Even at the grand old age of 83, Gary Player cuts quite a dash in his signature all-black ensemble and monochrome spectator shoes. One writer recently described the South African golfing legend as “a ball of kinetic positivity,” and it’s easy to see why. Player’s passion for fitness is well-known – he still works out five day a week – and a liveliness and eagerness to regale others with anecdotes underlines his irrepressible energy and enthusiasm.
Player is always on, always the showman: this much is clear as he lies on the ground next to the first hole of Carnoustie Golf Links, with a tee in his mouth. The British Open is three weeks away, and Player is in his element hosting the R&A Patrons Day. A Rolex ambassador for more than 50 years, he arrived early to welcome friends of the brand to the course and share tips with amateur golfers. Now, a nervous-looking guest stands over him, angling his club dangerously close – at Player’s request – to the veteran golfer’s head. Silence falls as onlookers wonder if this ceremonial opening tee shot will end in catastrophe. Suddenly, there’s a collective burst of laughter as Player jumps to his feet – he was only joking after all.
Those who have followed the career of the Black Knight will know he has always dared to be different, and his relentless work ethic comes with an unbreakable sense of self-belief. Humble isn’t exactly the best was to describe him, but there’s no grandstanding either. Player is proud of his accomplishments and wants his legacy to be put to good use, inspiring others. His abiding motto is: eat well, exercise and knuckle down. “A lot of young people in the world today have a sense of entitlement,” he says with a steely look in his eye. “But you’re not entitled to a damn thing.”
Player’s humble background – his father was a miner and his mother died when he was just eight – meant he had to grow up fast. “I went to a very British school (in Johannesburg) called King Edward VII,” he says. “You had to take off your hat when the teacher came in; you had to wear a tie, gray socks and a blazer. I travelled an hour-and-a-half to school each way, and I had to cook my own food and iron my own clothes. My father was working 8000 feet underground, my mother was dead, my brother was in the military service, and my sister was at boarding school. I often cried myself to sleep. I think thee adversity I experienced as a child is what made me a champion.”
Player began practicing golf at 14, and by 17 he turned pro. His first taste of the British Open came two years later, in 1955, too poor to afford a week’s stay at a hotel in St. Andrews, he slept in the sand dunes on the beach. Four years on, Player carried away the Claret Jug at The Open in Muirfield. His trajectory from thereon is nothing short of amazing. He remains one of only five golfers – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are the others – to win the career Grand Slam of all four Major Championships. He’s also the only golfer to win the British Open in three different decades of the 20th century (1959, 1968, 1974) and he later added a Senior Grand Slam to his list of achievements.
He is the most travelled human on the planet, and has spent a lot of his life on a plane as a sportsman and business guru. The brand, Black Knight International, a leader in golf course design and real estate, is a multimillion-dollar success story.
The years marks half a century since Player won The Open at Carnoustie, considered to be one of the most challenging courses on the championship calendar. “It’s very, very tough here, particularly if the wind blows,” he says. “I’m hoping the wind does blow a bit (during the competition), because it would teach the young players from around the world what links golf is all about. It’s a different test. That’s why the Open Championship is the greatest in the world.”
So, is Player’s success all the result of hard work, or did luck play a hand? “Luck is the residue of design,” he says, smiling. ”I love that saying. The harder you practice, the luckier you get. But one thing I don’t believe in is superstition.” Suddenly, he’s up off his chair and twitching about, pulling his top from side to side and jumping up and down. “I mean, I watch Nadal play tennis and don’t get me wrong, I greatly admire Nadal, but he drives you nuts with all those rituals of his!”
You can see why Player makes such an endearing brand ambassador – there’s never a dull moment in his company. ‘I’ve always liked to be calm in competition,” he says, as he retakes his seat.
Are there any new courses he wishes he could have competed on in his youth? “No, I’ve had a feast,” Player says. “I’ve played with a great variety of people, from movie stars to people like Sir Douglas Bader, who was one hell of a golfer. It’s taken me to the Oval Office; I’ve met presidents, emirs, royals and prime ministers; I’ve gone from the highest echelons of society to the villages of India and Africa, where I’ve learned just as much from people. I have been blessed to play golf.”
It’s a heartfelt answers, but in true Gary Player style he lightens the mood with a cheeky dash of self-promotion, “I can still play very well. I can play better than anyone else in the world my age or even close to my age!”
Challenge him at your peril. He’s not one to take things lying down.
Article courtesy of The Week