Believing at Bellerive
Fifty years ago, Gary Player began the U.S. Open confident he would win. Ninety holes later, he completed the career Grand Slam
June 13, 2015
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
Gary Player was feeling quite confident Saturday afternoon at Oakmont. Heading into the final round of the 1962 U.S. Open – back then, it was a 36-hole final day -- the South African was in perfect striking position, two strokes off the pace with just four players ahead of him.
Sharing his position on the leaderboard was a rising star with impressive amateur credentials but no victories since turning pro eight months earlier. Jack Nicklaus, then 22, was not Player’s primary concern that afternoon.
If anything, Player felt sympathy for Jack, who had to endure verbal barbs and derogatory nicknames from the gallery making fun of his then-hefty frame. “Treated him like a dog,” Player would recall later.
Rather, it was the name at the top of the leaderboard that had everybody’s attention. Arnold Palmer, tied for the lead with Bobby Nichols, was playing in front of his home crowd, and if he fed off their support, he’d be tough to beat. But Player was just the man to spoil the fun. With two major wins already on his resume, he was used to this high-stakes pressure. Being in Palmer’s backyard just gave him more incentive.
And although Palmer’s iron-forged biceps showcased in tight-fitting golf shirts provided a silent source of intimidation, no one was more fit to play 36 holes on Saturday than Player. Fatigue would not be his undoing.
But perhaps fate was. It was not Player’s time that afternoon. His game didn’t respond, and he could not keep up the pace. He shot a 3-over 74, the worst score by any of the top seven players on the final leaderboard.
Unlike Player, Nicklaus had risen to the challenge. He forced an 18-hole playoff with Palmer for Sunday.
Nicklaus was now less than 24 hours away from the first of his 18 major wins and a performance that ultimately became a pivotal one, not only in his own history but the history of golf. Player, meanwhile, was left to lick his wounds.
In the aftermath of his disappointment that Saturday evening, Player ran into Joe Dey, the executive director of the USGA. Fifty-three years later, Player recalls the conversation.
“I said, ‘Mr. Dey, I’m going to win the U.S. Open one day. I thought I’d win it this year, but I let it slip. But when I win, I’m going to give all the money back, no matter how much it is. I’m going to give it all back to the USGA for cancer – my mother had died of cancer – and junior golf, which I love.’ ”
A month after Oakmont, Player won the PGA Championship, giving him the third leg of golf’s career Grand Slam. All he needed now was the U.S. Open. Win that, and he’d join Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen as the only players to complete the career slam. Do it soon, and he’d be the youngest.
When Player walked off the course that Saturday at Oakmont, he was 26 years old and in a hurry to become a legend.
It would take him three more years to get there – and to deliver on his promise to Joe Dey.
Gary Player celebrates at the 1965 U.S. Open. (Courtesy of Gary Player Group, Inc.)
In the August 1965 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine, Gary Player discussed why fiberglass shafts provided an advantage over the more popular and conventional steel shafts.
Player told the magazine that golfers could get the ball higher in the air, improve their backspin on iron shots to the green, and even gain a distance advantage off the tee. With a half-million glass fibers running longitudinally in each shaft, a golfer could get more torque, and thus more snap through impact.
To prove his point, Popular Mechanics asked Player to play 18 holes – nine with fiberglass shafts, nine with steel shafts. Player shot 34 with the fiberglass, 36 with the steel. The results seem to favor glass, the Popular Mechanics reporter wrote, but a single round can’t really tell the whole story.
For Player, the story in the summer of 1965 was this: He was using fiberglass shafts on his clubs, thanks to an endorsement deal with a company – Shakespeare -- known more for its fishing rods. And no one had ever won a major with fiberglass shafts. After all, glass was … well … prone to crack and break. Steel wasn’t, unless you snapped it over your knee.
“The shaft was thick at the top, thin at the bottom,” Player says now. “It used to go boing each time I swung.”
Using the shafts seemed unconventional, but that kind of approach never bothered Player. Plus, the endorsement money was pretty good. “They paid me a fortune,” he recalls. “Paid me $200,000, something like that. Unbelievable. In 1965, that was a lot.”
So as Player arrived at Bellerive in St. Louis for the 1965 U.S. Open, he had the most unusual clubs of any contender in the field. He also had a 16-year-old caddie named Frank Pagel on his bag.
Since USGA rules required contestants to use local caddies for the championship, it was a luck of the draw which caddie would be assigned to you. During practice rounds, Pagel’s twin brother Steve had carried Player’s bag. But when the draw came, Player just happened to pull Frank’s name.
Unproven shafts and young caddies aside, Player was feeling good about his chances that week. As usual, no one was in better shape – years earlier back in South Africa when Player was 17, his older brother, prior to going off to war, made Gary vow to always exercise; it was a promise Gary has never broken to this day.
In fact, Player had never been in better shape. He had packed on 16 pounds of muscle and was now at 166 pounds and no longer a lightweight. “I was never so strong as I was then,” he said.
Mentally, he was just as strong. Player essentially was putting himself into a hypnotic state that week. Or as he described it, a form of self-hypnosis.
Each day when he arrived at Bellerive to practice, he would stare at a board that listed past U.S. Open winners. At the top was Ken Venturi’s name, in gold letters because Venturi was the most recent winner, having conquered the field and near dehydration at Congressional.
But Player wasn’t focusing on Venturi’s name or any of the others. He was imagining his own name on that board. Like golfers visualizing shots during a round, Player was visualizing success pre-round. He’d stare at the board and see his name. Gary Player. In gold letters.
