He had left home in 1955 with $250 in his pocket, hoping to make it stretch for six months while he played golf tournaments several thousand miles from home. Nineteen-year-old Gary Player's first stop was the Egyptian Open, where he had to play in Cairo's heat wearing a heavy sweater.

The pullover was to hide his pants, his one pair of golf slacks. They were his father's, and father was several sizes larger than young Gary. Dad's pants had to be hiked up around Player's armpits, and the teen-ager was too embarrassed for the gallery to see the Charlie Chaplin look.Today, 40 years after he turned professional at age 17, Player can certainly afford to buy slacks that fit. He has a mansion in the Longwood suburb of Alaqua on a golf course he designed, as well as a 1,000-acre ranch near his native town of Johannesburg, South Africa. He has won 157 times in his four decades as a professional, earning more than $6 million on the golf course and amassing business income of several times that.

He can laugh now about sweltering in the Egyptian sun, or sleeping fitfully in a sand trap at St. Andrews.

That came during his first trip to Britain. He arrived late in the evening and could not find an empty room.

"So-o-o-o, I walked out onto the course, put on my rain suit, and laid down in a bunker," he said. "It certainly wasn't comfortable, but I didn't have much of a choice."

Oh - and the six-month tour of duty in 1955, his first overseas trip? Player survived nicely after winning a first-place check of $1,200 for winning in his sweater in Cairo.

How different is life as a professional golfer in 1993? "Nowadays, you're playing for a winners' check of well over $100,000 a week. You walk to your locker and find it stocked with balls and gloves, and there is free food in the locker room. A chauffeur meets you at the airport and then someone else gives you the key to your Cadillac."

Harry Audley Player, were he alive, would be astounded. Harry was Gary's father, a Johannesburg gold-miner who never made more than $200 a month. There were few frills around the Player household. Mother died when Gary was 8. His brother left for World War II at age 16, and his sister went to boarding school.

"It was a pretty lonely childhood," Player concedes. "But I must say it made me hungry and determined to do well. We were so poor that I was motivated to be a success in something, whatever my occupation might be."

Dad Player was an outstanding golfer with a 2 handicap, but as a youngster Gary never was interested. Golf was a sissy game, wasn't it? Finally, at age 14, Dad persuaded Gary to tag along for a round.

"I parred the first three holes I played," Player said. "The rest of them were 8s and 9s, but I was absolutely, completely hooked."

It only took him 16 months of fanatical practice to get his handicap down to scratch 0. At age 17, in 1953, he turned pro, working at Johannesburg's Virginia Park golf course. He had moved away from home and into the residence of Virginia Park's head pro, Jock Verwey. Verwey's daughter, Vivienne, an outstanding golfer herself, would eventually become Player's wife.

It did not take long for the teen-ager to join Harold Henning and Bobby Locke as South Africa's best players. By the time he first came to America as a 21-year-old, he had already won 10 tournaments.

One of those victories prompted poppa Harry to make a brash gamble. After Gary won the 1956 South African Open, Harry wrote a letter to the Masters founding fathers, Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts. Harry praised the talents of his son but explained that he was a man of modest income, not financially able to send Gary to the United States.

"But if you would extend him an invitation to the Masters, I will pass the hat here in Johannesburg and obtain the necessary funds for him to come to America," wrote the elder Player.

A reply came almost immediately, penned by Jones in terse, to-the-point style. "Pass the hat," was all Jones said.

One year later, Player won for the first time in the U.S., the 1958 Kentucky Derby Open, and later that year would play for the first time in the U.S. Open. By age 23, he won his first major, the British Open, and by 30, he had won golf's Grand Slam, completing it with a U.S. Open victory at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis.

He donated his entire winner's check to the U.S. Golf Association, partly to be used to promote the game of golf in the U.S. and partly for the USGA's Cancer Fund.

"I am doing this because I made a promise to Joe Dey (then the executive director of the USGA) five years ago," Player said. "I am doing this to repay America for its many kindnesses to me over the past few years."

Player's father, despite his great love for the game, didn't encourage Player to choose golf as a career.

"He wanted me to complete my eduation, which we simply didn't have the money for," Player said. "I told him that, but he resisted to an extent.

"He said, `Gee, what are the chances of you actually making a decent living at golf? What are your chances of becoming a champion?' ...

"Really, I can never argue with that. But whatever the odds were, I'm happy to say that I've beaten them."

He does not know how much longer he will continue this nomadic life, but when he finally retires to his Alaqua home, the game will lose one of its most unique personalities.

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"He probably has been, and continues to be, one of the greatest competitors that I have ever known," said Arnold Palmer, who has battled Player for most of those 40 years.

That, says Player, is the ultimate compliment.

"I have always tried my hardest," he said. "I have never given up. The game has been my life."

"Forgan's Creed calls it the greatest game man has ever invented. Without question, it most certainly is."

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