisteria. But if there were those who wondered if the event would ever get out from under its cloud, they were obviously unfamiliar with Masters Sundays. Once again, the classic exploded like a Confederate arsenal—as it usually does, as the back nine holes of the Augusta National course are designed for it to do. And when the smoke had cleared on Sunday it was utterly amazing to realize that Gary Player had practically leaped out of an antique photo album to win.
What Player did was come from South Africa, middle age, seven strokes behind and 10th place to take the title away in a single afternoon when, starting off the day, he might have been among the last guys you would ever have wanted to own in the office pool. Gary did it with a flaming 64, eight under par, that enabled him to finish the tournament with an 11-under-par 277 and win a wild battle by one stroke over defending champion Tom Watson, Hubert Green and Rod Funseth. But while there were some magnificent shots struck out there among the pines and ponds and shadows, it looked much of the time like the world's greatest game of miniature golf.
On this occasion, in other words, the Masters' climactic insanity was more or less a Putt-Putt championship. Player came roaring down the stretch, holing everything but his ball marker, and then he settled back to watch a horror movie on television starring Watson, Green and Funseth. That he won it sitting down was perhaps proper. In the end, after all the suspense, there was nobody left in town but heart patients.
In truth, for Gary's record-tying 64 to be more than just another statistic, Watson and Green had to miss some putts that were inside the grip of a hairbrush. It may be some consolation to them that it can be said that they proved to golfers everywhere that there is really no such thing as a gimme.
To get history out of the way, it was Player's third Masters jacket and his ninth major championship, including three British Opens (1959, 1968 and 1974), a U.S. Open (1965) and two National PGAs (1962 and 1972). He had won the Masters in 1961 and in 1974, and he won his first the same way he won last week's. He finished early and watched on TV as Arnold Palmer double-bogeyed the final hole.
Nevertheless, it was a spectacular victory, and it was surely a reminder of what an incredible fellow the 41-year-old Player is. He will fall down, come out of his shoes, hit on the run and turn the golf swing into something that could more closely be identified with tennis or baseball. But he works hard and outtravels Attila the Hun, and there has never been a tougher competitor. Player doesn't give up when he is on his way to a 76 any quicker than he gives up on a round headed for 64. And it is impossible not to be delighted to see this kind of tenacity rewarded, as it was in the 42nd Masters.
As Player rammed in his closing birdie from 15 feet above the cup on the 18th green, clenched his fist and punched old immortality in the ribs again, and then fell into the arms of his black caddie—well, folks, that was a moment for everyone in sports to rejoice over, whether Player would win or not. That was a fighter, that was a true sportsman, and—Good Lord—that was emotional.
Naturally, there are going to be those who will want to say that this was the most thrilling finish of any Masters. If you're discussing drama, O.K., put it up there with last year when Watson out-dueled Jack Nicklaus. And put it up there with 1975 when Nicklaus outdueled Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller. But this one lacked the quality of those tournaments, because it demanded failure by Player's adversaries, while the '75 and '77 Masters produced brilliant shots followed by more of the same.
For example, the only way Green could have lost the tournament was by hitting a second shot into the water on the 11th hole, and then by three-putting the 16th, and then by blowing a three-footer for a birdie on the last green. Had Hubie made that putt, which was straight in and flat, the Masters would have gone into its first sudden-death overtime, starting on the first hole, which would have forced CBS-TV to throw more new switches than you can find on the control panel of a 747.
Nicely enough, Hubie refused to blame the golden-throated radio broadcaster who may have cost him the green jacket. Green had to step away from his final putt because he was distracted by the voice of Jim Kelly describing the action for CBS Radio. Hubie looked at him and grinned, settled over the putt again—and blew it across the right lip.