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On Second Thought

Masters 2023: Gary Player's harsh words for Augusta National take on softer tone a week later

April 06, 2023

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Gary Player dabbed at his eyes Thursday morning as Masters chairman Fred Ridley introduced him on the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club. It’s hard to say what might have been going through the mind of the three-time Masters champion, but the diminutive South African clearly was overtaken with emotion before he hit the first of three honorary tee shots to begin the 87th Masters Tournament.

It was either a good act or a necessary catharsis.

Six-time winner Jack Nicklaus and two-time Masters champion Tom Watson completed the lineup of honorary starters for the second consecutive year at 7:40 a.m. EDT. Nicklaus has served as an honorary starter since 2010 and Watson was added last year. Player, 87, has been part of the ceremony since 2012 and, being the oldest, has been hitting the first ball since 2016, the last time Arnold Palmer made an appearance, though he didn’t hit a shot.

Player’s emotional reaction before striping his tee shot down the fairway was perhaps in some way instigated by a feeling of regret he might harbor for recent comments he made in an interview with The Times of London. In that interview, Player complained about not being able to play a practice round at Augusta with his grandchildren unless accompanied by a member and said, “If it wasn’t for the players, (Augusta National) would be just another golf course in Georgia.”

He added: “I’ve played my role. I’ve won it three times. I was in the top-10 15 times. I made the most cuts in a row ever [23], yet here we are struggling to get a round. It’s just sad. And I put great emphasis on the word 'sad' … that Augusta doesn’t make you feel welcome in that regard because I helped make this tournament what it is.”

Juxtaposed to those comments were Players’ comments on Thursday after the ceremony when he talked about a life lesson he gleaned from his time at Augusta National. Irony pervaded his response.

“A prevalent thing in winning this tournament is gratitude,” Player said, obviously intent on making a point to walk back his criticism of Augusta National. “To have the opportunity to play in a tournament of this stature and to meet people like President Eisenhower, being from a country that practiced apartheid; that was always a very big imprint on my life when you think of what a marvelous role he played.

“And then meeting Bobby Jones here as well, such a wonderful golfer, gentleman, maybe the best player that ever lived. He played with a walking stick and a ball that went 80 yards less than today. So I think the word is gratitude, just to be able to … particularly for me, this is my 65th appearance here, and you walk on the first tee, and you say, well, this might be the last one. So I think gratitude is the one for me.”

This is the second time in three years that controversy has swirled around the nine-time major winner and one of only five men to win the career Grand Slam.

In 2021, it was the actions of Player’s son, Wayne, that caused a stir during the honorary starter ceremony. Wayne Player, serving as his father's caddie, stood behind Lee Elder with a sleeve of OnCore golf balls he held awkwardly but which gave the brand clear visibility. Wayne Player soon was banned from future Masters.