‘How welcome are we, really?’: Gary Player laments limited club privileges of past Masters champs

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"I can't just bring out guests to play at Augusta National," says Gary Player of his limited club privileges as a past Masters champion.

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Don’t get Gary Player wrong. He loves the Masters, even if he recently ranked it as the fourth-most significant of the four majors.

Between 1957 and 2009, he competed in the tournament 53 times, winning the title on three of those occasions. He adores the Par-3 Contest that precedes the main event. He wouldn’t dream of missing the Champions Dinner.

If you tallied up the days he has spent at the Masters, it would amount to “an entire year of my life,” Player said recently over the phone.

He still serves as an honorary starter at the tournament, a role he assumed in 2012, joining Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in the ceremonial striking of opening shots.

Palmer. Nicklaus. Player. The Big Three, a trio linked in legend, their careers overlapping, with a combined 13 green jackets to their credit — exploits intertwined in Masters lore.

But for all that connects them, one thing sets them apart, which leads to a point that sticks in Player’s craw. 

Palmer was a member of Augusta National, just as Nicklaus is today. Player’s status is different. Like all past champions, he’s an honorary member, and despite what fans might think, that is not the same as belonging to the club.

“A lot of people assume that I have those privileges, but they’re wrong,” Player said. “If I want to play a practice round with friends, I can’t just call the pro shop and make those arrangements.”

He can peg it on his own, but bringing a guest is another story. For that, he needs to be accompanied by a full-fledged Augusta member. There aren’t many of them, and few live locally.

“Trying to find someone who can host is not easy,” Player says.

If this strikes you as the sort of suffering best soothed by the playing of a tiny violin, Player isn’t going to argue. He’s not asking for your pity. Nor does he feel sorry for himself. “Disillusioned” is more like it, he said.

“It makes you wonder, How welcome are we really as past Masters champions?” 

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Aside from clearing up any fan confusion, Player said that what he wants is to put things in perspective. The Masters, he said, “is a magnificent tournament.” But the players, more than anything, are what make it so.

“Without them,” he said. “Augusta would just be another course.”

As Player sees it, every time the iconic likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and, yes, Gary Player, don their green jackets, “it is the greatest PR in the world for the club.”

It helps burnish a mystique that generations of Masters greats have built.

Player has never been shy with his opinions. And at 87, he seems more willing than ever to hold forth. In an interview with the Daily Mail last week, Player called the Open Championship “by far the greatest tournament on the planet,” followed by the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship and the Masters, in that order.

“Four marvelous tournaments,” he said.

Whether his hot take rankled folks at Augusta National is difficult to say. But not much escapes their notice. Wayne Player, Gary’s son, learned that the hard way at the 2021 Masters, when, while serving as a caddie for his father during the opening ceremony, he held up a sleeve of branded golf balls as product placement.

The guerrilla marketing came back to bite him. By his own account, the younger Player was banned from Augusta National (the club has declined to comment on the matter).

Wayne Player won’t be at the tournament this year. But his dad will, sitting at his usual spot at the Champions Dinner, taking his usual place on the first tee for Thursday morning’s opening ceremony. Standing beside him will be his fellow ceremonial starters, Nicklaus and two-time Masters champion (and honorary Augusta member) Tom Watson.

Josh Sens

Golf.com Editor

A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.

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