Of the 281 shots that Gary Player took on his way to victory at the 1972 PGA Championship, one stands out among the rest.
Fifty years have passed since Player claimed his sixth of nine majors at Oakland Hills Golf Club, but one singular shot remains as vivid to Player as the day he struck it.
“It was one of, if not, the greatest shots of my career,” Player said.
The south course at Oakland Hills was termed “a monster” in 1951 by Ben Hogan, a two-time PGA Championship winner, when he won the US Open there. It was a fitting and fame-producing description. Officials at many other courses tried to adopt the term, touting their layouts as “monsters.” But Oakland Hills, in a suburb north of Detroit, was the original.
Having already won the PGA Championship in 1962, Player was an authority of sorts on what qualified as a monster and pegged Oakland Hills’ south course “the toughest in America.”
Player’s ‘moment of truth’
In the final round of the 54th PGA, 10 golfers were within two strokes of the lead playing the final nine holes. The moment of truth for Player happened at the 408-yard dogleg right par 4 16th, where a pond guards the green set close enough to it that any approach has to cross it. In those days, a majestic Weeping Willow stood inside the elbow of him. Strategically, it eliminated the shortcut to the green for those who drove the ball into the rough.
That’s, of course, where the hero of our story found himself. Having already bogeyed the 14th and 15th holes, Player shared the lead with Jim Jamieson, who had won the Western Open just a month earlier in what would prove to be his lone PGA Tour win di lui. As Jamieson was up ahead playing the 18th hole, Player pushed his tee shot to the right directly behind the willow tree. Phil Rodgers, who was playing alongside the diminutive South African in the final group, told British golf writer Ben Wright that Player was so discouraged over his drive di lui that he was talking as if he had already blown the tournament.
“I had worked incredibly hard for this major, and now I felt it was slipping away from me,” Player said.
But part of what made Player great was that he trained for every possible circumstance. He had a reputation for creating what he called tactical laboratory situations. For instance, he would set up an obstacle of a tree branch and try to punch the ball beneath it 10 straight times. If he hit the limb, the exercise would start all over.
“Player is gifted, of course, but I hardly think he is overburdened with natural ability,” wrote Leonard Crawley in the London Daily Telegraph. “His immense success di lui comes from hard work, and a capacity to concentrate on the job in hand given to few.”
Player takes a peek
What Player did next on a rainy, cool, gray day at Oakland Hills’s 16th personified his grit and determination. Player examined his lie about him in the soggy rough with great concern. Blind to the flagstick and the water hazard threatening ahead, Player had to stand up on a gallery member’s chair just to get a glimpse of the green.
Fortunately, his lie was a good one on long grass flattened down by the gallery. As he walked to a marker on the fairway to check his yardage, he noticed his divot di lui from the other day.
In his book, “Don’t Choke,” Player recounted how an 8-iron he hit during a practice round played a pivotal role in winning his sixth major. After he struck the shot from right off the fairway on the 16th hole, Player took special notice of the divot.
“Although I was in a similar position, the grass was wet now, and I knew I would get a bit of flyer coming out of the rough,” Player said in explaining his choice of the 9-iron rather than an 8.
Player also deemed he needed the extra loft to clear the trees. A seat stick left on the ground under the trees served as his line of him. It was an all-or-nothing gamble: the slightest mishit, or if the 9-iron proved to be not enough club to carry the pond to a pin cut very near the hazard on the right side of the green, and he’d be staring a bogey at minimum and possibly a big number in the face.
“That was just not enough club, but Player simply added ‘heart,’” wrote golf writer David Mackintosh.
Despite the water ahead and the tree in front of him, he hoisted a 9-iron that soared over the trees, across the water and onto the green, nestling 3 feet from the hole.
Just as Player holed his birdie putt, Jamieson had missed a short par effort of his own on the last green and Player had an insurance stroke in his back pocket. But he wouldn’t need it for Player had already delivered a telling stroke at the most critical moment.
“I’ve hit some incredible shots in my career, and people often thought I was just lucky. But great shots, much like great championship victories, are often the result of careful planning and something that gives you that courage and conviction deep inside to know you can pull it off, ”Player explained. “Great shots don’t simply appear out of nowhere during a crucial stage of a major. They are shots that have been grooved on the practice range for hours. What makes them special is the player’s ability to execute the shot under pressure. “
A pair of closing pars later and Player had matched par on the last nine to shoot 2 ‐ over ‐ par 72 for a 72-hole total of 1-over 281, two strokes ahead of co-runners-up Tommy Aaron and Jamieson, who made headlines that week for using a $ 17 department store putter. Jamieson fizzled down the stretch, making bogeys on each of the last three holes, signing for an even-par 70, while Aaron had a 71. It secured Player’s first major in over four years, and earned him a check totaling $ 45,000.
Player trailed Buddy Allin and Stan Thirsk by three strokes after the first round and Jerry Heard by the same margin at the midway point of the championship. In all, 77 golfers survived the cut. Player surged into the lead with a nifty 3-under 67 in the third round, which lifted him a stroke ahead of Billy Casper.
Casper, Snead also near
The outlook for Player to win his first major in four years didn’t appear promising when he opened with bogeys on three of his first four holes in the final round. But Player did sink a 25-foot birdie putt at the second and settled into a streak of six pars in a row beginning at the fifth. Casper and Player were even after nine holes and it was anyone’s trophy to grab hold of until Player converted two birdies on the last nine, a 5 ‐ footer going in at the 11th, and, of course, the one he considered most important at the 16th hole. “I think that one won the tournament for me,” he said later.
Ageless wonder Sam Snead, 60, fired a final-round 69, to tie the low round of the day at the course where he finished second in the 1937 US Open. Snead, who last won the PGA in 1951, tied for fourth with Casper and Ray Floyd.
“If I could have been a couple more under par coming in,” Snead told The New York Times, “I would have thrown a scare into the fellows.”
Jack Nicklaus, the defender and pre ‐ tourney favorite as current Masters and US Open champion, took three putts at the first green for a bogey in the final round and never gained any momentum after that. Nicklaus tied for 13th place at 287.
There’s one more footnote to the story of Player’s memorable shot at 16. Just as a divot from his practice round had weighed into his decision of what club to hit, his 9-iron divot would become a trophy of sorts for one spectator. A man in the gallery waited for Player to head to the 16th green after his remarkable shot di lui and retrieved Player’s divot. He tucked it away, took it home and planted it in his lawn where it flourished.
“He sent me a message a few years later saying he had a Gary Player lawn,” Player recalled. “And I should come and see it whenever I come back to Detroit.”