The 1978 US Masters was the scene of one of the most extraordinary victories in the history of this venerable tournament, which on that occasion was celebrating its 44th anniversary. The star was Gary Player, making one of the most amazing comebacks in a major. The “Black Knight” began the final day seven shots behind the leader, American Hubert Green , with nine players ahead of him on the leaderboard and tied with four others, including Seve Ballesteros.
In that golden age of golf, in addition to the South African and the Spaniard, other legendary figures such as Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer, to name just a few, were playing in the Masters. The latter three had 10 Masters victories between them: five for the “Golden Bear”, four by the “King” and one for Watson, actually the defending champion after winning in 1977.
Player, 42 years old at the time, had won the major twice, in 1961 and 1974, and he came to Augusta National in top form. The first day he carded a par and shared eighth place tied with Nicklaus, four strokes behind the leader, American John Schlee.
On the second day Player repeated the result and lost a few positions, but was still within five strokes of the co-leaders, Lee Trevino and Rod Funseth.
The third round was more fruitful for Player, a 69 getting him to three-under overall, and to 10th place, seven strokes behind Green with Funseth and Watson joint second three adrift of the leader.
Then the decisive day arrived, 18 holes to decide who would take Masters glory and a $45,000 cheque as champion. After a solid but nothing special front nine, with three birdies and a bogey, Player displayed the magic of his A-grade game and carded birdies on the 12th and 13th, before repeating the feat on the 15th and 16th and finishing the job with another on the 18th. A back nine of 30 for an eight-under 64. He had holed seven putts between three and 10 metres, and with an overall total of 11-under he had to wait 40 minutes in the clubhouse until the other matches were over.
After carding five birdies and two bogeys, Funseth had the three final holes to tie Player but was unable to add another birdie.
Green started off on the wrong foot, with a bogey on the first, although he rectified the stumble with a birdie afterwards. Two other bogeys and two birdies left his score at 10-under on the 14th, and on the next hole he secured a birdie that drew him level him with Player, waiting expectantly in the clubhouse. He then slipped back again with a bogey on the 16th and parred the remaining two holes. Player had rid himself of one contender.
Watson had only harvested one birdie in the first 12 holes, but on the 13th he fine-tuned his aim and scored an eagle, placing himself 10-under. He faltered at the next with a bogey, before recovering with birdies on the 15th and 16. He was thus tied with Player at 11-under. He made par on the next hole, but missed a chance to force a play-off with a bogey on the 18th.
The Knight in Black was now ready to be fitted into a third green jacket.