Golf: There Goes Some Player

21 Jul 2001 10:35 GMT

NOW Sport's Andy McKenzie watches the Black Knight of golf make his final move at the British Open.

Waving goodbye
Player bids farewell to the Open
©Andrew Redington
The loudest applause at Royal Lytham and St Annes on Friday was not for crowd darling Tiger Woods. Nor was it reserved for tournament leader and home favorite Colin Montgomerie.

When Gary Player strode down the 18th, the spectators in the three grandstands surrounding the green rose to their feet to pay tribute to the legendary South African, who is making his final British Open appearance.

No matter what venue, British Open fans are renowned for their knowledge of the game, their appreciation of golfing excellence and their adoration of those few players who are a little bit special. Player certainly falls into that category.

Three British Open victories, nine major titles and 160 tournament wins around the world during a career lasting nearly half a century, only tell part of the story. The charm, the honesty in press conferences that have made him a favorite of both fans and the media alike, the passionate enthusiasm and love for all things golfing, have ensured he's remained a popular attraction well beyond his prime.

Open Championship
A bogey-five, which included a trip to the devilishly-placed fairway bunker on Lytham's final hole, gave him a final round 82 and a 17-over-par total - perhaps not the most fitting way to end his unbroken 47-year stint at the British Open.

The standing ovation certainly put that right and even brought the toughest of tough guys close to tears. His playing partner, Paul Lawrie, stopped at the edge of the 18th green to applaud the great man and to shake his hand for the last time as a fellow competitor.

The Scot even holed out to enable Player to take the final putt and yet more applause. For a brief moment, it seemed the 65-year-old was putting the final touches to his fourth Claret Jug rather than a rather scrappy bogey which saw him miss the halfway cut by 15 strokes.

"It certainly was a great reception and it's something I appreciate very much indeed," he said afterwards. "The course is in wonderful shape and as Norman Vincent Peale once said, 'enthusiasm is the great essence of life'. Well, these people out here today were really enthusiastic and it was terrific playing in front of them."

End of an era: Player
End of an era: Player
©Ross Kinnaird
Player has remained competitive well into his latter years, and is still one of the top names on the Seniors Tour. But he admitted he wasn't at his best on his return to the scene of his third British Open win in 1974.

"It's been a difficult month for me because I've played the worst golf I've ever played in my life," he added. "It's strange because I'm very athletic still and my nerves are good and I can still play and will continue to win golf tournaments.

"But, you know, golf punishes you and I think it's one of the things we enjoy so much. It's a game you never master, it's a great game, a humbling game."

Player listed his three British Open wins and his three Senior British Open victories as his greatest achievements. When asked what was his greatest shot of all time, he was able to recount a stroke which helped him to his second British Open title as if it were yesterday - in reality, it was some 33 years ago.

"We were playing at Carnoustie and I was one shot ahead of Jack Nicklaus going into the 14th hole, The Spectacles, the last day, and I hit a three-wood about six inches from the hole and went on to win by two."

The Royal and Ancient altered the rules on eligibility of past champions to allow Player to compete at Lytham. While Player has said this will be his farewell appearance, like all great entertainers he left the audience asking for more. When questioned if he would return if he received a special invitation from the Royal and Ancient, he was non-committal.

"I've had 47 wonderful years of this tournament and I must say I've loved my time over here," he said. "I love what this tournament stands for - it's the oldest major championship, history is attached to it to a large degree. I love the people, I love golf and they gave me such a wonderful ovation on the last hole. It's something you'll never forget in your life.

"I think we should wait and see. Let's cross the bridge when we get to it."

And then he was gone, perhaps never to be seen on these shores again. That is, until the Senior Open next week perhaps.

You just can't keep a good man down.

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