Do not make the mistake of thinking that Gary Player has retired. He is the least retired person I have ever met. He is 81 years old but he is the least octogenarian octogenarian I have ever met, too. And if you thought he had stopped competing, well, wrong again.
The man is a more ferocious competitor now than he ever was when he was becoming one of only five golfers in the history of the sport to have won each of the four Major tournaments. His foe is age and he is winning the battle against it hands down.
As he sits in the lounge of the palatial house he is renting for the week in the hills above Augusta, the South African talks of Arnold Palmer, his great friend and rival, who died last year and whose memory has been honoured with much fondness and emotion at this year’s US Masters.
It is one of only two moments during the evening when the concept of mortality sneaks across the threshold. He and Jack Nicklaus are what remain of the Big Three but Player has no time for morbidity.
He is possessed by the fight against the body’s decay. We are deep into Peter Pan territory here and he talks about it with an evangelistic zeal. When his guests arrive for dinner and sit down at the long, rectangular table, they joke about his secrets of eternal youth.
They mention a recent cartoon in a magazine that depicts Player, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson as the honorary starters at the US Masters in 2037. Player sits at the head of the table, dressed, of course, from head to toe in black, and roars with laughter.
‘Before you got here tonight,’ he says, ‘I was on the floor there, push-ups, jump-ups, all my exercises, planks, because I didn’t go to the gym today. Man, I’m 81 and I mean I can beat most 30-year-olds in the gym.’
The aphorism “the harder I practise, the luckier I get” has long been attributed to Player and his dedication to the task — any task — is still exhausting. He is not a modest man but that does not stop him being fine company. He has that gift, bestowed upon a few, of making self-aggrandisement entertaining.
Player says he has hit more golf balls than any other human being. He says he has flown more miles than any man on earth. ‘Unquestionably,’ he says, when his claim is queried. He has been travelling by air for 64 years, he says.
He says he’s earning more money now than he did when he was in his playing prime. He also “raises fortunes” for under-privileged children.
In Masters week, he entertains at his rented home. Relentlessly. Friends, family, clients and journalists come to his table. Tonight, his guests include prominent South African judge Dikgang Moseneke, entrepreneur Jabulane Mabuza and his old friend, former IMG boss Alastair Johnston. Player still networks like he’s a kid on the rise.
Earlier in the evening, before his guests arrive, Player sits in an office at the house and talks about a trip to India many years ago and a meeting with a man famous for his study of ageing. ‘He was in his 90s and he was like a piece of steel,’ Player says. He thumps himself hard on his chest with his fist to emphasise the point. He says it again with fierce reverence. ‘Like a piece of steel.
‘He was a gerontologist and I’ve always been very interested in that. He said to me: “The most important thing: the less you eat, the longer you live. You do not put petrol in your car when you park it in the garage at night.” Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper. At least two nights a week, I have no dinner.
‘On my farm in the Cape in South Africa, I eat all my own vegetables, all my own meat, all my own chickens. Two nights a week, I might have nothing and the rest, it fits in the palm of my hand. I don’t believe in all these fancy diets. They are all trying to make money.
‘My green juice is imperative. You’ve got to get one of these Bullets. If I don’t have my green juice, my tummy works at 60 per cent. When I am on my farm my tummy works at 110 per cent because I am having my green juice every day. Green juice is one of the great secrets.’
Player carries you along like a raging river. He still likes talking about golf and his great battles with Nicklaus and Palmer when they formed the golden triumvirate, which took golf to new heights of popularity in the 1960s and 1970s.
But it is fitness and the quest for health that obsess him now.
‘At 81, when people see me,’ he says, ‘I hope they are going to say: “Here is a man that works out and is trying to set an example to the youth of the world about the importance of looking after your body and being fit and being able to contribute to your country” because without health, you are doomed.
‘You have got to exercise. You have to keep moving. Your body and your mind. I keep my mind exercised. I read.
‘I strive for a good command of the English language because athletes are renowned as poor speakers. It makes me money because I am asked to speak about various subjects. Not that I am great but I am better than 99.9 per cent of athletes.’
Player makes few concessions to age. In fact, he does not make any. Perhaps some of his love for life comes from the fact that his mother died when he was eight. Perhaps some of it comes from the fact that his father worked down a gold mine for 40 years. ‘That damn dungeon,’ Player calls it. He has always walked in the light.
‘You tell me how many people, at 81, work like I do,’ he says. ‘Almost every day of the year at 81, applying myself in the gym, farming. Look at my hands here, man. Look at this scar. I just got rid of the scab. I have been working on the farm, shovelling manure, carrying stuff, driving tractors.
‘My black staff can’t believe me that I am 81 and I am still doing this with them. They call me Baba, which is a respectful word in Zulu. I am designing golf courses. I am representing Berenberg Bank, SAP, Rolex, doing outings, raising fortunes of money for under-privileged children, still playing some tournaments and doing very well.
