AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) – A smile and tip of his baseball cap wasn’t enough to show Gary Player’s gratitude.

So with fans around the 18th hole standing and applauding, just as they’d done on all the other holes during his last stroll around Augusta National, Player knelt at the edge of the green and pressed his hands together.

After 52 years, he was done.

“I’m not sad,” the three-time Masters champion said Friday. “You cannot be greedy in life, I’ve had more than my share. And I’m not leaving, I’m still coming back here.”

Player took a few extra seconds to fish the ball out of the cup after his final putt, then walked off to one more round of applause. Augusta National chairman Billy Payne shook Player’s hand and patted him on the back and Trevor Immelman, who last year joined Player as the only South Africans to win the green jacket, embraced him. Rory Sabbatini, Louis Oosthuizen and Richard Sterne, young South Africans whose careers Player has watched with pride, were also there to see Player bid farewell.

“For anybody in the golfing world, that’s a pretty memorable and special occasion,” Sabbatini said. “That is an accomplishment that is just unbelievable. He deserves a lot of respect and earned a lot of respect, and it was great to see all the South African guys down there just to enjoy the moment and congratulate him.”

Player, now 73, won nine major titles during his illustrious career, and is one of only five golfers to win the career Grand Slam. But it was his duels with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus that set him apart and helped make golf what it is today, and never were the Big Three better than at Augusta National. One of them won the Masters every year from 1960 to ’66, and the other two usually weren’t far behind. When Nicklaus won in 1965, in fact, Palmer and Player tied for second. Their staying power is so strong only Tiger Woods can top the cheers they get during their annual appearance together at the Par-3 Tournament – and many of those applauding never saw them play.

“When I was winning the Masters, we didn’t have (it on) television in South Africa,” Player said. “When I won, I got the film and I hired a man to go around the entire South Africa to show all our people what it was like to win the Masters. And so the Masters has meant an awful lot to me, and I have tried to be an ambassador for this great tournament.”

Palmer and Nicklaus said their goodbyes several years ago, but Player soldiered on. He hasn’t been competitive in years – he hasn’t made the cut since 1998, when, at age 62, he became the oldest player to reach the weekend at Augusta. (That record was eclipsed two years later by 63-year-old Tommy Aaron.) Player long ago admitted that the supersized course had outgrown him.

But the fitness fanatic relished being able to keep up with the youngsters at an age when most folks were slowing down. And competitor to the end, he wanted to beat Palmer’s record of appearances, which he did last year when he played in his 51st Masters.

Player announced earlier this week that this would be his last tournament. His 17-over 161 was the highest of the field, but it hardly mattered. These two days weren’t about keeping score, but saying a heartfelt goodbye to the place he loves and the fans who made it so special.

“I’ll never forget that as long as I live. It just went on and on and on from all sides,” Player said, referring to the standing ovation on 18. “I wish I had the words of Winston Churchill to say the appropriate thing. But it was a feast, something you will never, ever forget. You’ll go to your grave knowing you had tremendous love showered upon yourself.”

AP-ES-04-10-09 2041EDT

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