Gary Player, soon to turn 87 years old, talked this past Sunday. He said he has shot his age 3,044 consecutive times. Also, he estimates he has flown about 15 million miles in his lifetime, or about the same distance as 30 roundtrips to the moon. On the topic of air travel, the 1963 Australian Open comes up. One of 160 professional wins in his World Golf Hall of Fame career, it is not as well-remembered as his nine major championships. But Player called that victory “absolutely a miracle.” It certainly enhanced his reputation as golf’s global ambassador.
In 1956 – the year he turned 21 – Player, a South African, won tournaments on three continents (Africa, Europe, and Australia), and in 1961 four (North America, Africa, Asia, and Australia). He recalls that his first trip to the United States in 1957, on propeller planes, took 40 hours. The advent of reliable jet travel allowed other players, including Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Australians Bruce Devlin and Bruce Crampton, and New Zealand’s Bob Charles, to follow Player’s lead in the early 1960s and compete around the world on a regular basis.
Jet airplanes would be needed in late October 1963.
For just about any other pro, Player’s 1963 would have been considered a successful year. In January, he won the San Diego Open. Then he finished in the top-8 in all four major championships and picked up four wins in South Africa when he went home for a stretch. But two years prior, in 1961, Player had made history, becoming the first international Masters winner, as well as being the first non-American to win the PGA tour money title. In 1962, Player followed by winning the PGA Championship to notch the third leg of the career Grand Slam (in 1959 he had won the Open Championship, and he would complete it at the 1965 U.S. Open).
Thus, Player was looking for a signature win as 1963 was winding down. Opportunities beckoned in consecutive weeks at the Canada Cup and then the Australian Open. The Canada Cup long ago ceased to be more than an afterthought (in 1967 it was renamed the World Cup), but in 1963 it was a big deal. Thirty-three nations sent two-man teams to Golf de Saint-Nom-la-Breteche outside of Paris, a fairly new course on land that once was Louis XIV’s farmyard.
The United States sent its best, Palmer and Nicklaus. Palmer failed to win a major in 1963, but he would be the tour’s leading money winner. Nicklaus won the Masters and the PGA Championship, each for the first time, to go along with his 1962 U.S. Open victory. Player was paired on the South Africa team with young Retief Waltman, who won the South African Open in 1961 and 1963. Waltman was considered a promising golfer on the world stage but in 1964, at age 25, he abruptly quit the game to become a Christian missionary.
Holding a tournament in the north of France in late October was an iffy proposition. “A London fog, probably shipped over to make the Duke of Windsor feel at home in the gallery, festooned the course, gray and thick enough to dim its green loveliness, wet enough to make the young turf soggy,” Red Smith wrote about conditions on October 24, the first day. The U.S. team was tied after play on Thursday with Canada (Al Balding and Stan Leonard). South Africa was two shots back. On Friday, South Africa took the lead by one shot over the U.S., Canada, and the surprising Spanish duo of Ramon Sota and Sebastian Miguel.
In Saturday’s third round, Nicklaus shot 66 and Player a 67 to tie for first in the individual competition. On the team side, the U.S. team and Spain led with South Africa one back and the Australian team of Devlin and Crampton four behind. Crampton was picked for the Aussie team after Kel Nagle declined; the Australian Open in Melbourne started the following Thursday, and Nagle, the winner of the 1960 Open Championship at St. Andrews, had doubts as to whether he could get back home in time. His reservations would turn out to be well-founded.
Sunday was chilly but beautiful in Paris. However, only 12 miles away, a dense fog descended on Saint-Nom-la-Breteche. Officials waited three hours for the fog to lift, but when it failed to do so the final round was postponed until Monday. This delay caused major logistical problems for six players in the field – Player, Palmer, Nicklaus, Devlin, Crampton, and Charles – all of whom were slated to play in the Australian Open. Super-agent Mark McCormack had booked his star clients (Palmer and Nicklaus) on a tour of Australia, including a stop in Melbourne. Their plan to board a commercial flight leaving from Paris on Sunday night to Australia via Istanbul and Bangkok fell by the wayside.
The fog persisted into Monday, but there was enough visibility for play to resume. However, the final round was reduced to nine holes. On the sixth hole, Nicklaus blasted from a bunker into the cup 70 feet away on his way to a 32 to help secure a three-shot U.S. team victory over Spain, and a five-shot win over Player and Miguel in the individual competition.
The Jet Age had yet to spawn reliable private jets, so the six were at the mercy of the limited options offered by commercial carriers for the 40-hour trip to Australia. The earliest they could arrive in Sydney was Thursday, October 31 at 8:55 a.m., a time when the opening round would be underway. Then, the next flight to Melbourne left Sydney at 10 a.m. It was arranged for the players to be transported by helicopter from Essendon Airport to the host Royal Melbourne Golf Club, and the pairings were altered to allow the six to tee off in the final groups. Still, any delay resultant from weather or mechanical issues would prevent them from arriving in time.
On behalf of his clients (who included Player and Charles, as well as Palmer and Nicklaus), McCormack pleaded with the Australian Golf Union to postpone their Open by a day. The AGU declined, as it would have resulted in a 36-hole finish on Sunday instead of Saturday (Palmer and Nicklaus were scheduled to play exhibitions on Sunday, but evidently McCormack thought they could get out of those commitments). Because of the uncertainty as to whether they would make it, Palmer and Nicklaus decided to pass on the grueling trip to Melbourne. They would travel Down Under later in the week and keep their other commitments.
