Gary Player recalls the fascinating tale behind the first of three Open wins, who he thinks will best Royal Portrush, and why we shouldn't be surprised about Tiger Woods' comeback
Sixty years ago Gary Player turned up at Muirfield a relative unknown. At the time he only had a handful of wins in South Africa and one in the States to his name but he headed to Edinburgh full of confidence: “I’m going to win the Open Championship.”
It was some claim in a field that included the likes of fellow South African Bobby Locke, whose name was already on the Claret Jug four times including just two years previous, and the defending Peter Thomson, also a four-time Champion Golfer of the Year.
Never one to shy away from an anecdote, Player takes up the story.
“My wife had arrived from South Africa with our first born,” he explains. “I didn’t have the money to go back to be with her for the birth, which I felt very uncomfortable about.
“We got up to Muirfield and I didn’t realise how prim and proper they were. I walked into the clubhouse and the secretary, Colonel Evans-Lombe – I’ll never forget his name – said: ‘What do you want here?’
“I said, ‘I’ve come to practise for the Open.’ He said: ‘You’re not practising here my boy. This is Muirfield.’ So I said: ‘I’m poor. I’ve got a wife with a baby. I need the money and I’m going to win the Open.’ He said: ‘Not only are you not going to practise here but you’re an arrogant young man as well.’
“But I became great friends with him. I had a cup of tea with him in the morning and he told me not to hit a driver off 15 every day in the practice round because the wind would change, so we would need to hit a 3-iron off the tee and a longer iron in. Well, what happened? I had a 3-iron in the morning and afternoon – in those days it was a 36-hole final day – and a long iron onto the green and birdied it both times.
“At the prize-giving he stood with his hands tucked into his braces like he had won the Open which was great. I had a wonderful time at Muirfield and always enjoy going there. It’s a very special club.”
Player won £1,000 for his win, the equivalent of around £16,000 today, and it was a major breakthrough that was the catalyst to completing the Grand Slam in just six years – Player won one of each of the big four before adding his name for a second time to any of the trophies – and he would finish his career with nine.
And while you ask Americans and British players which of the majors they would like to win the most and they almost always choose their own Open, for a player from neither of these places it’s always far more interesting.
“For me,” Player says, “the Open Championship has always been the most important tournament in the world. And I say that for a reason.
“It’s so different. You have so much adversity in the tournament. You get in the bunker, you have to play out backwards. You play in the morning and you play in perfect weather, but in the afternoon you play in a strong wind. You’ve got to battle the elements. It’s a continuation of adversity. There’s no use having a yardage book. Sometimes you can hit a 7-iron 240 yards or you can hit a 7-iron 70 yards.
“So, you’ve really got to use what I call your natural instinct when playing.”
Fast forward to this year’s Open and one of the biggest talking points is how Tiger Woods has prepared, but Player isn’t concerned about his lack of competitive rounds.
“Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods,” he says. “He’s one of the most fierce competitors I’ve ever seen. His judgment with his second shots to greens is probably the best I’ve ever seen. He’s as good as a putter as I’ve ever seen, and he picks the right club. He’s not a good driver of the ball and the rough is quite heavy there so I’m sure he will use an iron off the tee or a 3-wood a lot.
“But you have to have a good draw at the Open. If you get a bad draw, which happened to Tiger at Muirfield, you have got no chance. I think Jack Nicklaus will go down as the greatest golfer who ever lived. Because you’ve got to go by the record. You can’t go by this or that, this record is what counts.”
I can’t resist the next question.
“Do I think he will pass Jack? I don’t think so. Would it be good if he did? Yes. All records are there to be broken. I’m forever hoping that Tiger will do well. The odds are stacked against him doing that at his age, but we are talking about Tiger Woods. I’m such a fan. His comeback is the greatest comeback ever in any sport. What he did after what he went through, my hat’s off to him.”
It’s been so long since that the Open was last played at Portrush that even Player, now 83, never played there in golf’s oldest major. But he’s happy to see it back in this corner of Northern Ireland.
“I don’t know if there’s a finer links golf course in the world,” he says. “The two best links courses are Turnberry, where the redesign has done a marvellous job at bringing back the Scottish tradition, and Royal Portrush.
“You cannot get a better golf course in the world. I never thought I would ever live to see the Open played at Portrush again with all the difficulties that they were having.
“And I’ve got a feeling Rory McIlroy is going to win – boy that would bring the house down. That would be a wonderful thing for golf in Northern Ireland.
“But it wouldn’t surprise me if Tiger won. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.”
More from the Open
Gary Player was chatting to NCG as an ambassador of the Berenberg Gary Player Invitational, which will take place at Wentworth on July 22 to raise funds to help the Player Foundation achieve its goal of $100 million for charity by 2025. Visit the website for more information.