The 81-year-old still plays golf and still speaks his mind. Though a believer in the ability of sports to effect social change, he’s not a fan of the anthem protests.

“The rest of the world is laughing at you,” Gary Player said, and he was only getting started.

The nine-time major champion was sitting on a bench at the driving range at Chelsea Piers, where Manhattan meets the Hudson River, late Thursday afternoon. A few hours earlier, he had sat alongside former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama to watch the opening tee shots of the Presidents Cup.

17_PRE_0928_26431_SBpNow, still playing at 81 years old, he was taking a break from hitting balls. But golf was not foremost on his mind. More than anything, he wanted to talk about America, the closest thing to home for him outside his native South Africa.

“I pass by the great Statue of Liberty in a ferry today, and I say, ‘The French gave it to you for a reason: freedom of speech and respect,’” he said. “And I see that dying. I see it dying.”

This was not the kind of conversation people in the golf world like to have, at least in public. In the wake of President Donald Trump’s spat with the NFL over demonstrations during the national anthem, coupled with his spat with the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, most notable golfers avoided saying anything that could offend anyone.

Tiger Woods said he hoped that “things can be healed.” When the national anthem was played Thursday before the start of competition, the players stood at attention—to absolutely no one’s surprise.

Their collective decision was so widely expected not because golf is a conservative sport, which it is by and large, but because its leading figures for so long have shied away from making statements of any sort that make its fans uncomfortable.

In this regard, the perpetually-outspoken Player has always been an outlier. And lately, he said, he fears there is even less room for individual expression in sports.

“There’s only freedom of speech if it’s politically correct,” he said. “If you say the wrong thing today, your career is ruined. The things America stood for when I first came here are gradually vanishing.”
Player joined the PGA Tour in 1957. He went on to become an all-time great golfer, a fitness evangelist and the first truly international golfer. From his earliest days as a professional, he traveled the world to play in tournaments. Now, still constantly on the move for various business and charitable ventures, he says he has traveled more miles than any human in history.
But his life has also been shaped by racial strife and how he responded to it. When he was younger, he made statements in support of the apartheid government in South Africa, which he said were the result of him being “brainwashed” growing up. He became a target of anti-apartheid demonstrators in the U.S., who frequently heckled him at tournaments.

At the 1969 PGA Championship, which he lost by one stroke, he said demonstrators threw ice in his face and threw a phone book at him during his backswing.

“These guys haven’t got to deal with a quarter of what I dealt with,” he said, referring to today’s athletes.

Player later lobbied the South African government to allow Lee Elder, a black American golfer, to play in the 1971 South African PGA Championship, making it the first racially integrated event in the country’s history. He visited Nelson Mandela in prison, kissing his feet upon meeting him, and went on to become a favorite of the iconic leader.

Writing about Player in an essay for Golf Digest in 2000, Mandela wrote, “Few men in our country’s history did as much to enact political changes for the better.”

Player has seen the power of sports to effect social change, but said protesting during any country’s national anthem is misguided at best.

“I am a big believer that you should demonstrate for your causes, but the flag and the anthem are ours—everybody’s,” Player said. “Demonstrate against your cause, against that particular cause. People get confused—why are they demonstrating?”

That stance was echoed earlier in the week by Davis Love III, an assistant U.S. captain at the Presidents Cup, where the Americans built an early lead Friday as they sought to win for the seventh time in a row. Love said NFL players chose the wrong time to protest. “I think President Trump is right,” Love said on Golf Channel, adding that anyone who wants to protest can send a letter to his or her member of Congress.

Player said he is most baffled by public antipathy toward Trump in general.

“You have a man who is a duly elected president of America and I hear a man on television saying we will never recognize him as president. I can’t comprehend it,” Player said. “The lack of respect.”

Trump enjoys a closer relationship with golf than with any other sport. In addition to owning a portfolio of 18 golf clubs, the president has played casual rounds with prominent golfers including Woods, Rory McIlroy, Ernie Els and Lexi Thompson since the election. But Player said his message was less about politics than about unity.

“I hear from people all the time who can’t believe what they see on television,” he said. “They can’t believe that Americans are condemning their own country.” He added, “Anybody who lives in this country should kiss the ground every day.”

Article courtesy of The Wall Street Journal. 


  1. Don Heller
    Posted on October 4, 2017 at 3:45 pm

    Dear Mr Player,
    For a number of years there were digital editions of publications online of things you were involved in. I work a course that you designed, Steele Canyon in Jamul, California and we had been linking to an article where you mentioned some really nice things about our course. Anyway we noticed the other day that the link was no longer supported and as the web administrator for Steele Canyon I am wondering if there is another way available to get to the article that was originally at this link editiondigital.net/publication/?i=192735&p=22 If there is pleas let me know.

    Great speech you had at the Payne Stewart Awards yet year!
    Thank you,
    Don Heller

    • Beth Bullock Says :
      Posted on October 23, 2017 at 10:25 pm

      Hi Don, thanks for reaching out. I’m afraid that is not a link that we did or do maintain and was likely provided by the original publisher. If you know the name of the publication and approximate date though, we can check our archives and see if we have the publication to provide to you. Please just let us know. Thanks! — the Black Knight International team.

  2. Dave Sansom
    Posted on October 4, 2017 at 6:32 pm

    Your straightforward, straight-talking way of dealing with the world is so important, Gary. I enjoyed that in you during the day at Hong Kong Golf club, as we had dinner at Arnold’s restaurant in Hong Kong that evening, and I enjoy and appreciate that about you now. The world could use a few more Gary Players!

    • Beth Bullock Says :
      Posted on October 4, 2017 at 7:37 pm


      On behalf of Gary Player, thank you for your kind words and for taking the time to read and comment. We wish you the best.

      -Black Knight International Team

  3. Dale Tate
    Posted on October 4, 2017 at 6:44 pm

    Free speech is great, but when you openly defy the rules set forth by the very organization you work for is something different. I fought for our country and carry two chunks of lead in my body to remind me that I did. Disrespect is what I feel when the flag is desecrated. I am offended which I guess is not allowed and appalled at some people. I love my country. Long live the III%.

  4. Cato Younger
    Posted on October 4, 2017 at 8:52 pm

    Why do all those who think America is so oppressive still stay here? Why do immigrants come here and then complain? Its crazy.

  5. Roger Brown
    Posted on October 5, 2017 at 1:40 am

    Mr. Player, I’m always moved by your faith in God and your obedience to Jesus Christ. I see this is your actions and speech. I feel the good Lord is especially proud of your game from hundred yards to the flag. Thanks for your leadership. Roger Brown

  6. James Sides
    Posted on October 7, 2017 at 9:40 pm

    I have never played a game of golf in my life. I have never watched more than a few minutes of a game on tv or anywhere else. Based on what Mr. Player has said about the disrespect shown to our flag and the servicemen who gave their lives to protect it, Mr. Player is my friend for life. God Bless a man who evidently was taught morals, ethics, respect and responsibility while growing up. And, he has not forgotten what he learned. May God continue to bless you richly, Mr. Player.

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