Hello, Mr Player! Let’s get right down to brass tacks: the Open or the Masters?
Without a doubt, I choose the Open. No disrespect to the Masters, which I love, but the Open Championship is the oldest and most historic professional golf tournament in the world. I love links golf courses. You can run the ball up, you can hit it high, you can draw or fade it. That’s why the Open is the most important tournament. By far. It tests your balls!
You won nine majors in all, completing your career grand slam at just 29 in 1965. How did it feel to reach the very top of your sport and become a legend?
It was very satisfying because becoming the best golfer in the world was a goal I set as a young boy. Getting to where I am today was extremely difficult and took unbelievable sacrifice and hard work.
A few shots on the range and a quick jog round the block?
No, no, no, no! I did something that no athlete had ever done. I went through the torture cell. My mother died when I was eight, and my father worked 8,000 feet down the mine. My brother went to war at 17 to fight with the British, while my sister went to boarding school. I’d come all the way home from school each night, by bus and tram, to a dark house, nobody there. I was eight. I’ve got to cook my food, iron my clothes, get up in the morning at five. I lay in bed every night wishing I was dead, crying. It’s the reason I became a champion: because I knew what it was to suffer. To struggle. And to never give up. I used to sit in the tai chi position – I’ve never told many people this – and this guy would whack me in the face: K’WHACK! Patience! K’WHACK! Never give up! K’WHACK! Have love in your heart! K’WHACK! Learn to read! K’WHACK! Learn to speak properly! K’WHACK! Have good manners! I’d say: hold on a minute! My face was burning. And we’d do this programme, and enlarge on it.
The dictionary definition of dedication, right there. And your subsequent success suggests it was worth every K’WHACK.
When I went to America, and this foreigner was playing against Arnold Palmer, 20,000 people would shout: ‘Tear him up, the little bastard! Go get him, Arnie!’ I loved it! All the other players would say [affects sobbing whine] ‘I can’t play with Arnold Palmer! People shout at me and they scream at me!’ But I loved it! I said [booming now] ‘Boy, you Americans, I’m gonna whack him right in front of your eyes, man!’ Because I was prepared mentally. I taught myself as a young man. It was a divine intervention: I realised this was what it took to win tournaments.
You, Arnie and Jack Nicklaus became golf’s Big Three …
Becoming a world champion was my focus. I didn’t move to the USA and only play on the American PGA Tour. Spreading golf to people around the world was especially important to myself, Jack and Arnie. Jack is the greatest champion of all time, according to the majors. But he didn’t play and win around the world as much as I did!
You won your first major in the Open at Muirfield as a 23-year-old in 1959 …
The Open was stale in the 1950s. Don’t get me wrong: when I won in ’59 it was as much of a thrill as when I won in 1974. And Ben Hogan, the best player I ever saw, came over in 1953. But there was a feeling that it was stationary. Then Palmer came over, with his charismatic way of playing. He fell out of bed with charisma, he had a rugged face, the most unusual swing, really not a very good swing, he stopped on the ball. When he’d hit the ball in the trees, he’d try to shoot through gaps. It was bloody impossible! But he’d try, and people loved that. He came from the steel mills, with big strong hands, and it was invigorating. He was a marvellous driver of a ball. He hit the ball like SHOOOOOOM! [Mimes firing imaginary arrow.] And he’d hit a one-iron: SSSHHHHHOOOOOOOOOOOOOM! [Mimes firing heat-seeking precision missile.] But he was a useless bunker player and a useless wedge player. Useless! For a superstar – you’ve got to win six majors to be a superstar, and Arnie won seven – it was sad to see him play a wedge shot. He’d hit a wedge shot on average 25 feet from the hole! A wonderful putter, though, and he’d hit his one-iron way better than his wedge. It was astonishing! I’ll give him all the credit in the world, I loved the man. Winston Churchill, one of my all-time heroes, said manners maketh the man. And Arnold was very well mannered. He had more patience with people than any golfer I ever saw. He was the Muhammad Ali of golf.
As for Jack?
Jack Nicklaus was the greatest gentleman I ever played with. If you hit a great shot, he was complimentary. If you shot a good round, he’d put his arm around you and say: ‘Gee, you did well today, it really was a pleasure to see you play.’ When I played him in the 1966 final of the World Matchplay, I beat him 6&4. That’s a drubbing, man! But before I was on the practice ground, hitting a few bad shots, and he said: ‘Why don’t you try this?’ I’m about to play against him! This guy was remarkable! He won majors for 25 years. I won for 20. Palmer only won for six, a very short career but the average American thinks Palmer won more than Nicklaus, because he was an icon. And good for him!
Small Talk considers your last major, your win at the 1978 Masters, as the greatest comeback of all time.
I was seven shots behind Tom Watson, and shot 64 with a bogey. I came back in 30 and lipped out three times, so I almost came back with 27. If I’d come back in 27 I’d have been barred for life! You don’t do that at Augusta!
What’s your take on today’s stars?
