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Dermot Gilleece's Blog : Player last to go
Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece on the last of the three greats to bow out at Augusta
Posted Apr 20, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece
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It is only now, more than a week after the event, that the realisation has sunk in: the Masters will never be the same again. Given Gary Player's record, final appearance, next April's staging of this rite of spring will be the first since 1954 in which none of the one-time Big Three of golf will be in the field. Arnold Palmer retired from it in 2004 after 50 consecutive appearances, Jack Nicklaus, with 45, departed the scene in 2005. And Player, after 52 appearances, is gone too.
Their contributions have been huge, not least in their combined 13 victories. And for contrasting reasons, certain performances retain a lasting appeal.
For Player, it was a course-record equalling final round of 64 which marked his 1978 triumph by a one-stroke margin. Though his playing partner, Seve Ballesteros, was 10 strokes back in a share of 18th place, after slipping to a dispiriting 74, the young Spaniard had made an impact which was beyond golfing skill.
"As long as I live, I'll never forget the way Seve hugged me," Player later recalled of his third Masters triumph. "He came up to me on the 18th green in front of 200 million television viewers and hugged me. Which was fantastic. And he was very complimentary because he said I taught him to win the Masters."
As they walked down the 13th fairway on that fateful Sunday, Player turned to his playing partner. "Seve, I want to tell you something," he said, pointing towards the crowds lining the fairway ropes. "Those people don't think I can win. You watch; I'll show them." And so he did. It was just the inspiration Ballesteros needed to go where no European had gone before.
Eight years later, Nicklaus also won the Masters for the last time. In his case, however, it was a record sixth triumph which is still acknowledged as the most exciting Masters of modern times.
My lasting Nicklaus memory, however, comes from the 1995 Masters, before an amazing young player named Tiger Woods burst onto the professional scene. This was the year when Nicklaus spent a predictably long time in the media centre after a remarkable, opening 67. When asked how he could explain such a performance, the 55-year-old legend replied simply: "I just found something on the practice range before heading for the first tee."
After he had given an enthralling press-conference, I happened to be in a small group of golf-writers who had an informal chat with him in the interview area. Among the questions we asked him was: Who was the best golfer of all time? His reply was typically direct: "Hogan was the best I ever saw", replied the Bear. "I never saw Jones, so I can't comment on him. As for myself, that's for others to judge."
Two years later, when Woods stunned the golfing world with a record 12-stroke victory in his first Masters as a professional, Nicklaus was back in a share of 39th place. And having earned a pair of goblets for an eagle on the long 15th in the second round and another eagle at the long eighth on the final day, he knew he would have to seriously adjust the assessment he had given us on that opening day in 1995.
While the finishing touches were being applied to contours at the embryonic K Club in the early months of 1990, a sweltering Georgia sun was beating down on Friday afternoon of the Masters. In his 36th appearance, 60-year-old Palmer had got used to the idea of his challenge ending at this stage. The disappointment of a second-round 80, however, was clearly etched in the familiar, weatherbeaten face.
When the King and I met on that Friday, he reflected on an Irish story and how it was progressing so far. "I realise some people felt we were being over-ambitious in putting it (The K Club) forward for the 1993 Ryder Cup, but it was an entirely realistic application," he said. "In fact I made it clear to the British PGA that we could have the course in play this fall, if we so wished. I believe it is a perfect setting for a championship venue, offering a top-quality test in delightful surroundings."
In July 1991, Palmer was back at Straffan for the official opening. And among distinguished colleagues who joined him on the day were Player and Lee Trevino, along with legendary European Ryder Cup representatives such as Brian Huggett, Bernard Hunt and Neil Coles. Thirteen years later he would return once more, this time for the 2006 Ryder Cup.