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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Player Finally Ending Battle Against Father Time

The announcement that Gary Player will be making his final appearance at the Masters in 2009 is just another reminder that even great golf champions can’t outrun Father Time forever.

However, no one has done a better job of holding off the inevitable than the Black Knight from South Africa.

While professional athletes in most other sports begin dealing with the inevitability of decreased skills and retirement while still in their 20s or 30s, golf is one sport where top performers seemingly can play forever.

Sure the window for a golfer to be at the peak of the profession is not unlimited, but with the opportunity to start a career as a teenager and then to continue playing at a competitive level –whether on the regular or senior tour– for decades to come, there can be a long time between hello and goodbye.

Player turned professional at age 17 in 1953 and as a 20 year old made his first appearance in a Major Championship a memorable one with a fourth place finish at the 1956 British Open.

He made his first trip to Augusta National as a 21year old in 1957 and in 2009 will be making his record 52nd consecutive appearance in the tournament. Of the 95 competitors teeing it up at the Masters this week, 89 weren’t yet born when Player traveled down Magnolia Lane for the first time.

Having finished second at the 1958 U.S. Open (his first appearance in that tournament), claimed the 1959 British Open title, and finished in the top 10 at both the 1959 and 1960 Masters, it wasn’t much of a surprise when Player became the first non-American to win the tournament in 1961. When he won the title at the age of 25 years and five months, only Byron Nelson had won the title at a younger age. Player still ranks as the fifth youngest player ever to win a Masters title.

By the time he claimed his third Masters crown 17 years later, the 42-year old Player was the oldest competitor ever to put on the Green Jacket (Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw would eventually become older champions).

Player never won another Major after the 1978 Masters, but his career was nowhere near over. Known for staying in great shape, Player finished second at the 1979 U.S. Open and –at the age of 48– very nearly became the oldest player ever to win a Major Championship as he finished second at the 1984 PGA Championship.

In 1995 he made the cut at the U.S. Open at age 59 and three years later, at age 62, became the oldest player ever to make the cut at the Masters. Despite now being in his 70s, Player has registered at least one round below 80 in each of the last four Masters.

Joining the Champions Tour in 1985, Player again flourished against golfers of his own generation. He won a total of 19 official Champions Tour events and all-told claimed 32 senior tournament titles. Included in that total were nine Senior Major Championships. Player last won a Champions Tour event in 1998 and his last victory of any kind came at the 2005 Nelson Mandela Invitational.

Player’s retirement officially concludes one of the greatest eras of golf history as he combined with Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer to form the “Big Three” during the 1960s and 1970s. The trio helped expose the sport to an entire generation of fans as their regular battles on the links were shown across the nation on television.

Time may have finally run out on Gary Player’s professional career, but given his incredible accomplishments and longevity, it is pretty clear that Player and his legion of fans were the real winners.

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