Still focused after all these years, continuing to beat the scorecard as well as the calendar, Gary Player last week jogged onto the Senior PGA Tour as a champion at the age of 50, the dreaded half century. Thanks to vitamins, sit-ups and nuts and raisins, Player looks and acts the same as he did when he arrived in the United States from South Africa in 1957 with two pairs of pants and a knit tie he used as a belt to hold them up. He plays about the same, too.
At the Quadel Seniors Classic in Boca Raton, Fla., Player won his rookie start on the still good, ol' boy circuit, shooting 73-64-68, a healthy 11 under par over the Boca Grove Plantation course, for a three-stroke victory over Ken Still and Jim Ferree. How great it must be to turn 50 and still have a knockout punch.
Player started slowly, putting, he said, "like a sausage," but he made eight birdies in the second round, another six in the third, and once he had the lead, he was like a dog with his favorite bone, striding confidently down the fairway while the rest of the field tagged along in golf carts, complaining of their aches and pains.
Winning is probably the South African's favorite elixir. This was his first victory in the U.S. since he won three straight events, including the Masters, in 1978. "Obviously, he is happy to be a young 50 instead of an old 49," says his 23-year-old son, Wayne. As an old 49, Player had finished second at the Tallahassee Open, and at 48 he had placed second in the PGA Championship.
The senior golf circuit is the sport's success story of the '80s, with 30 events and prize money totaling $7.5 million set for 1986. Player, who turned 50 on Nov. 1, has been aiming at it for several years, figuring that his devotion to physical perfection—talk about someone ahead of his time—would serve him well among the moldy oldies.
Player won $30,000 at Boca Grove, where he is a touring professional. In 1958, when he made his first big check, finishing second in the U.S. Open in Tulsa, he took his wife, Vivienne, by the hand and whispered in a nervous, apprehensive voice, "I think we've made $3,000." Later, when they found that his prize money actually was $5,000, Player fell to his knees laughing. "My God," he said, "we're rich."
It was in Tulsa that Player was paired for 36 holes with Ben Hogan. Player felt as if he were looking at God. Later, in the locker room, Hogan stared at him and said, "Son, you're going to be a good player." Player swelled.
"Do you practice much?" Hogan asked.
"Yes sir," said Player.
Hogan nodded. "Increase it," he said.