“We flew from Paris to New York; New York to L.A.; L.A. to Hawaii; Hawaii to Fiji; Fiji to Sydney; Sydney to Melbourne,” Player remembers. … “I did a lot of stretching, and a lot of sit-ups and a lot of push-ups.”
For Player, there was no question that he would travel to Melbourne. The Australian Open always was on his calendar. “In those days, the Australian Open probably was the fifth most important tournament,” Player said. “It was a very, very prestigious event.” He first won it in 1958 and won a second time in 1962. Hence, as the defending champion, he felt a special obligation to make every effort to appear in Melbourne despite the uncertainty. “I took a chance,” Player recalled. “The travel agent said, ‘I can get you to Royal Melbourne three hours before you play.’ You must remember, in those days, you didn’t have the convenience of [private] jets like we do today.”
Devlin, Crampton, and Charles also headed to Melbourne – unlike Player, they were going home in that direction anyway. “They are keen to play, but if they are physically exhausted it will be impossible for them to do so,” McCormack told a reporter. Player and Devlin – who were both under contract to Slazenger – traveled together, while Charles and Crampton took another route. “Although the players probably will fulfill their commitment to play at Royal Melbourne,” wrote Dan Lawrence in The Age (a Melbourne newspaper), “there is little chance of any of them winning after such a late arrival and a long, tiring plane trip.”
“We flew from Paris to New York; New York to L.A.; L.A. to Hawaii; Hawaii to Fiji; Fiji to Sydney; Sydney to Melbourne,” Player remembers. The distance was about 14,000 miles and literally took him to the other side of the globe. In those days, there were no non-smoking sections, and Player recalled a passenger in the row in front of him smoking continuously. Fortunately, both Player and Devlin reported they have the ability to sleep anywhere. Player did his best to maintain his well-known fitness regime onboard. “I did a lot of stretching, and a lot of sit-ups and a lot of push-ups,” he said.
Player and Devlin arrived in Sydney intact and on time. But Crampton came down with a severe cold on his journey and withdrew, heading to his home nearby. Player, Devlin and Charles proceeded on to Melbourne. As promised, a helicopter met them at the airport and transported them to Royal Melbourne, landing on the 18th fairway with about 3½ hours to spare.
“I will always remember when we left Paris, Player had no money, no cash. I paid all the expenses,” Devlin recalled. “There was a guy by the name of [Arthur] Huxley, who was the players’ representative from Slazenger. The first thing that happened when Player and I got off the helicopter was Player said to him, ‘Hey, you need to give Bruce X number of dollars because I didn’t have any cash when we left Paris,’ which I thought was pretty funny.”
Because of his contract with Slazenger, Player was required to play for the first time with new clubs and an unfamiliar ball, and he was seeing Royal Melbourne for the first time. Several times, he walked ahead of his ball so he could view his next approach. Nevertheless, he opened with a 70 on the par-74 course, two shots behind leader John Davis, a young Australian left-hander, and one shot better than Devlin. Only Charles (the victor in the Open Championship at Royal Lytham earlier in the year) suffered the effects of the trip, as he struggled to a 78.
On Friday, Player and Davis teed off together late morning. Player shot another 70 to share the 36-hole lead with Davis at 140. Devlin’s 72 put him three shots back at 143, one ahead of Peter Thomson and two of Nagle. “Gary said he would pay my fare to the American circuit if I won the event tomorrow,” Davis told the press after the round. “This is a terrific thrill. It is also a big surprise, and I am grateful to Gary for the offer.”
With Player now familiar with the course and having the benefit of two good nights of rest, neither Davis nor anybody in the field had a chance in Saturday’s 36-hole finish. Player followed a third successive 70 with a final round of 6-under 68 to coast to a seven-shot win over Devlin, with Thomson and Nagle one shot further back. Davis faded, with rounds of 77 and 76.
“Jack Nicklaus and I had a great battle in our career to see who could win the most Australian Opens,” Player said. “I won seven, and he won six.”
Thus, Player traveled 14,000 miles in 40 hours to win his third Australian Open with a field that included future World Golf Hall of Famers Thomson, Nagle, Charles, and Michael Bonallack, as well as Aussie greats Devlin, Frank Phillips and Norman Von Nida. And it was not even close.
But the 1963 Australian Open title is not the one Player best remembers. That would be 1965, at the Kooyonga Golf Club in Adelaide, when Nicklaus competed as well. “Jack Nicklaus and I had a great battle in our career to see who could win the most Australian Opens,” Player said. “I won seven, and he won six.” At Kooyonga, Player shot a pair of 62s on his way to a 72-hole score of 264 to win by seven shots over Nicklaus and lower his own Australian Open record set in 1958 by seven shots. “Today – today – I have the lowest score ever shot in the Australian Open, with the crappy equipment we used as compared to the modern equipment today,” he proudly stated.
With the proliferation of international flights and private jet services, neither Player nor any other top golfer ever had to repeat his 1963 dash halfway around the world to victory. “I got there 3½ hours before the start, with new clubs, a different ball, and I had never seen the course in my life, with over a 15-hour time change,” he said. “And I won the Australian Open by seven shots.
“It was not the most important, but it was the most amazing victory of my life.”
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