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A very special Player

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Every once in a while someone will be described as "walking history," and every once in a while that description will be 100 percent correct.

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Every once in a while someone will be described as "walking history," and every once in a while that description will be 100 percent correct.

Gary Player is walking history.

The Man in Black is 71 now, and his presence here is ceremonial. Oh, he can still play a very nice round of golf. "I have broken my age since I turned 70 or 71 at least 43 times," he reports. "I broke my age twice in the same tournament." But he competes here in 2007 as a courtesy this unique tournament extends to all past winners. They can play until they keel over, or come to their senses. Unlike some (e.g. Billy Casper), Player will never embarrass himself.

We want Gary Player to tee it up because he is Gary Player and because this is his 50th Masters. Fifty! And it may not be his last, either.

"When I say - and I pray when I say this is my last time it is my last time -it's my last time," he chuckles. "I don't want to say it's my last time and then come back."

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When the South African began his Masters play in 1957, the field included the winners of the 1934, '35, '36, '37, '38, '40, '41, and '42 tournaments. The field included demigods Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, and such august names as Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Lawson Little, Horton Smith, Jimmy Demaret, Craig Wood, and the venerable Brit, Henry Cotton. You got chills yet?

Player would go on to win nine majors, including this tournament in 1961, '74, and '78, when he was 42 years old. He was right there with Arnie and Jack, and, later, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson, competing to be known as the best golfer in the world throughout the '60s and '70s.

But his legacy far transcends those notable accomplishments. A case can be made that he was the first truly international golfer. "I wanted to travel and try to have the best world record in golf," he explains. "That was my ambition. When I first started, I said I wanted to have the best world record in golf, beating guys in their own countries, and I was brainwashed to that degree."

And there is no question he was decades ahead of his time in recognizing the importance of physical fitness in his sport. Long before the exercise trailer was a staple of the PGA Tour, Player was back in his hotel room knocking out push-ups and sit-ups and hoisting free weights in the gym and doing whatever else came into his fertile mind. At 71, he proudly works out for a vigorous hour and a half five times weekly when the endless plane flights don't get in his way.

No one's opinion is more valued in golf. Is there anyone better qualified to evaluate the relative merits of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, for example? Not that I can think of.

"To compare Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods is like comparing oranges with bananas," Player maintains. "Jack Nicklaus never played a green with soft spikes applied. Big, big thing . . . Every green we played had hundreds of spike marks on the greens. That's what Jack Nicklaus played under. He never used a metal head in his prime. He never went into a factory and said, 'My golf ball is climbing too much. Can you adjust this with my clubs?' This was stuff Hogan, a scientist, never even thought of.

"How do you compare Nicklaus and Tiger Woods? The ball goes at least 55 yards farther. If you imagine Jack Nicklaus having hit the ball 55 yards farther, what would he have done, or players of our time, 55 yards farther, every bunker is just a uniform with a raking?"

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"Now let me tell you, for a long time in his life Jack Nicklaus was extremely strong. His legs were just as strong as Tiger's, and he hit the ball the exact same distance if you gave him the right club, the same equipment. But Jack Nicklaus's body went on the wane; it deteriorated at a certain age. Whereas Tiger Woods, his body is going to go on for a long time."

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