Sixty years have passed since a belligerent South African upstart swept the oceans and braced himself to face the mighty Arnold Palmer and his fanatical Augusta army.
Sixty years since the game’s original global ambassador shocked patrons to achieve a triumph that continues to this day as arguably the most influential win in the game’s history by a non-American golfer.
For the first time, a player not born in the 50 US states had stormed the southern citadel to claim the green coat, and the benefit of the passage of time shows that the sport has never been the same.
Gary Player (right) received his first green coat from golf legend Arnold Palmer (left) in 1961
It was the Sunday when the Masters embarked on their long and wonderful journey to recognition as a truly global event. It was a triumph that paved the way for European greats, from Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal to Bernhard Langer, Sir Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam.
Plus Fijian Vijay Singh and Canadian Mike Weir; another generation of South Africans in Charl Schwartzel and Trevor Immelman, the burly South American Angel Cabrera, and the golfer who stopped traffic in Australia – Adam Scott; two more Europeans in Danny Willett and Sergio Garcia.
In total there have been 21 consecutive editions won by the international contingent and the man who lit the fire was there to see them all, bursting with pride as they joined him in the Champions dressing room.
Gary Player was 8,000 miles away in California when we spoke, and there were times when he stopped thinking about his reflections when the emotion hit his throat.
He whistled down the line when I told him how many non-American victories had inspired his epochal triumph.
“Are you telling me now that there have been 22 international victories, including the three that I have had?” he roared. “Considering how difficult it is to get to another country and win a tournament, let alone the Masters, it’s just unbelievable.”
It was, of course, much more difficult in 1961, when international invitations were expensive. It’s fair to say that the Americans had a pretty low opinion of the game played outside their home country, as well as the leading foreign players.
Player first appeared in 1957. ” My father wrote to Augusta National president Clifford Roberts, pointing out that I had won the South African Open and Ampol tournament in Australia and won the then richest prize in golf . ‘ he said.
Mr. Roberts sent a message back, “Tell your son to pack his bags.” What an experience that was, wandering around the clubhouse and seeing all the old pictures.
‘Meeting Bobby Jones, with his great command of the English language, and Ben Hogan, who I still think is the best golfer who ever lived. I knew then that one day I had to return to become Masters champion. ‘
Four years later, the Americans had to take Player seriously. He led the money list on the PGA Tour and was one of the favorites for the 25th edition.
“I was very aware of the international record at the Masters,” he said. ‘I wanted to be the first foreign player to win. We had seen great players like Bobby Locke from South Africa, Australian Peter Thomson, Roberto DeVicenzo from Argentina and Sir Henry Cotton from England. But none had been successful.
Player won nine major championships – both on the regular tour and on the Champions Tour
“I wanted to be the one who made players outside of America realize that they could come to the best organized tournament in the world and that they could win.”
In 1961, Palmer was not only the coolest golfer anyone had ever seen, he was also one of the best, and with two wins in the previous three editions, there was only one player in his admiring army. This was the man who stood between player and history.
Truth be told, Player would get a huge helping hand as Palmer, who had put together an attack to move a punch forward, got too arrogant in the dangerous par 4 18th and sustained a double bogey to hit with one. to lose.
But it was still a monumental achievement to emerge as the winner, when almost the entire crowd was all yearning for the other man.
“The only people pulling for me were my wife and my dog,” Player recalled. ‘But I had prepared myself so hard for that day, both physically and mentally. I knew how difficult it would be to take on Arnold and his army. ‘
The win sent shockwaves not only through the customers, but also through the game itself. The international revolution was underway. “It was great to come back home and see how much fun it brought so many people,” added Player. ‘Beating Arnold as the first international winner really appealed to the imagination.
‘There were a lot of people at the airport and a lot of media. At the time, we were in the midst of apartheid, but I think it was encouraging to see someone like me become world champions, both for the black and the whites.
“As a Masters champion, I was able to sponsor tournaments for black players, and it helped the game grow.”
The player’s iconic status was secure by the time the next generation of Europeans started signing invitations to Augusta. When Ballesteros made his debut in 1977, he was looking for Player for a practice round, just like Langer in 1982.
“Seve said I was his golfing hero and that meant so much because he was so much fun to watch and be around,” said Player. As for Bernhard, he’s been my friend for a long time and, like me, has shown how long you can play this great game at a high level if you’re willing to take care of yourself.
‘They were special moments for me when they won, but I had a lot of fun with all the international victories. We are a brotherhood. ‘
Player is now 85 and still a hallmark of every Masters. There is currently a Sky Sports documentary about the unique Masters last November and it kicks off with Player, on the court at 5:30 am in the cold and rain, as he prepares for his ceremonial tee shot alongside Jack Nicklaus.
The player is now 85, still a hallmark of every Masters and still has an average score of 72 when playing
He still has an average score of 72 when he plays and has the ambition to beat his age by 18 shots. Still doing imprints, he recently posted a beautiful image of a photo he completed with one of his 22 grandchildren on his back.
In total, Player won a vaguely ridiculous total of over 150 tournaments, but two, he says, stand alone. One of these was the 1965 US Open, when he completed the Grand Slam career. The other was his first Masters triumph and the start of an Augusta adventure.
He added, “It’s been a trip of a lifetime, and what a trip.”