Every day, Player also headed to a nearby Catholic church to pray. He prayed for courage. And patience. And the ability to accept adversity. But he never prayed to win. He didn’t want to push his luck – probably a wise move given that Player has never been a member of the Catholic faith.
Somehow, this weird confluence of events had him leading by two shots after the first 54 holes at Bellerive. The hypnosis was working. The fiberglass shafts weren’t breaking. No issues with the caddie. (Forty years later, discussing his role that week, Pagel would tell reporters, "He was in such a trance I don't think I could have done anything to bother him.")
Meanwhile, the pot of local honey that Player kept in his bag at all times was giving him vital energy. He made sure to take a sip of honey at least every six holes. To this day, he remains a frequent consumer of honey.
Of course, the biggest factor was Player's status as one of the three best golfers in the world at that time. The other two, of course, had been involved in the playoff three years ago at Oakmont, the tournament that still nagged at the South African.
The Gary Player Grand Slam exhibit at the World Golf Hall of Fame. (Courtesy of World Golf Hall of Fame)
For the first time at a U.S. Open, there was no 36-hole final day. Thanks to Venturi’s near-exhaustion the year before, the USGA decided to move the final round to Sunday, giving the players a chance to play at their best instead of sapping them of their strength. Would Player’s fitness advantage be negated?
It didn’t appear so. With three holes left in regulation. Player led Australian Kel Nagle by three shots.
But then Player double-bogeyed the 16th. Meanwhile, Nagle in the group ahead, birdied the 17th. A quick three-shot swing left them tied. Nagle parred out. The pressure was on Player to do the same.
“I had it in my hands,” Player recalls. “Now all of a sudden, I’ve got to go like crazy just to tie him.”
He did. The 18-hole playoff was set. Unlike three years ago, Player would be involved this time, and he would be the favorite. But five years earlier at The Open Championship, Nagle – who had never finished inside the top 10 of any major -- had pulled off a shocker to win. Could he do it again?
It wasn’t even close. Nagle was 44 years old. Player was 29. Player practiced and played in black every day -- he wore the same black shirt for every round that week -- and was used to the heat. Nagle was shaky at the start and on the fifth playoff hole, hit two women the gallery with two different shots.
When Nagle approached the first woman, who was lying on the ground, he turned to Player and said, "I feel awful, Gary."
Player replied, "So do I."
By the turn, Player was five strokes ahead. He eventually won by three.
It was the first time since 1920 that a non-American had won the U.S. Open. And it was certainly the first time a player with fiberglass shafts had won a major.
“Julius Boros came up to me afterward,” Player says. “He told me, ‘I’ve just seen the all-time miracle – winning the U.S. Open with a fishing rod.’”
For the win, Player received $25,000. But he kept his word to Dey, who had presented the winner’s check to him. Player handed it right back, donating $20,000 to junior golf and $5,000 to cancer research.
Player also received a $1,000 bonus for participating in the playoff. He gave that money – along with an additional $1,000 – to Pagel the caddie. The $2,000 was, at the time, believed to be the most any TOUR pro had given his caddie for a single win.
In essence, it cost Gary Player $1,000 to win the U.S. Open that year. Money well spent, of course.
A few years earlier, Player couldn’t have afforded it. He had left South Africa with little money in his pocket to chase his golfing dream. The first time he played The Open Championship at St. Andrews, he had to sleep on the beach because he couldn’t afford the hotels. He finally found one for $1.50 a night.
But now he was an established star. This was the fourth major of his career and the 10th of his PGA TOUR career. There were all those other wins around the world. And don’t forget that $200,000 from Shakespeare for playing with fiberglass clubs.
On the flip side, Player had a wife, six kids and their nurse, and he traveled with them as much as possible. “Going all around the world with them, very expensive for those times,” Player recalls. Asked about giving away all his winnings, Player replies, “Yes, I could afford it, he said, then added, "but I felt it.”
Gary Player hands the $25,000 winner's check to Joe Dey. (Courtesy Gary Player Group, Inc.)
At 29, Gary Player had become the youngest of the three men who at that point had completed the career Grand Slam. But that distinction wouldn’t last long. A year later, Nicklaus won The Open Championship to complete his career slam at age 26. And in 2000, Tiger Woods completed his career slam at age 24.
Player calls Woods’ feat at age 24 the “greatest achievement in golf. Ever.”
Still, the fact that Player is one of just five members in that group continues to amaze him. “Beyond comprehension,” Player says.
Player would never win another U.S. Open, but ultimately he won nine majors. After turning 50, he then began an assault on the Champions Tour (then Seniors Tour) majors. He won nine more – and he remains the only player to win the U.S. Senior Open, PGA Senior Championship, Senior Open Championship and the SENIOR PLAYERS.
From his standpoint, that’s another career Grand Slam. And unlike the other career slam, there are no other members. That’s why he values the “Senior Slam” more than he does the regular one.
“Think about it – I’m the only man in the world who’s done that,” Player said. “I always put that ahead of the regular grand slam.
“A lot of people feel I’m nuts when I say that. But I go by what I feel.”
Fifty years ago, he felt he was going to win the U.S. Open. No doubt in his mind. He could see it, imagining his name on the winner’s board. He could feel it, the muscle packed on his frame. He could taste it, those sips of honey in his bag.
And luckily for Player, those fiberglass shafts never shattered once that week.
“A miracle,” he says now, a big smile crossing his face. “An act of God. You could give those shafts to Tiger Woods at his best and he couldn’t have won.
“It was destiny that week. Destiny. Without question.”
HALL OF FAME CELEBRATES PLAYER'S CAREER SLAM
The World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Player’s Grand Slam with a special exhibit. Click here for more information on the exhibit.
Gary Player: The Black Knight