Player retired but not resting

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Gary Player is retired from the Masters Tournament, but he's not resting on his three green jackets.

Gary Player won the Masters Tournament in 1961.  File
File
Gary Player won the Masters Tournament in 1961.

Player continues playing golf, designing courses and supporting his foundation. To remain in top shape for his worldwide ventures, he performs 1,000 sit-ups a day (when he's not traveling). Also, Player doesn't smoke or drink. Never has.

"I'm 75 now," he said, "and I could beat 80 percent of the young boys off the street in a fitness contest today."

Player, who will join Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus this afternoon in the Par-3 Contest, is celebrating the golden anniversary of his first Masters victory. In 1961, the South African bested Palmer and amateur Charlie Coe by one shot to become the tournament's first international champion.

"Well, he's an idol of mine," three-time major champion, and fellow South African, Ernie Els said. "It's great. What's it been, 50 years now? Time flies, man."

The 5-foot-7, 147-pound Player, who has traveled more than an estimated 15 million miles and won the career Grand Slam on the PGA and Champions tours, credits exercise for part of his success. Dr. Ian Player, a world famous wildlife conservationist, hooked his younger brother on exercise before he left to participate in World War II as a 17-year-old.

"He stood there and said, ‘I don't have any money but I bought these second-hand weights for you. Promise you'll exercise for the rest of your life,'" Player said. "And I have. That was 66 years ago and I have never stopped."

Player, who has won 162 events worldwide, including nine majors, continues to take care of his body. He's received offers to represent cigarette companies in the past but declined.

"There's no amount of money that would get me to smoke," he said. "My body is a holy temple. I've got an ambition to get across to billions of young people about your body. Stay fit. Be productive for your country. Stay well. It saves the government fortunes of money if you can stay fit."

Player came from an impoverished background, growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa. His father was a miner. His mother died when he was 8.

Player honed his game as a teenager. He turned professional at 17 and won several tournaments. His father, Harry, then wrote Augusta National Golf Club co-founder Clifford Roberts a letter of recommendation. Roberts turned around and sent the young Player an invite.

In his first Masters appearance in 1957, Player tied for 24th place. After missing the cut the following year, he posted a pair of top-10 finishes.

When Player arrived in 1961, Palmer had firmly established himself as the general of Arnie's Army. Palmer already owned a pair of Masters titles and was bidding to become the first back-to-back champion. But as many golf historians point out, the King's double bogey at the final hole handed Player the victory. That unlikely stumble told just half the story.

Player entered the final round with a four-shot lead over Palmer. The Black Knight retained a three-shot margin through 11 holes Sunday when torrential rainfall caused the round to be canceled with a Monday restart.

Playing the final round again, Player held a comfortable two-shot lead when he smashed his drive into the trees right at the par-5 13th. He wanted to play his approach up the 14th fairway to leave himself a sand wedge into the green. Arnie's Army didn't move, and Player chose another route.

He chipped out of the trees back into the fairway. His ball skidded down into a tributary of Rae's Creek, leading to a double bogey. Player then bogeyed the par-5 15th. He trailed Palmer by one but remained in contention with a par-par-par finish, including an up-and-down from the right greenside bunker at the last.

Palmer, meanwhile, pushed his approach at No. 18 into the same sand trap. From a slightly buried lie, he opened his wedge face. Player, watching on TV, told his wife, Vivienne, it was a mistake.

"You cannot play a buried lie with an open clubface," Player said. "You have got to play a buried lie with the clubface closed."

Palmer blasted out and over the green. He failed to get up and down for bogey. The Players shared a celebratory kiss.

"We all have double bogeys at different times and bogeys and birdies, and there's no rule about what hole you do it on," Player said. "To be the first international (champion) of this great event in this great country meant an awful lot to me."

Player went onto to claim Masters titles in 1974 and 1978. Only Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Palmer have won more green jackets.

"Pound for pound," Nicklaus said, "Gary Player was probably the best player to play the game."


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