J. Brady McCollough
J. Brady McCollough - Courtside Allen Field House


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Legends of the spring are fading away at Augusta

 

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH

The Kansas City Star

 

AUGUSTA, Ga. | Gary Player got down on one knee. A graceful tip of the cap would have sufficed for a moment like this, but Player wanted to give more.

 

A full year of his life had been spent on these grounds - a record 52 Masters weeks - and he had just completed his final march up 18. The gallery waited until it could spot the squatty 73-year-old South African, dressed in all black, walking up the hill. Then the fans started cheering, and they refused to stop. Player had received a standing ovation at each of the 35 holes prior to 18, but the cheers would die down eventually. Not this time.

 

So Gary Player only did what was natural.

 

"Don't be scared to say a small prayer," Player said. "A man never stands so tall as when he's on his knees. And we must never forget to say thank you."

 

Player is golf's last romantic; he never runs out of poetry. But on Friday afternoon, he felt at a loss for words.

 

"I wish I had the vocabulary of a Winston Churchill to explain myself," Player said. "But it was just unbelievable."

 

He eventually found the right word.

 

"I've always said the greatest word that exists in any book, and I think of the English dictionary, the word love is the greatest word," Player said. "That's what keeps us going. And man, I had a feast."

 

The love brought Player back here, year after year, even though he wasn't going to win a fourth green jacket. But like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus before him, Player realized he couldn't monopolize the affection of the Augusta galleries anymore.

 

"You cannot be greedy in life," Player said.

 

Here, men gain worth as they get older. It's a place built on tradition, on keeping things the same. When a tree begins to show its age, they wrap wires around the branches to keep them from drooping. There is a unique aura of permanence here that doesn't exist in many other places, but the members of Augusta National can't stop time.

 

"It's almost like it stands still," said Marc Player, Gary's son.

 

Almost.

 

***

 

Gary Player gathered his family for dinner the Friday before the Masters at his home in Jupiter Island, Fla., and uttered the words that nobody thought would ever leave his lips: "It's time."

 

Marc Player was shocked, but only because it had always been his dad's mission to defy time and extend his career as long as possible. Gary is a workout fanatic. He has often bragged about doing inhuman amounts of push-ups and sit-ups. Player may still be in great shape, but playing Augusta has become too much of a labor of love.

 

"He didn't want to come here and struggle to break 80," Marc Player said.

 

Augusta National's efforts to combat the combination of Tiger Woods and new club and golf ball technology forced the competition committee to lengthen the course. Gary, Jack and Arnie - the "Big Three" - may love playing the course and interacting with their legions of fans, but they are competitors at their core. They don't want to be mascots.

 

In 2001, the course played 6,985 yards. In 2002, it was lengthened to 7,270. In 2006, it bulged again to 7,445. Funny, but they took 10 yards off the course this year. That wasn't enough to save Player or bring back Jack and Arnie.

 

The last time the Big Three all played the Masters was 2004. Now, with the farewell of Player and Fuzzy Zoeller this year, the Masters is running out of legends. Raymond Floyd's wife, Maria, said that she expects next year to be Floyd's last. And Kansas City's Tom Watson, a two-time Masters champion, doesn't know how much longer he will play the course.

 

Watson shot 13 over par for two rounds - including 9 over on the back nine on Friday. After another disappointing Augusta finish, Watson went back to the Champions' locker room. A security guard stood at the door, which was marked "Masters Club Room - Private." After eating his lunch, Watson emerged.

 

"Today was an ugly day," he said. "But I still intend to play."

 

The beauty of Augusta is that he still has the choice - even if it's becoming a more difficult one.

 

"It's one of those rare perks in any sport where the past champions are honored the way they are," Watson said. "It's always a pleasure to be around the fans, your fellow competitors, and be able to still compete on the golf course with the kids."

 

Still, Watson has his pride. He doesn't come here each year to make himself feel good.

 

"I've never really sat around reliving any memories," Watson said. "The only time I did this week, on ESPN they had past Masters films, and I caught it just right a couple nights ago when they had the '70s and '80s. I was in contention just about every Masters back then. I thought that would inspire me, but it didn't. Unfortunately, I played like Sam Sausage."

 

The members of Augusta National, the rich men who stalk this place in green jackets, did what they had to do to preserve the tournament's reputation as one of golf's great tests. Now, they have to live with this undesired result.

 

On Wednesday, an Augusta National member who asked not to be identified spoke with Player as he stood on the veranda of the Champions' locker room.

 

"I wish you'd keep coming back," the member said.

 

"I'm coming back," Player said, "to the (Champions') Dinner and stuff like that."

 

Player turned and walked back inside.

 

"Definitely sad when somebody has put in 52 years here," the member said. "It's really sad. I share one thing with him: Age. You can only push the button so long."

 

***

 

The group surrounding Arnold Palmer on Wednesday was three and four deep as Arnie slugged wedge and iron shots at the practice tee. The annual par-3 contest was soon to begin, and Arnie would be playing in the same group as Jack and Gary.