‘I mean, I am just on the go. You can’t do that at 81 unless you are extremely healthy and extremely fit. I am hoping the young people can see this and know that I can do this because I am walking the walk as well as talking the talk.’
When he gets up a head of steam, he talks like a preacher infused with the Holy Spirit. ‘I am in airports,’ he says, ‘Chinese come up to me, Japanese, Indians, black South Africans, Americans and the love that I am given…you cannot believe the love that I am given around the world. I never forget to say thank you.’
Now and again, he rattles off his own personal Masters stats, lest one should forget his place in its history. ‘I won it three times,’ he says, ‘second twice, top ten 15 times, most number of cuts in a row, most times playing in the event. If you look at my record here, it is quite remarkable. Thank you for the privilege.’
‘Thank you’ is a big part of his lexicon. ‘Every year, when I get to Augusta,’ he says, ‘I always walk down Magnolia Lane and I always say a prayer of thanks. You better learn to say “thank you” because a damn dog, when you teach it to sit up, you give it a biscuit, not a kick in the arse.’
Sometimes, it feels as if he is not treated with quite the reverence he deserves. Only Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Walter Hagen have won more Majors. And of the five players to have completed the Grand Slam, he is the only non-American.
Player is a living legend. He is a precious link to the game’s early days. A defender of apartheid in his youth, he changed his mind when travel opened his eyes to its terrible injustice and he did much to try to break it down.
When he first turned professional, it took 40 hours to fly from Johannesburg to the east coast of the USA. ‘We stopped in Zimbabwe, Congo, Accra and Dhaka before we got to Boston,’ he says.
It is the rivalry with Nicklaus and Palmer that evokes his favourite memories. ‘We were like brothers,’ he says. ‘We basically lived together. I was in Jack’s home and Arnold’s homes in Orlando and in Pittsburgh. And Arnold was in my home in the game reserve in South Africa. And he came down the gold mines with me.
‘His death made me very sad. The last time I saw him, he said “adios, compadre”. We travelled to places like Zambia and Japan together, all corners of the globe and we had great respect for each other. It was unique. There will never be a Big Three like that again.
‘Sure, there were often partisan crowds for Arnold but that never came between us. I was wise enough to realise here was an icon in America against a foreigner they had never really heard of. They always gave me lots of love but when I was with Arnold, obviously, he was their boy.
‘The three of us always had an extremely good relationship. We were always telling each other how much we wanted to beat each other. If one lost, it was always “I’ll get you next week”. We laughed together and cried together.’
The remnants of the rivalry are still there, even now. Player says at his house he is confident he will outdrive Nicklaus when they perform their duties as ceremonial starters of the 81st Masters on Thursday morning. He gets to the driving range so early it is still dark. ‘We saw you on TV,’ Nicklaus quips later. ‘I was still in bed.’
When the moment comes most adjudge that Nicklaus’s drive goes further. Player says it is a tie. And at the press conference half an hour later, he gets out of his chair on the stage he and Nicklaus are sharing and starts doing squats to illustrate a story he is telling.
Player was always the man in black, the self-styled Black Knight. It became his trademark. It still is. ‘When I first came to America,’ he says, ‘there was western television series called Have Gun — Will Travel, and the hero of it was dressed in black, silver holster.
‘If people were in trouble, he gave them a card and said “call on me if you need help”. I liked that. I’m from Black Africa, I thought “I’m going to start wearing black”.’
Player believes the men’s professional game is in good shape, even taking into account the demise of Woods. ‘If Tiger were around, it would be 20 per cent better,’ he says, ‘but 80 per cent is not bad.’ In time, he thinks Rory McIlroy will establish himself as the greatest player of the new generation.
‘It would be my instinct that Rory will establish himself as No 1,’ he says, ‘but I don’t know what his passion is. I don’t know what his dreams are. If he has the passion, if he has the desire, if he is prepared to make the sacrifice. There are so many ifs.’
There is one moment, towards the end of dinner, when Player suddenly bows his head and everyone pauses. It is clear something has upset him. ‘I was heartbroken today,’ he explains. He says he received an email informing him that his former farm manager, Willie Betha, who he had often described as his best friend, had died at the age of 95. Player begins to weep.
He recovers his composure and by the time his guests have left, he is back in full flow. ‘I’m not slowing down,’ he says. ‘I work as hard today as when I was 25. Some things I will have to change as I get older and I haven’t got the energy but I’m not at that stage yet.’
He stands back a little and slams his fist into his stomach. ‘Keep the body moving,’ he says. ‘You’ve got to keep moving.’
PLAYER’S TOP 5 – ON AND OFF THE COURSE
As a legend who has spanned the eras, Gary Player is well placed to judge the best golfers of all time. When we asked him this week for his top five he went for — in no particular order…
When also asked for five heroes from outside golf, Player said: ‘Our great father, Winston Churchill, would be No 1, and Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and the greatest politician that ever lived in my era, Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Singapore.’
Article courtesy of The Daily Mail.