AUGUSTA, Ga. — The man in black had a good day. He shot even par 72.
Sorry for the confusion, but that would be Luke Donald, who suited up all in black in tribute to his legendary playing partner, Gary Player. The Black Knight himself, who made those black outfits his trademark in the 1960s, teed it up Thursday for his 52nd and final Masters and enjoyed a tremendous day. He shot 78.
“I think I retired too soon,” Player joked after his round, unable to contain a proud smile.
That 78 was five over or two under, depending on how you look it at. It was five over his age (73) or two under what Player figures par is for him at Augusta National, since he can’t reach the par-4 11th or 18th holes in two shots and needs driver to have a chance at reaching the par-3 fourth hole. No matter how you slice it, Player’s golf was as remarkable as his longevity.
“It was a thrill for me to break 80,” Player said.
Donald’s sartorial ode did no go unnoticed. “Oh, yes!” Player gushed when asked if he liked Donald’s wardrobe. Player wore a dark green, long-sleeve shirt and dark slacks. “My son picked out my wardrobe and I looked at it and said, what’s wrong with black?” Player said. “He said, you’ve been wearing black for 51 years, there’s nothing wrong with a little change of color.”
The South African legend took advantage of Thursday’s easier scoring conditions and posted an impressive one-over-par 37 on the front nine. He birdied the par-5 second hole after a nice wedge shot to five feet. He reached the par-4 seventh green in regulation with a terrific fairway wood shot and made par. At 11, “I holed a 30-footer for par,” Player said with a gleeful smile. “That was a great kick.”
He also three-putted twice on the back nine. “That happens on this course,” he said.
Player wasn’t too far from shooting his age. He bogeyed three of the last five holes, including the 18th, where he elected to play smart. “It killed me to lay up on 18,” he said, “but if I take 3-wood and hit it into the bunker, I can take a double bogey. One thing Jack and I have always preached on this course is, be patient.”
Player’s par putt was unsuccessful. Still, it was a superb round for a Masters icon in his farewell appearance, and the spectators gave him a royal welcome all around the course. “The people were fantastic,” he said. “I got a standing ovation on every green. A standing ovation! How can you beat that? It was a great day.”
With his opening tee shot Thursday Player surpassed longtime rival Arnold Palmer in the Masters record book for most starts, 52. During Friday’s second round, Player will make his 12,000th stroke in this tournament. His longevity and global records are unmatched. He is the only man to win the British Open in three different decades, and one of only five men to have won all four legs of the Grand Slam (along with Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods). But, as he likes to point out, he’s the only one who also won the grand slam on the senior tour (for those who believe in the concept of a senior major). He won seven Australian Opens, 13 South Africa Opens and 162 tournaments worldwide. He made his last cut at Augusta in 1998 at age 62. He was a fitness nut two decades before it became a popular concept.
And on Thursday he bounded out of the scoring cabin behind the 18th green and went before television cameras for an interview, accompanied by Donald, with the energy of a hunting dog. “I played with Jack [Nicklaus] in 2005 and to be paired with the great Gary Player this week, I feel very fortunate,” Donald told the camera crew. “I had to make a couple of eagles and birdies just to stay ahead of him.”
Player returned the compliment, praising Donald for his many charitable efforts and saying, “This young man can really play. He was three over par and struggling early, then he made a magnificent eagle at 13, birdied the 14th and finished like a champ.”
When he announced Monday that this would be his last Masters, Player was asked if he’d come back next year to join Arnold Palmer for the tournament’s ceremonial opening tee shot. He said he would if asked, and that’d he’d work out twice as hard just to make sure he outdrives Palmer. That comment earned him a roomful of laughter. By Thursday he was closer to the end of an era at the tournament he loves. It was an emotional day, he said, and his journey isn’t over yet.
“It’s choking,” Player said, trying to describe the level of his feelings. “I know what it will be like tomorrow, my last tournament round here. I am very happy, and also sad. I am happy to have won here three times. And to have 52 years of this, it really is a great blessing.”
After his post-round interviews, Player was escorted by security toward the clubhouse he first saw in 1957 when he drove through the gates and, as he remembers, was overwhelmed with awe. The members of the gallery milling around the putting green who watched him walk toward the locker room in the bright afternoon sun probably had the same feeling.