 

The phrase "kids of all ages" truly fit the scene. Grown men nudged themselves forward and put their cameras in the air. Their boys could only comprehend that the old man with the white hair had done something important. Jim Barker, a 64-year-old from Charlotte, N.C., was overcome with emotion.

 

"I could cry," Barker said.

 

Barker has been following Arnie since the '60s.

 

"I was always one of his army," Barker said. "This is the closest I've ever gotten to him, and what a thrill. He still is the man who made golf what it is today."

 

When you see the awe in men like Barker, there is hope that what has made the Masters so special over the years hasn't disappeared with each extra yard. This place can still feel like a fountain of youth.

 

"You know something? It doesn't have an age," Barker said. "Not with him. He's Mr. Golf. If I was with Tiger, I would feel old."

 

This only happens at Augusta. You can't watch Oscar Robertson play basketball. You can't see Sandy Koufax pitch. You can't eye a Joe Montana spiral. But you can watch Arnold Palmer hit a golf ball 60 yards and let your imagination do the rest.

 

That's what the nine-hole par-3 contest is for. On one of the most breathtaking stretches of the grounds, Arnie and Jack and Gary will make believe like it's 1970. Unfortunately, reality set in on Wednesday at the last hole.

 

Palmer's first tee shot found the water. The 79-year-old, nicknamed "The King," leaned down and placed another ball on the tee. He swung with all of his might, but the ball again plunged into the pond. Palmer did not try again.

 

"We love you, Mr. Palmer!" a woman screamed.

 

Player followed Palmer and also sent his ball swimming. But on Player's second try, magic occurred. He aced it for a hole-in-one (which was actually just a par).

 

At the green, Nicklaus had placed his tee shot just feet from the hole. He motioned to his 15-year-old grandson, Chris O'Leary. Jack was going to let Chris putt out. Jack leaned over Chris and helped him size it up. O'Leary would make the putt, of course.

 

"It's one of the coolest things," O'Leary said. "I don't even know what to say."

 

Nicklaus signed autographs for about 10 minutes. A man with a video camera approached him and asked if he liked playing the par-3 course.

 

"No," Jack said, and he frowned just a bit. It was the wrong question.

 

"I like the big golf course," he said. "But I can't play the big golf course anymore."

 

***

 

This week, all over Augusta, the town mourned the end of the road. At the Krispy Kreme on Washington Road, just a mile from the gates of Augusta National, the sign read:

 

Don't leave


We love you


Fuzzy Zoeller

 

Zoeller is the only player to win the Masters in his first appearance. That was 1979, and he hasn't won another. But, every year since then, he's had the chance to play a golf course that many people have described as heaven. Zoeller hasn't shot an even-par round since 2001. Yes, it was time for him, too.

 

On Friday, as Zoeller made the same trip up 18 as Player, he began to cry into his sunglasses. Fuzzy Zoeller does not cry. But he had his 25-year-old daughter as his caddie, and she had been crying all day.

 

"Waterfall," Gretchen Zoeller said. "I was like, 'Turn it off. Please turn it off.' "

 

Fuzzy couldn't believe the reception at 18. In 30 years, he'd had one great moment and one bad moment - in 1997, after Woods won the Masters, Zoeller told reporters that he hoped Woods wouldn't have fried chicken and collard greens delivered to the Champions' Dinner. But here in Augusta, they tend to remember the good times.

 

"Look at this," Fuzzy said to his daughter.

 

"I know," Gretchen said. "Just enjoy it."

 

Zoeller enjoyed it, all right. He shot 2 under on the back nine. What a way to go out. So yeah, he got emotional. Zoeller raised his sunglasses.

 

"I'm bloodshot," Zoeller said. "It's not a vodka tonic, I'll tell you that."

 

With Player and Zoeller out of the mix, it certainly will be different around here. Sure, they will go to the Champions' Dinner and play in the par-3 contest. Player may even join Palmer on the first tee on Thursday mornings as an honorary starter.

 

"He could add so much to it doing the same thing Palmer is doing," the Augusta member said. "People will always be happy to see him on the first tee. I don't care if he's 100-and-something."

 

Still, something will be missing. For years, the game's legends were able to impart knowledge to the up-and-comers - where to drive the ball on a certain hole, how the green tilts on another. Of course, playing with Gary Player, they learned about a lot more than golf.

 

"A lot of wisdom," said Stephen Ames, who played with Player this week.

 

If Player could leave one last bit of wisdom for the young guys who have many more Masters to go, it probably would go something like this.

 

"Go to your grave," Player said, "knowing you had tremendous love showered upon yourself."

 

Player will always be able to revisit 18.

 

"I just could not even really focus on my putt," he said, "because they are just going on and on, which was just so gratifying. I mean, wow. The message comes through of this great love. You're over-awed. You're over-awed."

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