Ben Wright: Frequent Flier

Gary Player is as much a legend for the countless miles he has traveled as for the worldwide victories he has amassed upon arrival. In 1974—arguably Gary’s greatest season ever—I was very much a part of those ceaseless travels, during a memorable stretch that began at the Qantas Australian Open in Perth, Australia. There Player shot a course-record 63 in howling winds and blinding rain at Lake Karrinyup CC to spreadeagle the field after three rounds. Up in the broadcast booth Tom Kite, who had just shot 68, told me, “I never played better than I did today, and he got me by five!”

Player’s final round of 73 was caused by a hook that crept into his game on the inward half. He still won by three shots, giving him his seventh Australian Open title. Afterward I went straight to the airport to catch a Qantas 747 to London. Gary, meanwhile, went straight to the practice tee to eradicate the hook. We had to wait for him on the tarmac for two hours—Qantas could hardly leave without its newly crowned champion!

We were scheduled to travel on from London to southern Spain, where we would compete in La Manga Campo de Golf’s big-money pro-am. Gary, who had alternately slept and read a work by his idol Sir Winston Churchill en route to London—but never eaten more than a morsel of all the food offered in the first-class cabin—agreed to come to my home in Epsom, Surrey for breakfast. At his request I then drove him to the stables of a mutual friend, the late Brian Swift, where he purchased a four-year-old mare, Look Lively, that became a cornerstone of his thoroughbred breeding program in South Africa.

Our plane was delayed in both Heathrow and Madrid, and I was thoroughly exhausted after a lengthy drive from Murcia to La Manga. Not Gary, though. As I pulled the drapes in my room overlooking the practice tee, I noticed a lone golfer out there beating balls. I slept fitfully, then at first light drew open the drapes. I thought my eyes were playing tricks: Player was out there again!

Greg Peters, the American owner of La Manga, had conceived the idea of a pro-am in which each professional posted no individual score, but instead carried forward the net score of his team. (Greg had been perturbed for some time because he, a palpably inferior golfer, had been treated poorly by many a professional partner.) My fellow amateurs (Alan Mouncer and Frank Fritchey) and I reaped the extraordinary benefit of Player’s diligent coaching, recording a second round of 54 that sealed victory for our team. Gary literally ran from one of us to the other on every shot, not permitting anyone to draw back the club without his earnest exhortation.

Our man next flew to Madrid, where he played 36 holes against first-class international opposition and won the Ibergolf Tournament—on very little sleep—in a sudden-death playoff against Briton Peter Townsend. He left immediately for Lisbon, Portugal to catch a flight to South Africa, and there won the General Motors International Classic in Port Elizabeth by birdieing the last two holes.

Most people would have headed home to rest after such a whirlwind tour across three continents. Not our intrepid hero—the following week Player won the Brazilian Open at the short La Gavea course (par-69, 6,185 yards) and in the process recorded the first-ever round of 59 in a national Open.

By the end of that incredible 1974 season Player had won 10 times around the world, including the Masters and the British Open. I feel tired just thinking about the distances he traveled that year—and practically every other through six dogged decades.