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Last Updated: Monday, 2 April 2007, 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK
Player's Golden Masters

By Rob Hodgetts

Gary Player
The 71-year-old Player will compete in his 50th Masters this week
Golf legend Gary Player will compete in his 50th Masters tournament this week, equalling the record set by his old sparring partner Arnold Palmer.

The 71-year-old Player won nine majors in all, including the Masters in 1961, 1974 and 1978, and was part of golf's "big three" alongside Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in the 1960s.

Player was also second twice (1962 and 1965) at the Masters and third in 1970, and still holds the record for most cuts in a row - 23 - between 1959 and 1982.

Here, the South African talks to BBC Sport about the impact Augusta has had on his life.

What does Augusta mean to you and does it hold the same attraction five decades on?

It maybe holds a little more because you know it's coming to the end - if this isn't my last time then next year will be.

The tournament has played an integral part in my career. It cemented my future in golf and becoming the first international winner meant I had accomplished something that nobody had ever done before.

Augusta National
When I'm away from Augusta I just think of the beauty of the place

The minute you drive through the gates, there's a special ambience and I get a lot of memories flashing back.

I always recall going to my first Masters in 1957 and being desperate to see Ben Hogan practise because I always thought he was the best player. He was my build and I was trying to emulate his swing.

Also having dinner with President Eisenhower, the great Bobby Jones and chairman Clifford Roberts in 1961.

When I'm away from Augusta I just think of the beauty of the place and the marvellous design of the course. You can hear the cheers continuously through those valleys - the elevation is quite extraordinary from top to bottom.

606: DEBATE
BBC Sport's Rob Hodgetts

The tournament just has a wonderful atmosphere - it's steeped in history, the whole golf world is there, it's the first major of the year, and it's the spring and everybody's been inundated with snow and lousy weather up until then. And you never see a weed.

What is your motivation for carrying on?

I have the record number of Open Championships in a row (46) and this will be a record-equalling Masters appearance. I wouldn't say my main motivation is to beat Arnold Palmer's 50 Masters tournaments, it just happens to fall into that category.

I've made a lot of sacrifices to keep myself in shape and I workout extremely hard, so I might go one more year.

Gary Player (left), Arnold Palmer (centre) and Jack Nicklaus (right)
Golf has made me a lot of friends and that's the thing I've enjoyed the most

It's a great way of showing people that if you look after yourself, you're not getting too old. I still go to the gym and do 1000 sit-ups a day, and not many people of my age can walk nine holes, but I walk around those 18 holes like a young buck. And I've broken my age 43 times on the golf course.

So my main drive is to get a message through to young people about the virtues of not smoking, not drinking excessively and exercising.

I don't love golf as much as I ever did because now I love my farming the most. I breed thoroughbred racehorses, keep sheep and cattle and have 100 years of work to do. However, my time is limited.

But golf has made me a lot of friends and that's the thing I've enjoyed the most. I love people, I love to work and I love to travel - it's the greatest education.

What is your greatest memory of the Masters?

Obviously, your first win is very important in your life, like my first Open at Muirfield in 1959. You never forget that.

And to be the first international winner of the Masters in 1961 was huge. I'd guess a lot of people in America then didn't know where South Africa was.

But my third Masters win, aged 42, in 1978 sticks out. I played with Seve Ballesteros on the last day and no-one paid us much attention. They said I was a 'falling star' but I came back in 30 for the last nine holes to win [by one from Rod Hunseth, Hubert Green and Tom Watson].

Can you recall a low point at Augusta?

Oh yes. In 1962 I had a chance to become the first person to win the Masters twice in a row. I was playing the last round with Arnold Palmer and had him by two shots with three holes to go.

The 16th green at Augusta
On the 16th, I said to my caddie, 'We've got him now' - which was unforgivable

At the short 16th - which has the most severe green in golf - I hit the ball to 12ft and Arnold hit his to 60ft. He was left with a putt straight downhill and had to allow at least 15ft of break.

I said to my caddie, which was unforgivable, 'We've got him. There's no way he can beat us now. He can't get it down in two from there'. He wasn't even on the green, he was on the fringe on the right-hand side and his ball came down at 100mph and hit the flag and went in.

It was about five times as good as Tiger Woods's chip-in there in 2005.

I missed, and on the next hole he hooked into the trees, hit a five-iron onto the front edge of the green and holed it. I missed my 20 footer and we were tied. We went into a play-off with Down Finsterwald.

I shot 33 on the front nine and had Arnold by three shots. But he came back in 31 to beat me. That was my lowest point, without a doubt.

As a proud sportsman, does it bother you that you are not competitive any more?

No, it doesn't really concern me. The Chinese have a great saying: "Everything in life shall pass".

I have to hit 14 woods shots out of 18 holes at Augusta. But I still go there as a competitor. My reaction is that if I can shoot 80 or better I've had a very good score.

The people are so enthusiastic and so warm and I get a lot of standing ovations around the golf course.

Realistically, I would say there's very little chance of me making the cut - an outside chance at best.

It's just too long now, but in fairness they've adjusted the golf course so that it's playing the same as it used to play for us.

What do you think of the recent course changes at Augusta?

I think they've done a good job. A lot of people have been very critical and I know Jack Nicklaus doesn't like it. But the ball is going 55 yards further, the grooves are stopping the ball much quicker, there's no spike marks on greens anymore, the fairways are cut like carpets and the greens are cut by machine to make them uniform, so you have to do something.

It's also a lot narrower than it used to be. But I don't think it necessarily plays into the hands of Tiger Woods or the big-hitters. No-one out there really hits it that short so I'd say most of them still have a chance.

Tiger Woods
Woods's power game has prompted 'Tiger-proofing' at Augusta

What I'm worried about, though, is that in golf there are no "true" par fives anymore. I wish the R&A and USGA would realise what's happening in golf. They've really got their eyes in the sand.

Big-hitting hasn't even started yet. I know you'll think I'm being ridiculous but they're going to be hitting it 430 yards, very soon.

At the moment there's no really big guys in golf but it's coming at us like a tidal wave.

Many golf courses are already on their way to becoming obsolete and every course from Timbuktu to St Andrews to Augusta is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on course changes.

To combat this, the balls for professionals need to be cut back by 50 yards. The manufacturers can easily do this - it's just a mould.

Where does the Masters rank out of the majors for you?

Second, behind the Open. Augusta is wonderful but the Open courses, particularly Muirfield and Turnberry, are my favourites. Links golf is the epitome of a challenge and enjoyment for me.

Who is the best, Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods?

Wow, that would be a marvellous match to watch with Jack back in his prime but you can't make comparisons.

Nicklaus didn't have the advantage of a ball that went 50 yards further, modern grooves, conditioned golf courses and no spike marks.

But Tiger Woods will end up the best player ever as long as he stays healthy because he looks after his body and Jack Nicklaus didn't. There's a vast difference. Jack's body deteriorated whereas Tiger Woods's body gets better.

What is your favourite memory of the Champions Dinner?

Jack Nicklaus and I both won the Grand Slam of golf and achieved all our ambitions and we said we were going to retire after 35 Masters tournaments.

Arnold Palmer said: 'I love golf so much, I'm going to keep playing until I can't play anymore.'

Well, every year we go to the Masters and every year Arnold comes up to Jack and I and says, 'Good evening, is this a mirage? I keep seeing you two chaps here and you said you were going to retire at 35 [events] and we wouldn't see you anymore. Yet here you are'.

He's always very facetious and he really pulls our legs and rubs it in.


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