CREVE COEUR – Bellerive Country Club might not have the mystique of St. Andrews, the tradition of Augusta National or the allure of Pebble Beach, but it has a small corner in the immense annals of golf lore.
It was here in 1965 that Gary Player, at 29, won the U.S. Open and completed his career grand slam. Player joined Sam Snead and Ben Hogan as the only men to accomplish the feat.
Since then, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have matched the feat, but the exclusive five-man club, made up of players who won each of golf’s four major tournaments, remains a way of separating great golfers from legends.
This week, Player returns to Bellerive to compete in the 25th U.S. Senior Open, which begins today. For Player, a South African and two-time Senior Open champion, coming back conjures fond memories of one of the greatest accomplishments in his illustrious career.
“The big thing for me in ’65 is that I was trying to be the first modern player to win the grand slam before I turned 30 years of age,” Player said. “We had seen quite a few players in history who needed one more tournament to win the grand slam but never did it, so the final one is always the tough one where the pressure is.”
Despite winning nine major tournaments, Player’s win at Bellerive was his only U.S. Open victory, and he almost let it slip away. Player had a three-stroke lead with three holes to play in the championship, but double-bogeyed the par-3 16th hole while Australian Kel Nagle birdied the 17th to tie the match.
They finished the day tied and returned the next day for an 18-hole playoff, which Player dominated, winning by a three-stroke margin. After the round, Player lived up a promise he made by taking the unprecedented step of donating his $25,000 winnings to charity.
“I think I realized to the full extent, having traveled so much, just what this great country has done for the world,” Player said. “I also appreciated the opportunity American golf had given me, so I said to Joe Dey of the USGA when we were playing at Oakmont, ‘One day when I win this great championship ... I’m going to make a donation.’”
At the time, Player’s payout was a sizable chunk of change. He donated $5,000 to research cancer, the disease that killed Player’s mother when he was 8. The rest of his earnings went to the USGA, which used the donation to begin its philanthropic arm, the USGA Foundation.
Player’s generosity was the first of many steps he took to become one of golf’s greatest ambassadors.
Player, 5 feet 7 and 147 pounds, might be small in stature but his influence on the game of golf is huge.
Player said he has traveled 14 million miles, spreading good will and learning how people live in places such as China, Bulgaria and the Middle East. Aside from his global influence, Player’s connection with youth is unmistakable. During practice rounds in St. Louis on Tuesday and Wednesday, Player took extensive time to sign autographs and mingle with young fans.
Player is also not afraid of speaking his mind. During a press conference Wednesday, Player took a harmless question about South African golfers and launched into a criticism of the effect of the growing golf technology industry. Saying that golf courses will soon be made obsolete by players who hit 350-yard drives, Player let it be known he is worried about the future of the game.
“As we sit here, there are people sitting in their little factories and big factories trying to make the ball go farther and trying to come out with a new driver,” Player said.
“I believe there are a lot of golfers today that are playing golf with drivers that are not 100 percent legal, and I think it’s a very serious thing that’s happened.”
As the careers of legendary golfers such as Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer continue to fade, Player, 68, comes into tournaments with lofty goals, and there is no end in sight to his career. Player said he thinks he is athletic enough to win tournaments, and his sights are set on becoming the first player to win a professional golf tournament in six decades.
“I love playing golf, and I’ve broken my age this year around the world six times,” Player said. “I haven’t been playing particularly well this year, but golf changes in a matter of seconds. I’m still a very good putter, and I can still play reasonably well, so I’ve got an outside chance.”