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Player’s visit stands test of time

Fifty years ago, set Scotch Valley course record of 62

By Ken Love

For the Mirror

Fifty years ago this week, one of golf’s legendary figures made a big impression on the residents of central Pennsylvania.

In late May of 1971, South Africa’s Gary Player visited the Altoona area and capped off his time here with a record-setting performance at the newly-opened Scotch Valley golf course near Hollidaysburg.

In 1971, Player was just 35 years old but had already made a name for himself as one of the greatest golfers of all time.

His resume then included five major championships and more than 80 professional victories worldwide.

Not only a talented golfer, Player was also a shrewd businessman who forged numerous endorsement deals early in his career.

One such agreement was struck in 1965 with a successful apparel company, Puritan Sportswear of Altoona.

Player would wear the company’s golf clothing and also appear in advertising for a variety of Puritan products. In early 1971, Player agreed to carve time out of his busy schedule to visit Puritan’s Altoona facilities as the guest of company president Richard Titelman.

Player had already won twice on the PGA tour earlier in the year but was at home in South Africa before making the 8,000-mile trip to Altoona.

After arriving on Friday, May 28, Player began his visit by touring Puritan’s manufacturing facility before heading to the company’s distribution center in Duncansville later that same day.

It was there that Roaring Spring’s Dave Lehman, a young cost accountant at Puritan, first met the 5-foot-6 golfing phenom.

“Player was a real charmer,” Lehman said. “He was extremely outgoing and would talk to everyone he met. I just remember being really impressed by him.”

Lehman also recalled how Player, known for his physical fitness, would stop occasionally during his plant tour to perform push-ups and other physical acrobats.

Later that day, Player spent time with Puritan officials and photographers working on the company’s upcoming advertising campaign.

Friday evening was spent at a cocktail party with customers and executives before an early wakeup call that allowed for Player’s daily two-mile run.

By late morning, everything was set for a trip to Scotch Valley and Player’s greatly anticipated exhibition match.

A crowd of several hundred spectators showed up to watch.. An assortment of Puritan employees and Scotch Valley members were chosen to join Player during his round, and they rotated in and out every six holes.

Some of Players’ golfing companions that day included club champion Babe Matlack, head pro Frank Kiraly and Puritan executive Larry Bloom.

Hollidaysburg native Jamie Powers was fresh-faced, 20- year-old at the time who remembers parlaying his close relationship with Kiraly to gain close access to the action.

“I was able to walk right along with the golfers and could hear all of the conversations that went on,” Powers said.

“When Frank Kiraly hit a sand-wedge three-feet right of the pin on No. 6, Player was quick to tell him, ‘If you’d have kept your head down one second longer Frank, you’d have made that one.”’

Through the early part of the round, Player was playing particularly well and was racking up plenty of birdies.

On the seventh hole, he went for broke and actually drove the green by hitting his drive over the dogleg and onto the green.

It was soon obvious that Player might have a chance to break 60 for the round.

“I remember him hitting his tee shot to about 15 feet on the par-3, 12th hole,” Powers said. “He was only looking to make birdies at that time and got aggressive, running his first putt five-feet past the hole. Unfortunately, he missed it coming back and made his only bogey of the day.”

Despite that setback, Player continued to play well before finishing the day with a course record 62 that included one eagle, nine birdies and one bogey.

(Player’s course record 62 was later tied by Hollidaysburg native Bill Anderson in 1993.)

Graciously, Player ended the day with a clinic at the club’s driving range where he thanked the crowd for the hospitality he was shown during his visit.

In just a brief visit to the area, Player made quite an impression on all who met him. He went on to win four more majors during his PGA Tour career and is one of only five men to have won the career grand slam.

At 85 years old today, Player still plays occasionally on the PGA Champions Tour and is an honorary starter each year at the prestigious Masters.

Ken Love covers local golf for the Mirror. He can be reached at gltr777@atlanticbb.net.

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