In 1965, perhaps the greatest ever match play head to head to took place.
The scene was Wentworth, the familiar home of the World Match Play Championship. It was once one of the European Tour’s feature events, now it jostles around the calendar like an ageing bachelor look for a date and a scene to party.
It was here in the semi final of its second year, where the current US Open champion Gary Player headed off against the previous year’s Open champion Tony Lema. What followed was thirty-six holes of pure match play cut, thrust and counter punch between two major champions.
You may remember it as the Piccadilly, Suntory, Toyota, Cisco or HSBC World Match Play. The current version is the Volvo World Match Play Championship, played at the London Golf Club where a few European Ryder Cuppers, a token American and some other players you know little about battle for points and league placings in an event struggling with its own identity.
Meanwhile, fifty years ago, the action was pure and it all started when Player edged ahead with an eagle at the fourth hole to go 1-Up. The score remained as such until the 11th hole. With Player crooked off the tee Lema won to take the match back to all square.
With just seven holes of the morning eighteen to go, the watching crowds could not have expected the match to take the turn it did. With players firing in two irons, three irons and four woods into par fours and fives, the level of shot making started to look incredible.
Lema won the 12th and then drew a perfect three iron to within eight feet of the pin on the 13th to win that as well. Lema was now 2-Up and starting to play a level of golf even Player could only admit was untouchable.
At the 184 yard par 3 14th Lema played a seven iron to within three feet. 3-Up. On the next his nine iron approach looked long, but he drained the thirty footer to go 4-Up.
After that putt there was no reaction from Player, and there wasn’t on the 17th either as Lema calmly two-putted for a birdie four to go 5-Up. Walking off the green Lema was heard to say, “Never mind, you’re the US Open champion, you’ll be invited back next year.”
And still there was no reaction.
Lema had just won seven straight holes and, after halving the last, had covered the back nine in just 32, which was six-under par in those days! At the halfway mark he was 6-Up.
During lunch the signs were ominous for Player, while Lema fielded questions in the press room he went out to hit more golf balls.
The second eighteen started like the first one finished, another birdie for Lema and he was 7-Up, in cruise control against arguable the best player in the world.
Then Player managed to hole a putt, across a green strewn with drying leaves, his first since the front nine earlier that morning, it reduced the deficit to six holes through twenty holes. After another three iron approach Player holed a fifteen footer. Lema was 5-Up with fifteen holes remaining.
At the short 5th hole, Player confirmed what the watching crowds dared not believe, he had found his touch on the green, another holed putt and now Player was beginning to punch the air. Lema looked uncomfortable with a, still healthy, 4 hole lead.
After some steadying golf Lema kept his four hole lead intact until the 11th, but that would quickly change as Player birdied to reduce Lema’s lead to just three and two holes later it was just two with four to play and looking shaky. After a wayward Lema drive down the 16th, that went out of bounds, there was just one hole in it.
Both holed birdie putts on the 17th and the match went down the 36th hole. An unlikely scenario a few hours previously when Player was 7 holes adrift. Could he sustain his comeback?
“I was there to win. The only time I have doubts is when I shake hands and I have lost.” Gary Player
The crowds that followed the players down the last fairway were reminiscent of those at an Open links, not the leafy parkland of Surrey, and they watched Player calmly win the 18th to take the match into extra holes. Another birdie at the first and Player had won the greatest match play golf had ever watched.
No one remembers the final (Player beat Australian Peter Thomson 3&2), but anyone who was there that crisp Autumn day in 1965, was treated to the very best of match play golf. Almost one year later Lema was killed in a plane crash with his wife and two others, he was aged just 32 and the world lost one of the game’s best. Meanwhile Player never forgot that day, “I was very proud to beat Jack Nicklaus 6&4 and 5&4 in the World Match Play but my most significant match was against Tony Lema, no question.”