This wasn’t quite how I had anticipated meeting Gary Player. The lift doors opened, he was carrying what looked like a bag of washing while I was wrestling with a golf bag, laptop and holdall which meant just getting into the lift and remaining upright was hard enough on its own. I then strangely attempted to pull off a handshake which meant our fingers barely made contact.
It was 7am in a hotel in Southport, a mixture of anxiety and over-excitement meant I had been awake for nearly three hours and we were on our way to breakfast.
Whilst I struggle to even open my mouth into something resembling a conversation before noon Player, despite the time, doesn’t miss a beat. Over breakfast, we’re sat at different ends of the room but he still engages us whenever he comes to help himself from the buffet, we learn that he always eats at 80 per cent – ‘you should never eat until you are full’ – cold meats are a big no-no, he rarely has an evening meal and fruit is the way forward.
In the meantime I awkwardly attempt to hide a Full English under my napkin while trying to avert his gaze away from the cluster of sausages, eggs, mushrooms. I had stuffed the bacon into my gob when I saw him get up from his chair.
By 9.30 Player had done two group interviews at the day’s venue Royal Birkdale of around 45 minutes apiece, before some light refreshments and a half-hour clinic. In amongst all this Player, now 81, performed a variety of stretches, crunches, sit-ups, open-palm blows to his own stomach, martial arts-type moves and, almost most impressive, held two clubs aloft between his middle and index fingers.
I meanwhile couldn’t help myself at the mid-morning buffet and hit three balls into a net which served as my complete warm-up routine.
We met again at the 1st tee as every group got to hit a drive with the South African and every shot is met with some degree of praise. Mine went left of its intended target but, given it travelled forwards and missed the bunker, it was welcomed with hyperbolic comments from the only major winner in our group.
And it worked as the four of us all bounced off the opening tee.
After a promising enough start of just one dropped shot in the first five holes things quickly, and predictably, unravelled. Three holes later Mr Player and I reconvened with the non-major winner in something of a mess having got a bit ‘handsy’ back at the 8th tee to back up a blob at the 6th where I located some particularly deep bund with a towering (straight left) fairway wood.
In the space of 20 or so minutes I had lost my mojo, the provisional at the 8th landing 120 yards right of the original tee ball and I hadn’t hit a shot for the past 20 minutes.
If ever there was a need for someone overly complimentary, overly positive and the ying to my yang it was now.
Better still our two holes together with the three-time Open champion would be a Scramble. Now would be the perfect time to find my game whilst hiding behind my playing partners.
A new confidence came over me and I split the fairway only to be outdriven by an 81-year-old.
The next exchanges were fascinating. Player led us off from the fairway and changed club three times before finally settling on a 5-hybrid. It was going to be a 6-iron but he hit that club too forcefully to the 72nd hole of the 1970 Masters and came up short and one shot shy of the play-off that Billy Casper won. The costly course management of 37 years ago still looked to be troubling him but he plays a five-yard draw to 20 feet through the wind.
I hit the 6, I don’t like my 5-iron, and the bonhomie rubs off. It landed by the hole, trickled six feet by and, before I knew it, I was double high-fiving a man 35 years my senior.
Standing on that 9th fairway, on the verge of a full-on cuddle with Gary Player, was among one of the highlights of my life.
And then this happened…
— Mark Townsend (@MarkTownsendNCG) June 14, 2017
There’s nowhere to really hide here though I could quite happily have tried in the tufty rough where my ball had just disappeared into. I could ramble on about it being a Scramble and I had been egged on to try and lump the ball somewhere near the 10th green, I could say the club slipped (but it didn’t), I could say something put me off (but it didn’t).
The simple truth was I pretty much hit my driver between my legs. Had the Protracer been in operation it wouldn’t have even made an impression on the TV screen.
Player tried to say something along the lines of ‘everyone has to hit the odd bad one’ but his voice trailed off and he couldn’t even finish the sentence.
The only strength of my game had resulted in a 15-yard top in front of the joint fourth most successful golfer who has ever lived.
Despite the likely years of inner turmoil and counselling ahead there was to be a happy ending to our time spent together as our two-hole Scramble ended in another birdie and we part, this time, with a proper handshake.
Mark played Royal Birkdale courtesy of Mercedes-Benz, an Official Patron and the Official Car of the Open