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Golf: It was 1959 and the man in black was limbering up by doing fingertip press-ups; TOM BROWN, who still plays Gary Player irons, recalls the day he watched the South African capture his first Major to herald a sparkling new era in golf.

Byline: Tom Brown

THE Rainbow Kid, the Tiger Woods of his time, was on the floor of his hotel room preparing for the greatest day of his life by doing press-ups.

Not any old press-ups. He was doing them on his finger-tips.

Try it. It's great for the golf grip - but only at the risk of broken fingers and torn tendons.

Even then, the kid had hands and forearm muscles like spun steel. It was not a show-off trick for the photographer, but part of the fanatical routine that turned the slightly-built youngster from a South African farm into a sporting superman.

Looking for an early-morning picture for the evening paper, we had been advised no one was up but the dedicated young man. We were told he would be very special one day.

No one, perhaps not even the kid himself, knew that day had arrived in 1959. In a few emotionally and physically gruelling hours, 23-year-old Gary Player was transformed from precocious prodigy into all-time golfing great.

He was the youngest player to win golf's most prestigious title. No one called him "Kid" again.

Before that, tournament professional golf was amateurish. Player introduced the modern breed of dedicated super-golfer that has culminated in Tiger Woods.

And he did it over Muirfield, the hall-of-fame course where only great golfers are crowned.

The list of Muirfield winners since confirms that: 1966 - Jack Nicklaus; 1972 - Lee Trevino; 1980 - Tom Watson; 1987 and 1992 - Nick Faldo.

Golf is not only about achievement, it is about history. That 1959 Open field included a chubby youngster taking advantage of the courtesy entry for that year's US Walker Cup team - 19-year-old Jack Nicklaus, who was so smitten that in later life he created his own Muirfield in America.

The Muirfield pedigree was proved when Gary Player went on to become the only player ever to win an Open in three different decades, the Grand Slam at 29, eight more Majors.

Until the 1959 Open, he was best known as The Rainbow Kid who brought some South African sunshine with his colourful garb. His last-day outfit was salmon-pink trousers, black sweater and red-white-and-blue shoes.

In those days, golf pros were a shabby lot in baggy trousers and looked as if they had ambled in from the club repair workshop.

Later in life, Player said the harder he practised, the luckier he got: "When I work at something, I expect it to happen. No one works as hard at golf as I do."

But right up to that last day of the 1959 Open, there was no sign it would happen.

First to tee off on the first day was Fred Bullock, a journeyman pro from Prestwick St Ninians, with his daughter Sandra as his caddy. He and Arnold Stickley, an unknown London pro, shot 68s and sat in the clubhouse chuckling as the wind off the Firth of Forth became a shrieking gale.

Player reached the turn in 36, then took 39 back in the wind, four over for the last five holes.

After the second round, Bullock led the field by two with a 70. Player added a fighting 71 and was eight shots behind.

In those days, the Open ended with two full rounds on the Friday. If today's pampered pros were asked to play 36 holes on the last day of a major championship they would go on strike.

That Friday was one of those beautiful sun-drenched days, when Muirfield becomes a golfer's idea of heaven - the perfect course in a perfect setting in perfect conditions.

Player made his move in the morning round, posting a 70, but he was still four shots off Bullock's lead.

His last round was a commanding performance. As word spread, Scots deserted their local hero Reid Jack, the British amateur champion from Dullatur, to cheer on the South African "Kid".

They liked his gutsiness, the compact body and swing with a venomous power and the fact he was a youngster with a veteran's composure.

From behind the 15th green I watched his full two iron into a strong wind for a birdie three. On the next tee, his shot covered the pin all the way to four feet from the hole and a two.

At the 17th, he left his approach putt four yards short and was disturbed by clicking cameras and movement in the crowd.

The tension told as he beseeched them: "I beg you - I'm playing for my life here. I ask you from the bottom of my heart not to move." He sank the putt.

But he stuttered at the last hole when he hooked into a bunker and three-putted for a miserable six.

After handing in his scorecard, 68 for a 284 total, he was still shaken and almost in tears.

"Sir," he said (the well-mannered young man called everyone "sir", even golf reporters) "that six has cost me the Open and a lot more besides.

"A four would have equalled the course record and I know I would have been champion. No one would have been able to catch me."

Player and his wife Vivienne went back to the North Berwick hotel, believing he had blown it and would have to wait for another year.

They waited two hours, then came dashing back to Muirfield when a phone call told them the others had all fallen away.

Bullock took 39 out, fought back and was two under fours for the next eight holes.

But on the last his ball was plugged in one of Muirfield's killer bunkers. It was unplayable and he had to go back and play another for a five.

Argentine Tony Cerda took two in a bunker and finished seven, five. Belgian Flory van Donck three-putted the last and came second.

Defending champion Peter Thompson had shot his bolt with a record-equalling 66 in the qualifying round.

A relieved Player returned to Muirfield to collect the claret jug and the pounds 1000 cheque. This year's winner will lift pounds 700,000 from a pounds 3.8million prize fund.

The true significance of Player's win was that it signalled the arrival of a new era in golf.

With the swashbuckling Arnold Palmer and, later Nicklaus, Player joined in a triumvirate that made golf a modern game and swept away the easier-going old guard.

Famous names such as John Panton, Eric Brown, Arthur Lees, Harry Weetman, Max Faulkner, even "The Master" Henry Cotton and Player's countryman Bobby Locke, with the big belly and the many chins, plus-fours and a majestic hook, became yesterday's men.

Oh, yes, and a promising, if portly, young British professional shot a remarkable last-day 67 to rocket up the prize-list.

His name was Peter Allis. Whatever happened to him?
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jul 12, 2002
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