Golf: The old man of the tee

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There is an impression of seniors golf as being a job for the old boys, a leisurely stroll down Sunset Boulevard with some nice little cheques to pep up the pension. Most pros would argue that this is a misconception, especially when the name of Gary Player is mentioned.

The South African has always been as competitive as hell - if he was in a pram race it would have probably resembled the chariots scene in Ben Hur - and at the age of 61 winning is as vital to him now as it was when he was taking on Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus for the major prizes in the 1960s.

After playing in the Open championship at Troon, he won the senior British Open, for the third time, at Royal Portrush and yesterday he was back on the leader board in the inaugural Shell Wentworth Senior Masters.

In terms of records, he is a long player, winning nine major championships in the senior service since turning 50. But some say that Player's will to win almost crosses the fine line between sportsmanship and gamesmanship. When he played with Noel Ratcliffe at Portrush, the Australian found it hard to concentrate, particularly when he was on his backswing and he heard Player ask his caddy: "How far is it to the out of bounds?"

Yesterday Player went round the Edinburgh course here in 68 to stand at seven under par for the tournament. He is joint leader with David Creamer and poised for another victory speech today.

Player, of course, has an intimate knowledge of the Edinburgh. He and John Jacobs designed the course which opened in 1990. "I rate it better than the West Course," Player said, "and nobody rates the West higher than I do." If he had not had a hand in designing the Edinburgh it is hard to imagine him making such a statement.

While Player, who has got into the habit of quoting Winston Churchill to his staff, was preparing to fight them in the beech trees, Sherwood Stewart retired to the practice ground. The name might suggest he was honing up on his overhead smash. The tall Texan had trouble keeping the ball in court in the first round, scoring 77, but yesterday he had a respectable par 72.

Aficionados of the Wimbledon tennis championships would remember Stewart. The only thing that has changed is that his beard has a touch of grey and his grip is somewhat different. A doubles specialist, he won the mixed with Zina Garrison on his farewell appearance at Wimbledon in 1988 and in the men's doubles won the French twice and the Australian twice.

A member at the Woodlands club in Houston, Stewart, who is 10 years Player's junior, used to take his golf clubs on the tennis circuit. A friend of his, TR Jones, who plays on the European seniors tour when he is not flying Boeing 737s for Continental Airlines, suggested he should try the qualifying school in Spain last November.

"I thought he was joking," Stewart said. "Then I thought I could combine it with a little vacation and I played three of the best rounds of my life."

The top 20 at the school secure their tour cards and Stewart finished 19th. "I began to believe that maybe I could play this game a little bit. It has been a rude awakening ever since."

In pre-qualifying for the senior British open last week he was making headway until a 10 at the 10th floored him.

"Golf is by far the most difficult game I've ever played," Stewart said. "Hit one bad shot in tennis and who cares. Hit a bad shot out here and it could finish you. It's also far more tiring mentally. It's hard to concentrate for four hours. I'm hitting the ball fine but I have to find a swing that stands up to pressure. I'm still not there but then if I played these boys at tennis, they'd struggle. It's been fun, I've met tons of nice people but it's hard. I'm resigned to going back to the qualifying school. When I got my card I didn't expect to make a single cut. I'm not going to give up my day job just yet." His day job involves running a corporate hospitality company in America called Grand Slam Sports with 11 other former tennis stars, including Ken Rosewall, Fred Stolle, Roy Emerson and John Lloyd.

Stewart admits it is more profitable than playing professional golf, even on the Sunset Boulevard tour. Yesterday, he missed the cut by one stroke.