As golf legend Gary Player reviews the Masters green grass memories in his mind, year by year, tournament by tournament, until he reaches the number of 50, he slowly shakes his head.
“No, no, I can not,” he says when asked if he can believe that 2007 will be his 50th Masters Tournament. His 50th early April drive down Magnolia Lane, his 50th competitive stroll at Augusta National where he captured three green jackets and finished second or third another three times.
“When you are growing up, your parents are always telling you to get an education, be nice to people, help out because it goes by so fast and they are right, it really does,” the still fit and trim 71-year-old South African said.
“It really goes by fast and if you’ve lost it, you can never come back and regain it again.”
To most Masters Patrons, Player has lost very little of his charm, his popularity or even his sense of the dramatic moment --- after all he did record the first birdie of the 2006 tournament, with a three on the par 4 first hole after a constant barrage of pre-tournament talk about how the lengthened course would be too hard or unfair.
But when the subject turns to Player and a half-century of Masters appearances, the man who claims to have traveled more miles than any human ever to play more professional golf still has a hard time believing he’s arrived at this incredible milestone.
“Jack and I used to tell Arnold we were going to stop at 35 (tournaments). We had won the (career) grand slam and we were going to stop at 35 Masters.
“Then when we came into the champions’ locker room every year, he would look up and say what are you guys doing here, you said you were going to retire. He would really give us a hard time, really razz us.”
Now, only Palmer at 50 stands one ahead of Player for the most tournaments ever played by a golfer at the Masters, something Player is looking forward to surpassing in another year.
“I’m really looking forward to April. I really am,” Player said. “We usually rent a house for our friends and family, but this year we’re going to have to rent three houses.
“I’ve always said that if there’s a golf course in Heaven, then this is it and I would just like to be the head pro. But I’m not in a hurry to go, yet.”
While nearly five decades has passed since his first Augusta National visit and several more years since he first heard about the tournament in his native South Africa, Player’s memories of his first Masters moment remain crystal clear.
“We saw it in a movie theater back home. They brought in the film from the tournament. We didn’t have TV, of course, and they just shipped in the movie from Augusta. It cost me one shilling, about 12 cents, to get into the theater and I watched Ben Hogan win (1951).
When I first went in 1957, they were still sending the movies back home to play in the theater and when I won for the first time (1961), we still didn’t have TV, so we just took the movie from club to club to show everyone the win.”
In his first visit in 1957, he finished a respectable T-24, 15 shots behind winner Doug Ford, and earned a grand total of $700. The next year, a missed cut earned him $350. But Player was hooked on a lifetime journey to the springtime cathedral of golf.
“When you drove down the entry way you could feel the atmosphere and the ambience. Oh, the beauty of the place. You never saw a weed,” he says.
“With President Eisenhower, Bobby Jones, who was loved and adored, and Clifford Roberts, the disciplinarian, those are the three people who made the Masters. You know Arnold and Jack have been big ambassadors for the U.S. with Augusta and I have been the big ambassador for the rest of the world.”
In ’61, Player and Palmer dined with the former president at his Augusta National cabin, with Player still remembering the menu and the conversation. A year later, it was Palmer who delivered Player’s most lasting on-course memory.
It was a narrow and painful playoff loss to Palmer in ’62 that Player selects at the top of his half-century Masters Memory list.
“You know I had him. It was the biggest disappointment I ever had at Augusta that I was two shots ahead of Arnold with three holes to go and I was 12 feet from the pin on 16.”
With Palmer missing the green to the right, Player said he made the mistake of his career by turning to his caddy and uttering the fateful words, ‘we’ve got him now.’
“The ball comes racing down the hill to the hole 100 miles per hour, hits the flag and went into the cup,” Player sadly recalls. “The single most phenomenal shot ever at Augusta.”
Told Tiger Woods had a pretty famous shot at No. 16 in his 2005 Masters win, Player recoils in mock horror.
“Not half as good as Arnold’s. No, let me change that. Not a quarter as good as Arnold’s shot. Tiger’s ball was going up a slope before coming down and barely fell in. Arnold’s shot was racing down the hill. Then on No. 17, he rattles his tee shot in the trees, takes a 5-iron, knocked it 28 feet from the cup, and then knocked it in the hole.
“The next day in the playoff, I had him by three shots at the turn and he won. Ah, those were really hard pills to take."
In 1978, Player says he enjoyed his greatest Masters thrill when he captured his third tournament victory, when he rallied from 10th place at the start of the final day with a closing 64, which included a 30 on the back nine.
“You know I had three putts rim out on that back side. Can you imagine if I had shot 27 on the back side? They would have never invited me back. It’s just as well.”
His wins in 1961, 1974 and ’78 along with second place finishes in 1962, ’65 and a third in 1970 have made him one of the Masters most popular and enduring champions. It also helped form the lasting relationship which has keep him teeing it up each April when Palmer, Nicklaus and anyone else close to his age or stature has retired.
“First, I love golf,” he says when asked why he continues to play, “Second, I love people. I love travel, the greatest education you can ever get. I represent a lot of companies and it keeps me young. It keeps me in the gym and it keeps me on my diet.
“It’s such an incredible game and I’ve been breaking my age such a lot lately.”
He admits he’s thought about retiring after breaking Palmer’s record for most Masters, possibly in 2008, but hastens to add that his Masters playing plans are always subject to change.
“It’s just so beautiful there with all the flowers and everybody is there. It’s fun to see the same people year after year (at the club), but many of them have retired or died.”
With all the talk about lengthening or toughening the Augusta National layout, Player said the current Masters leadership has managed to stay current with Jones and Roberts’ desire to become the most innovative and prestigious tournament in the world.
“I think they have got it right. What is happening today is that the guys are basically hitting the same shots to the green we used to do. Between the fairways and the ball going 60 yards further, I think they’ve done a good job.”
Besides his regular April visits, Player said he’s played many casual rounds with members, and enjoyed many good times there. He shot a 66 in friendly games and recorded plenty of holes in one during the par 3 contest. But he’s still missing one Masters mark, having never aced a hole during competition or friendly play at Augusta National.
Told that could be a new goal for a new half century, Player quickly agrees.
“You’re certainly right about that one.”
Already planning another burst of memories for Masters Patrons and players alike.