January 19, 2013 at 1:00 am

Jerry Green

Gary Player still is a physical marvel at age 77

Golf great Gary Player talks to reporters during a new conference before the Humana Challenge golf tournament in La Quinta, Calif. (Chris Carlson/Associated Press)

La Quinta, Calif. — The mob formed a semicircle on the lawn in front of the flawless antebellum clubhouse at the Augusta National Golf Club. You could feel history there; it was as though the history had entered your bloodstream.

It was there that I once had listened to the wisdom of Ben Hogan talking about golf. And it was there that I listened to Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

And on this day, oh so long ago, the lecturer was Gary Player.

The great Gary Player.

He was, then, the reigning champion of the Masters. In April the year before, he had entered the final round seven shots behind Hubert Green for the championship. Gary, that Sunday, made seven birdies on the final 10 holes of Augusta National. On No. 18, he sank a 15-foot birdie putt.

He finished with an amazing 64 — to me, a magic golf score — with a charge that enabled him to pass Hubert Green and win his third Masters.

The muck-mucks put a green jacket on Player. They guided him down to metal roofed building that was the press center to describe his day. We had waited with some patience. Player spoke in clipped phrases and he was justifiably swaggering about victory, in what he called The Mahsters.

Perhaps there was a little too much swagger. As I recall he was somewhat uncomplimentary toward Palmer and Nicklaus.

So I started my column for the next day's Detroit News:

"Fie on Gary Player!"

I proceeded, in my fashion back then, to be quite critical of Player. If I may say so now, 34 years later, I was excessively critical.

Free advice

On that afternoon as Player spoke to us, in April 1979, on the lawn at Augusta National, he mentioned the newspaper articles that had criticized him the year before. He condemned a guy from Cleveland and a couple of others for the prose that they had written.

"Then there was Mr. Green from Detroit."

And Mr. Player from Johannesburg was justifiably critical.

Peace was made many years ago at Oakland Hills during a U.S. Senior Open - and again just the other day here at PGA West at the Humana Challenge.

Mr. Player from Jo-burg, in my mind now, is one of the most admirable athletes I have ever encountered. At 77 years old, he is a solidly fit marvel - he seems to me to be built of granite. He remains obsessed with physical conditioning and proper nutrition as a spokesman in Humana's drive toward pushing Americans into exercise and controlled diet.

And because of his age and his drive and his slim, packaged physique - and because also he happened to win nine major pro tour championships - I sought some free advice.

What could he tell a rather mellow fellow who just happened to take up the sport of golf at age 80? And became an addict? A fellow who week or so ago also happened to hit that magic golf number, 64?

For NINE holes!

Player eyed the ardent amateur.

"Is that when you started to play?" he said.

Affirmative, I nodded.

"I would say the days are numbered," he said.

This time the mob in the semicircle in front of him chuckled.

Affirmative again, I nodded, likewise with a chuckle.

"I would enjoy every day whether I shoot 80 or 100 or 150," Player said. "I would say, 'I'm going to have a great day.' I wouldn't worry how I played. I'm out there with the birds. Look at the sky."

We all looked up into the wild blue yonder, at the craggy mountains in the distance — the view perhaps as beautiful as it was more than 30 years ago at Augusta National.

"Are we blessed to be here?" Player said.

Affirmative once more.

Trend setter

Gary Player is a man for all ages. He is compact, muscular — again, granite.

And I agree totally with his mission of trying to lure all us into physical fitness on behalf of the Humana health people and the golf tournament's co-sponsor, the Clinton Foundation — President Bill Clinton's health initiative.

Once upon a time, pro golfers were mocked by athletes in other sports for their lack of conditioning. For their flabby bodies. Many for their rounded tummies.

Player started a trend way back when he was winning on the pro tour, when he was winning his career Grand Slam - back when I wrote "fie."

"Yesterday morning I did over 1,000 sit-ups," he said at PGA West as the Humana Challenge was about to start on three La Quinta courses.

"There was only one other player back then — Frank Stranahan — and we did weight training. We were told that we were crazy. That you were nuts. That you shouldn't lift weights. That it affects your short game. And we had to live with this.

"Now they all work out.

"Back then there was no place to work out.

"It was all YMCAs. You waited your turn in a smelly gym."

Gary Player, at 77, is still at war. His war is against obesity. And it is pretty much a stalemate.

His 64 on the final Sunday at Augusta in 1978 remains a classic in this captivating sport I watched that final birdie putt for The Mahster's championship. I am able to remember vividly the dour look of Hubert Green when he reached 18. .

For me, Player evoked gripping nostalgia. Nostalgia, that precious luxury for septuagenarians and their octogenarian seniors who decide it's time to start playing golf.

So I shoot 64 — for nine — and sometimes a few strokes lower.

What short game?

And fie on me!

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Sundays at detroitnews.com.

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