Should the US Open finish on June 21 this year, as scheduled, it will coincide with the 50th anniversary of South Africa’s Gary Player winning the same title to complete the career grand slam.
Aged just 29, Gary Player became only the third golfer in history to win each of the four men's majors at least once, following Gene Sarazen in 1935 and, in 1953, Ben Hogan.
Making Player’s win all the more impressive was the fact that he became the first non-American to claim the trophy since 1927. It was, quite simply, a landmark achievement.
Since then, only two other players have completed the feat. Jack Nicklaus did so in 1966 before Tiger Woods followed suit in 2000. Rory McIlroy requires a Masters victory to join them, whilst Phil Mickelson can etch his name into golf’s grand slam history books with a win in the US Open.
Ahead of this year’s championship, we caught up with Gary Player to wind the clock back and reflect on his magnificent feat achieved exactly half a century ago.
Winning the US Open in 1965 saw you become just the third player to complete the career Grand Slam. How big was that for you?
It’s hard to believe that 50 years has passed since I won the US Open at Bellerive at the age of 29 to become the third man in history to win the career grand slam. Perhaps what is even more surprising is that, since then, only two players in Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have joined Hogan, Sarazen and me to achieve this.
Even more, I still am the only player that was born outside of the United States in this special club of golf legends. However, I think that could change with the way Rory McIlroy has been playing. He is my pick to become the next grand slam champion, and I am rooting for him. It will be a great day for golf when he wins the Masters.
Of the many great things you achieved in the game, where does winning the career grand slam rank for you?
Quite simply, I consider winning it my finest achievement in golf.
Can you put into words how hard it is to win all four majors?
It is the ultimate goal for every professional golfer. The numbers don’t lie, only five men in the history of golf have achieved this feat, and only two at the time I was chasing my last major title. I had come close as runner-up to Tommy Bolt, but I had never been able to break through and win the US Open until 1965.
I’ll never forget that tournament. Golf has many great players but only a few can call themselves a grand slam champion; not Watson, Palmer, Trevino, Snead, Floyd, Ballesteros, Faldo, or Norman. It is fantastic to have also been the first player to win the US Open from outside the US or British Isles.
What are your memories of that particular week at Bellerive?
I remember it so vividly. I had quite possibly never prepared as well for a major championship.
I arrived at the course early, took copious notes during each practice round, and was even more rigorous about my healthy routine, making sure I got plenty of sleep, watched my diet, and really concentrated on my practice and exercise. When the tournament came around, I was convinced that I would win. I could even ‘see’ my name in gold letters on the giant scoreboard and ‘Wall of Champions’ in the 1965 winner’s slot.
I also remember what I wore throughout the tournament. I wore same black shirt every day and washed it myself every night, and hung it over the shower rail to dry. Maybe a silly superstition, perhaps, but it gave me a certain level of mental karma.
As for the play, this was no easy win for me. With three holes to play in the final round, I was three clear of Kel Nagle of Australia, but I double-bogeyed the par-3 16th and then watched Nagle birdie the 17th to force a play-off. It was sheer agony. In the Monday play-off over 18 holes, though, I scored 71 to Nagle’s 74 to win.
The course was quite interesting. It was just five-years-old at the time, measuring 7,191 yards, and with burnt-out, diseased patches of turf that you couldn’t take relief from.
What did you think of it?
Bellerive was a monster. At that distance, it was the longest of any US Open golf course in history at that time. US Open venues typically are some of the most demanding tests of golf and Bellerive certainly lived up to that in 1965. It was a sweltering week in Missouri, incredibly hot. I do think that the heat might have contributed to the over-par winning total.
You mention Nagle catching you late on the Sunday to force a Monday play-off. How did you feel on that Sunday night? What did you do?
I slept like a log. For this tournament, I made sure that I did my homework. Ben Hogan was a master of the US Open and he always arrived well before the tournament to get accustomed to the local conditions.
I arrived to Bellerive early and made sure that I had a daily routine where I would not go out to dinner, but stayed in my hotel room at night, ordered room service and meditated. This certainly was a help going into the play-off.
Beyond meditating, I just tried to keep myself positive. I made sure that I reviewed my numerous notes and sketches of the course and greens. I studied them in my hotel room that evening and that kept my mind focused.
In the end, you won the play-off convincingly. What were your first emotions as you sank the winning putt? Were you even immediately aware that you’d completed the career grand slam?
It was a huge moment and a moment I will never forget when that final putt went in. I had done it. I had won the US Open. I had won each of golf’s four major championships. All my hard work had paid off and I had followed in the footsteps of Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan. It was a difficult week there at Bellerive, but it was so satisfying to win the US Open at last.
You famously donated all of your winnings, some $26,000, to charity. Why?
I had previously made a promise to Joe Dey, director of the USGA, that when I won the US Open, I would donate my winnings to charity. So that immediately came to mind.
And after being handed the winner’s cheque following the play-off, I handed it back to Joe specifying that the proceeds should go to two important causes: cancer research, in honour of my mother who died of cancer, and the development of junior golf programs by the USGA. I was extremely thrilled to be able to give back at that moment especially since it was such an enormous milestone in my career.
You were also the first non-American to win the US Open in almost 40 years. Why do you think other overseas players had struggled to win the title?
During the course of the tournament, I must say it was not a huge motive and did not come much into play because I was focusing on winning the tournament. I will say that it was in the back of my mind though.
At that time, foreigners just did not often win the US Open. I remember that my friend and fellow South African, Bobby Locke, once told me that it was the one thing missing from his great career. It had long been in my mind that I wanted to win the US Open to complete my career grand slam, but Americans simply dominated their national Open.
Until that point, the US Open was the elusive major in my career because of the gruelling test that it offers year after year.
How did the galleries respond to you that week?
They were very kind and became more and more supportive as the tournament progressed. I think the golf world was ready to see another grand slam champion.
When it came down to the final day, the crowd knew that they could see history and the support grew with every shot.
Interestingly, you used fibreglass shafted clubs to win the championship and, at the time, you said you thought they'd replace steel-shafts. Are you surprised that never ended up happening?
Technology in golf is ever evolving. At the time, it was my expectation that the fibreglass shafted clubs would replace steel-shafted clubs, but obviously that didn’t happen. Players will always have to adapt to new technology in this great game. But the main piece of equipment is the ball.
A golf ball today can travel so much farther than ever before, probably 100 yards longer than when I won the US Open in 1965. New equipment will continue to shape golf, its strategy and the physical course, for as long as we allow.