Gary Player tours brawny Augusta National for the 165th and final time

Gary Player tours brawny Augusta National for the 165th and final time

Gary Player knelt before the patrons at 18 during his final round at the Masters.
Fred Vuich/SI

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Marc Player was hoping the rain would hold off Friday afternoon, and it had only a little to do with the fact that his dad, Gary, was out on the course, playing the final round of his 52-year Masters career at Augusta National.

One of Gary's six children, and the chief executive of Black Knight International, Marc was planning a celebratory braii — a South African barbecue — for 200 guests at a large rental house just off the golf course Friday night.

"We have all the tables set up outside," Marc said. "Tell me it's not going to rain, even if it is. You can lie."

Gary Player, 73, indulges in "the odd scotch," Marc said, but he was unlikely to eat much bull tongue or any other animal protein. He still subsists on walnuts and almonds, fruits and vegetables. He's tight with Jack LaLanne, the diet and fitness guru who warns, "If man made it, don't eat it." Player still does 1,000 crunches a day (in two separate sessions) and drinks more water and red bush tea (no caffeine) than his eponymous wine.

A three-time Masters champ, winner of 162 tournaments around the world, Player was clad head-to-toe in his signature black Friday, having a grand time as he toured brawny Augusta National for the 165th and final time.

He shot an impressive opening-round 78 and joked that he was retiring too soon, and he fought hard in the second round.

Player has a "hit" putting style, giving the ball a firm rap with no follow through from the putter head. Billy Casper did it that way. It's an old-school move, a product of imperfect greens, and for Player it still works. On Friday he got up and down for pars on the first and second holes, bogeyed three, and reached the 240-yard, par-3 fourth in regulation, then two-putted for par.

William, 8, one of Player's 21 grandchildren and the boy who leaped into his arms after Gary holed out in Wednesday's Par-3 Contest, tottered along outside the ropes, gobbling M & Ms.

"How am I doing?" Player asked the kid, striding up the fifth fairway after belting his drive 250 yards.

William: "Fine."

Gary: "The rust is off, the paint is on, pal!"

Patrons in the gallery chuckled.

"That's what he said to me," Player said as he turned to the fans. "He caddied for me in the Par-3 and said that!"

Player's jaunty farewell round even seemed to please his playing partners, Stephen Ames and Luke Donald. (Useless trivia: Donald also joined Jack Nicklaus during the Golden Bear's final two British Open rounds at St. Andrews in 2005.)

When Player curled in a downhill, left-to-right 20-footer for par on the par-4 seventh, he was so sure it was going in that he turned to the crowd early and pumped both fists. Ames flashed a knowing smile at Donald as if to say, "You believe this guy?"

"He turned his back to the hole," Marc said, laughing. "He's such a performer!"

Gary striped a 3-wood down the fairway on the par-5 eighth hole (he can reach the bunker on the right with driver) and gave knuckle-bumps to friends and strangers along the gallery rope.

Every few strides, a fan would shout out a refrain that was sure to become a headline in Saturday's papers: "Thanks, Gary."

Marc, the second oldest of Gary and Vivienne's children, was an infant when Player won his first green jacket, in 1961. Aside from serving his compulsory stint in the South African military, Marc has attended pretty much every Masters since then.

Favorite moment: When his dad birdied seven of his last 10 holes to card a final-round 64 and win his third green jacket in 1978.

"Seve Ballesteros was playing with him, and he was so excited on the 18th green," Marc said. "He gave Dad a big hug and said, 'Gary, you teach me to win the Masters! Never give up!'"

To this day, Lee Trevino says, "Seve and Gary are the only two guys I've seen who would line up a one-foot putt for a 7."

Player was grinding as hard as ever Friday, shooting his caddie, nephew Bobby Verwey, disapproving glances when he thought he'd been misclubbed. But Player is a realist in addition to a competitor. He knows the 7,435-yard course is too long for him. He can't reach the par-4 11th hole in two. As fellow South African Tim Clark said, "I guess eventually it's got to come to an end."

Player made his decision late last week, Marc said.

The Black Knight will still come to the Masters. He'll still play the Par-3 Contest because, as he quipped earlier this week, he's got a lot more caddies (grandchildren) lined up to take a turn on his bag.

He'll still play in the Legends of Golf with Bob Charles in a few weeks, and in the Gary Player Invitational in Shanghai in November. He'll ride horses at his ranch in South Africa, and keep his U.S. base in Jupiter Island, Fla.

But his real home will continue to be 44,000 feet in the air, tending to his businesses and approaching 15 million miles flown.

"We have 61 golf courses under construction," Marc said.

Gary missed his final putt and tapped out for a second-round 83, 17-over for the tournament. He took his hugs from the defending champion, Trevor Immelman, Rory Sabbatini and others, just a few of the countless golfers he inspired over his career, and went to sign his card one last time.

The rain held off, and the braii was still very much on. There would be guests from Black Knight International's offices in Shanghai, London, Cape Town and Abu Dhabi, and a soon-to-open office in Buenos Aires. Four chefs would prepare the meal.

Player's 22nd grandchild was due any day. He had a lot to do.


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