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Player: Changes are "unbelievable'

Gary Player never said if he had to walk 20 miles to school when he was a boy, but he knows kids these days have it easier.

And since the Senior PGA Tour allows the 50-something set to keep playing like kids, Player knows both sides of the golf tour.

Player, 56, a South African who now lives near Orlando, is in contention again, two shots off the GTE Suncoast Classic lead entering today's final round.

He won his first PGA tournament in 1958 (the Kentucky Derby Open) and since has won 20 other tour tournaments, 16 senior events and countless competitions overseas. And Player could recount them all. He knows how far professional golf has come.

"This is so unbelievable when you've played the tour as long as I have and you see the changes that have taken place," said Player, his voice rising. "It's quite unbelievable. Courtesy cars, three dozen Titleists in your locker, three gloves, new shoes, guys with drivers (to give away), health trailers Man, we used to pick up our own balls, hitchhike and get a ride back.

"The whole game has changed. You're playing for more money. You're winning more money now, at 56, in one week than you won the whole year as the leading money winner (on the PGA Tour). I once won $64,000. Arnold Palmer and I battled it out the whole year, and I beat him in the last tournament. And now, I win more money in one week than I won in the whole damn year."

Today's winner will take home $67,500. A victory for Player, who last won at Key Biscayne in February 1991, would be extra satisfying on the tough TPC of Tampa Bay at Cheval course. Player doesn't care much for courses made easier for the PGA Senior Tour.

"I must say it's a pleasure to play a golf course that is demanding. We do play a lot of golf courses that are very short, no rough and not much trouble," Player said. "I wish we could play a course like this every week."

Don't ask Player for a complaint about the speed of the greens.

"The greens, if they're slow, you have to play them. If they're fast, you have to play them. That's the examination paper put in front of you," he said.

Player shot the day's best round, 66, with five back-nine birdies. From near the water on the seventh hole, Player salvaged par but thought nothing of mounting a charge at the leaders.

"I've played too long to ever think that. That little white ball does strange things to you," he said. "You can never say it might be my day. I just play. I just get in there and grind. Very difficult game, golf. I've played it 42 years now. Very difficult game."

Difficult sport. Easier era.