Player takes pride in SA golf

Gary Player isn’t sure what he’s prouder of these days — his selection as an honorary starter at the Masters or his homeland’s continuing success in major championships.

Player was picked this month to join his longtime rivals and friends Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus as starters for next year’s event at Augusta National. Player was equally proud of Charl Schwartzel, the young South African who won the Masters this spring on the 50th anniversary of Player’s first triumph there.

Player said golfers from South Arica have won 21 majors since World War II, second only to the United States. “Isn’t that incredible?” Player said by phone this week.

He’s a large part of that history with nine Major wins, including three British Opens. Player is attending this year’s event at Royal St George’s in Sandwich, England, wondering if he’ll get to see another of his countrymen raise the champion’s claret jug as Louis Oosthuizen did a year ago.

Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Trevor Immelman are all Major champions. “We’re a small country,” Player said.

What makes golf so good in the land of about 50-million?

Player said it’s a combination of several factors.

“It’s the best climate in the world. Fantastic golf courses compared to anywhere in the world. Good junior programmes and young guys that have got a passion,” Player said.

Player was reluctant to revel in his role at the head of that pack. He said he hoped he had some influence on the golfers such as Els, Goosen and Schwartzel. “They see a small man like myself winning 18 major championships on regular and Senior tour, I think they get very encouraged and say, ‘We can do it,'” Player said.

Schwartzel was the last one, winning the Masters with a breathtaking charge of four finishing birdies. He followed that with a ninth-place finish at the US Open.

“There’s lots of youngsters out there that all of a sudden have a really big interest,” Schwartzel said at the British Open. “I’m sure it’s made a big difference to South African golf.”

Player said Els, Goosen and the others have been strong ambassadors for South Africa and golf.

Schwartzel and Player both will have prominent roles in next year’s Masters. As defending champion, Schwartzel will have the honour of slipping the green jacket on his successor. Player will join Palmer and Nicklaus, reuniting the “Big Three”, as they hit ceremonial tee shots to open the event.

It’s the first time the Masters has three starters since 1999 with Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead.

Nicklaus, Palmer and Player have combined for 13 Masters titles and 34 major championships.

“Arnold, Jack and I have been like brothers for most our lives,” Player said.

Augusta National is a special place for Player, filled with wonderful memories. In 1961, Player won the first of three green jackets and proved his golf game the equal of anyone on tour. He won again in 1974. Player recalled his final Masters victory in 1978 when he was paired with the late Seve Ballesteros, then a 21-year-old rising star. Player shot a final round 64 to rally from seven strokes behind when the round began. Ballesteros later confided in Player that he taught him how to win the Masters with that performance.

Ballesteros won twice at Augusta National, in 1980 and 1983.

“I’ve spent one year of my life at Augusta,” Player said, laughing. Being an honorary starter “is very exciting and something I’m looking forward to”. — Sapa-AP

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