Rory McIlroy has unbelievable potential, if he can get his putting to be more consistent. He’s streaky. Jordan Spieth has a big problem with his swing: he comes off every round saying ‘I had my C game’. I’ve never heard him saying: ‘Man, I played well, I played phenomenal!’ But by crikey, he’s the best putter! He is phenomenal. So he can play bad, and still be in the top five! He doesn’t hit the ball anywhere near as well as Jason Day, Adam Scott, Justin Rose or Rory McIlroy, doesn’t hit anything like it. Yet he has the game to win the Open. He is such a hell of a putter!
Drives for show …
If you took the 30 best players who ever lived, who were the three worst drivers of the ball? Seve Ballesteros, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. And they were all No1 at some time! There’s a message in that: you can drive the ball badly and be No1. I don’t think you should be able to do that. If you had golf courses where you had to drive it straight, Lee Trevino and Ben Hogan would have run away with it. There was more rough in our time. Then they started cutting it back because players started complaining, and now they bomb it 50 yards further and it’s to the detriment of the game. It’s hurt it so much. Now all these golf courses from Timbuktu to here spend hundreds of millions, making courses longer and longer and longer. And the world is running out of water big time!
Speaking of Tiger, do you think he will ever land a 15th major?
The way people have jumped on Tiger is cruel. People should remember his brilliance. I said to him recently: do me a favour, don’t ever come back unless you can really play. He was on his way to becoming the greatest athlete ever! Never mind Ronaldo and Messi and all these guys. The way he was going, it was just not on! He was very receptive, and said he won’t unless he can play well.
What music do you enjoy?
Some of my favourites are Bob Marley, Gipsy Kings, Pavarotti, Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, John Legend and Nina Simone. But what so amazes me, I was playing in a pro-am recently and one of my partners asked what I wanted to listen to, and I said: ‘Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine by Tom T Hall.’ Can you believe it? He had the song playing in a matter of seconds using his phone! New technology is so easy and fantastic.
What is your favourite TV programme?
I feel it’s my duty to stay up on current events. Watching different news channels or documentaries around the world when I travel helps keep me up to date with what is happening. House of Cards is like a reality show. Golf on the Golf Channel.
Your favourite film?
I love the old classics like Dr Zhivago and Gone With The Wind. Any movie with Daniel Day Lewis.
What was the last book you read?
I’m currently reading The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker.
You famously spend a lot of time working out. Treadmill, weights or swim?
All three! It is important you cross-train your body in different avenues. There are different variations of each so you can work many muscle groups in your body.
Air travel or boat?
I have travelled more than 26 million air kilometres during my 64-year career as a professional golfer. Near constant travel for seven decades! A few years of my life have been spent sitting on an airplane. Hard to believe. But I do not plan to stop travelling any time soon. Rest is rust! And I get sick in my bath, so no boats please.
Cheese or chocolate?
Enjoying a nice piece of dark chocolate every now and then is good for the soul.
Water or wine?
No doubt it’s water, the most precious resource on the earth.
Who would win a fight between a lion and a tiger?
I come from Africa where the lion is king of the jungle.
You are hosting a dinner party. Four invites. No golfers. Who do you invite?
Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Lee Kuan Yew [prime minister of Singapore from 1959 until 1990].
And what would you cook?
A variety of fresh vegetables, organic and healthy foods. A bowl full of mixed berries is my absolute favourite. Guacamole too.
Soccer or rugby?
Rugby. I was a first-team player at King Edwards school in South Africa and love our Springboks.
Ben Hogan. He was my golfing hero. He taught me the value of practice and hard work.
Is there one golfer who is perhaps forgotten about today, but really shouldn’t be?
Another South African, Bobby Locke. I consider him the greatest putter who ever lived. He would have licked his chops at the greens pros play on today.
Your all-black outfit is the most famous golfing look of all time. Which other player’s dress sense did you admire?
Bobby Jones was such a dapper man. I remember seeing him at the Masters during my first appearance there in 1957. It should have been expected as he was a highly educated man and had a brilliant command of the English language.
And who was the worst dressed on tour?
Simon Hobday was once paid by an apparel company not to wear their clothes! There are many players whose outfits are, well, interesting to say the least!
Can you tell us a joke?
A man walks to a bar… oops, I can’t tell you that one. If I had to choose between my wife of 60 years and my driver, I would miss her … only joking!
Can we have your autograph, please, sir?
[Small Talk’s wish is granted. And we notice the autograph is not your run-of-the-mill lazy squiggle; “Gary Player” has been written out in full script.]
Why do you think it’s important to sign your full name?
Simple. The person asking needs to be able to read the name of my signature. Cursive is beautiful. It’s an art form that the current generation of stars is losing.
And finally, do you have one piece of advice for Small Talk?
Retirement is a death warrant! I’m 82: look at this! BANG! [Smacks own chest with a force that would reduce Small Talk to a snivelling wreck.] SHOOM! [Another smack; Small Talk would now be spark out on the floor.] I still work as hard as I do at 82 as I did at 25! If you stop working, you’re gonna die!
• Gary Player was speaking at the Mercedes-Benz Patron’s Day at Royal Birkdale. Mercedes-Benz is an Official Patron and the Official Car of The Open.
Article courtesy of The Guardian.