A Masters Legend Remembers Beating Arnold Palmer

Fifty years ago, the best international golfer in the world won his first Master's Tournament. Host Scott Simon talks with golfing great Gary Player, who is in Augusta, Ga., for this year's U.S. Masters Tournament. Player was the first foreign golfer to win the Masters in 1961, on a playoff round against Arnold Palmer.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Fifty years ago, the best international golfer in the world won his first Masters tournament, which means it wasn't Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus. Gary Player, the son of a Johannesburg gold miner, who would go on to win nine major championships, including golf's grand slam, and 165 tournaments on six continents and become the only player in golf to win championships in six decades. Mr. Player was the first foreign golfer to win the Masters in 1961 on a playoff round against Arnold Palmer.

And this year, Mr. Player has teed off once more with his old friends and rivals, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, on a par-three round to help open the 2011 Masters. Gary Player joins us from Evans, Georgia, right outside Augusta. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. GARY PLAYER (Professional Golf Player): It's a great pleasure and I'm looking forward to talking to you.

SIMON: Bring us back 50 years to that playoff round, because Arnold Palmer then - I mean, he was the hottest, coolest, most popular athlete in America. Did you feel a lot of pressure?

Mr. PLAYER: Pressure, you know, is really in your mind. Your mind controls the pressure. And, yes, playing with Arnold Palmer and, you know, 20, 25 thousand people being on the golf course and everybody pulling for him - understandably. He was the most popular charismatic athlete, and here's a young man from South Africa probably thinking that I live in the jungle, not realizing that South Africa is as modern as any country in the world.

And they say, well, how can this young guy come out here and beat our king? Which is understandable, 'cause I was a big fan of Arnold myself and still am.

SIMON: Mr. Player, your mother died when you were eight, right?

Mr. PLAYER: Correct.

SIMON: And your father was often away in the gold mines. How did you learn golf?

Mr. PLAYER: In Johannesburg, where I lived, there were 100 golf courses in a 60-mile radius and Johannesburg probably has the best climate or it's as good as any place in the world. And so my father played golf. Even though he worked in a gold mine 12,000 feet underground, he encouraged me to play golf. Reluctantly, I played it, because I was doing other sports at school and wasn't too keen. I thought golf was a sissy's game. Thank goodness I decided to play golf.

SIMON: Mr. Player, those early years, you were on tour with six children and your wife?

Mr. PLAYER: Absolutely. I left South Africa with six children, my wife and myself with a nurse and it took us 40 hours to get here - no jets - flying at 27,000 feet and stopping four or five times. And now these young guys have all got their own private jets making tens of millions of dollars. It certainly is a different time. Many a time I took a Greyhound bus to a tournament or had to hitchhike a ride, and the luxury was taking a flight.

SIMON: Now, you couldn't have been in great shape when you got off the Greyhound bus to go play in a major tournament?

Mr. PLAYER: Well, it's all in the mind, you see. I've always been very fit and exercised profusely, even at 75. I do every day that I'm not traveling, I still do 1,000 sit-ups and I'm a vegetarian. I work very hard on my body. My body is a holy temple and I keep lean and mean and I've got tons of energy.

SIMON: You very pointedly and famously were opposed to apartheid and played, I guess, a series of exhibition matches in South Africa with Lee Elder in the 1970s - an African-American golfer. Why did you do that? Why was that important?

Mr. PLAYER: Lee Elder, I asked him if he'd come to South Africa because I wanted to try and break the apartheid laws in South Africa because it was unjust. And Lee Elder, the African-American golfer, came down under a lot of pressure. And I played under a lot of pressure. And I went to my prime minister, who was a staunch believer in apartheid, but I'd played golf with him, and I said to him, I want to, you know, break the apartheid barrier in sports.

I couldn't say just in general - it was not for me to do that. And he looked at me. I thought he was going to tell me to get out of his office, and he said go ahead. And so we've made great strides.

SIMON: And in recent years, you've become almost as well known for your charity work as you are for golf. You've built schools for the underprivileged youngsters in South Africa and AIDS relief. Why do you find that important?

Mr. PLAYER: Because I struggled and I was poor myself. And I always vowed when I become a champion I'm going to help other people because I know how I suffered. And as a small company, the Gary Player Group have raised plus or minus $35 million around the world for underprivileged children for mainly on the educational theme. And what a thrill it is to see the joy on their faces. And I know what it felt like so it's a very special thing for me.

SIMON: Mr. Player, you know, we sent out the word on Twitter that we'd be talking to you, and there's one question that kept popping up. Let me just ask it - from a number of people - what's you greatest shot that you ever made?

Mr. PLAYER: The greatest shot that I ever made: I was playing against Jack Nicklaus in the British Open, and there were five of us within one stroke of each other playing the last round. And we came to the 14th hole at Carnoustie, known as the Spectacle, 'cause there are two big bunkers in front of the green - it looked like a pair of spectacles - and the wind was blowing. Par-five, and I was only one shot ahead of five guys.

And I hit this three wood eight inches from the hole and had a two-shot victory and went on to beat Nicklaus by two.

SIMON: Do you ever replay that shot in your mind?

Mr. PLAYER: Like a million times.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, who wouldn't? And how would you change golf today if you had the chance?

Mr. PLAYER: I would take the golf ball and I'd leave all the technology and let the weekend golfers have the technology, but for professional golf, it's just we - you know, if you come to Augusta and you see what they have done here, the changes they've made, but they cannot make many more because they cannot put the tees back in the streets.

So, what actually happens, everybody sees this and the pros go to their course and they hit a driver and a seven iron on a par-five, so everybody's wanting to make their golf course longer and the committee members are making the worse decision and they've helped cripple many of the clubs.

SIMON: So good talking to you and nice to see you out on the course this week. Thanks so much.

Mr. PLAYER: Thank you, sir.

SIMON: Gary Player, 50 years ago, became the first foreign player to win the Masters tournament.

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