Golf: The paradox that is Gary Player

THE OPEN: South African legend back at scene of controversial victory. Tim Glover reports

When Gary Player won the Open Championship at Royal Lytham in 1974 he did so by a handsome margin but amid ugly rumours. That's the thing about Player. No shades of grey, just black or white. Either he is the greatest golfer and one of the finest sportsmen to emerge from South Africa or he is a diminutive, holier than thou, self-opinionated pain in the neck.

"There's only one thing I don't like about my job," Player once said. "In golf there is tremendous jealousy. I find that just unbelievable. I heard a pro say 'If Arnold Palmer died I wouldn't spit on his grave'." As one of the Big Three, along with Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, Player has not escaped the sniping. The allegation of Lytham '74 is that the ball he played at the penultimate hole in the final round was not the one he had hit into the rough.

"There are certain things that are possible and certain things that are impossible," Player said. "First of all they had the TV cameras on during the whole incident. For anybody to say that Rabbit [his caddie Rabbit Dyer] dropped a ball is dreaming. I would put my life on the fact that he wouldn't do something like that. It's impossible. The grass was so thick."

Player was six strokes ahead. In his book To Be The Best, he said: "As we walked towards the green I wondered whether we would ever find the ball. The first thing I did was to ask an official to put the watch on me to observe the five-minute rule. I was in full view of the cameras. Imagine winning the Open and then somebody claiming I'd gone seven seconds over my allotted time. It is a unique aspect of golf that anybody anywhere who spots a rules infringement during play can report it and have official action taken. It was a frantic search in which I even got down on my hands and knees looking for the ball. I asked everybody around me to join in the hunt but it still seemed like a hopeless task. There was barely a minute of time left when a marshal found the ball."

Player escaped with a bogey five. There are stories, surely apocryphal, that his original ball was subsequently found in the rough and that it is now sitting in a safe. At the final hole he hit his approach through the green and his ball finished against the wall of the clubhouse. It was decided the building was an integral part of the course and he was not entitled to a free drop. He played left-handed with the back of his putter, put the ball 10 feet short of the hole, took two putts and won by four strokes.

It was his third and last victory in the Open although his outstanding career was still dogged by controversy. In a skins game in Arizona in 1983 Tom Watson accused him of cheating by moving a growing leaf from behind his ball. "I was staggered," Player wrote later. "Breaking the rules is, after all, the most heinous charge to be laid against any golfer. When it is aimed at a champion the repercussions can be monumental. It was a truly sorry affair in which the accusation was not made until I had left the course and the game was over. The correct procedure would have been to raise the matter at the time. I was astonished that Tom did not adopt the correct procedure. I think what he did to me that day will haunt him for the rest of his life."

Whether taking on Player on the course or off it you had better be prepared for an almighty scrap. The South African pointed out that Watson had won two majors, the Masters and the Open in 1977, using clubs that did not conform. "I would hate to have won major championships knowing I had used illegally grooved clubs," Player said. He now describes his relationship with Watson as "very polite".

What was never in doubt was Player's fierce competitiveness. "His accomplishments in golf and life rival the achievements of any person who has ever played the game," Palmer said. "The obstacles that he overcame in the formative years of his career are what made his great success so remarkable and admirable." Player was born in Johannesburg in 1935, the son of a gold miner. His mother died when he was eight. He began his pro career by giving lessons at a dollar a time on a driving range. "I had to give my boss 50 cents and I kept 50. That's how I saved money to go overseas."

Player was a pocket-sized pioneer who was fortified by his belief in God. A fitness fanatic, he also worshipped the gymnasium. The Little Big Man in black became the first foreign-born winner of the Masters; the first non-American to top the money list on the US Tour; the first and only player to win the Open in three different decades and one of only four men to achieve the Grand Slam. And he did it against the odds. Flying from South Africa would mean a 90-hour round trip. And he muscled in on the Big Two, Palmer and Nicklaus, to make it the Big Three, winning nine majors and more than 150 events throughout the world. And sometimes he did it with the protection of armed police as civil rights activists in America made him a target for anti-apartheid protests. On the subject of apartheid, Player has seen the light. "I went on record in 1965 avowing, 'I am of the South Africa of Verwoerd and apartheid'. My views began to change, particularly as I travelled around the world. The injustice was so obvious and the implications quite chilling. I am now quite convinced that I have played a significant role in trying to eradicate apartheid. It was a terrible system."

If there is one man who is compared with Player as the next great white hunter from South Africa it is Ernie Els. But while Player is a clean liver (no drinking, no smoking) with the cleanest of livers, Els likes nothing better than to share a few beers with his caddie. Where it is valid to mention Player and Els in the same breath is in wondering whether the tall one can win as many majors. "Like Gary says, can we compare wallets?" Els said. "In a way it's nice but I don't want to hear it. We're totally different people with totally different attitudes. Gary always had to work his way around and fight it out. I try to enjoy the game at least. I've been lucky. I think our generation is going to be OK. All the doors are open now."

At the age of 60, Player, who made another fortune on the US Seniors Tour and who has developed extensive business interests, is back at Royal Lytham. In 1974 he generally used a one-iron off the tee. Now he will probably use a Black Knight titanium driver which is made by one of his companies. Despite the self-discipline and the punishing daily routine of exercises, the long player has set himself a deadline. He will play his last tournament in the Open at St Andrews in the year 2000.

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