At what age did you first become interested in golf, and did you always have a desire to become a professional sportsman?
I fell in love with the game of golf in my teens after my father to took me to play at Virginia Park Golf Course just outside of Johannesburg in South Africa. Up until then, I fancied other sports like cricket, track and rugby. But golf came very naturally to me.
I realized early on golf did not subject the body to punishment, other than swinging a club relentlessly for hours on end. The potential for longevity was there. You see, golf is a game one can play for your entire life. People can play with one arm or one leg, in a wheelchair, and it’s a game you can enjoy in almost every country in the world.
It also helped that I met Vivienne my future wife on the golf course. We have been married now for 60 years!
You turned professional in 1953 at the tender age of 17, so what was life like on tour in South Africa during that period?
Very different from today’s game. I worked giving lessons at a local club first starting out earning 20 pounds a month. No private jets or tournament courtesy cars. At that point, there was hardly any money to be earned on the South African Tour and you were forced to go abroad.
But we didn’t play for money. We played to win, for pride, for your country, and to be the best in the world.
Did you ever doubt your decision to pursue a career in golf, and what would you say was the hardest challenge you had to overcome?
It would have been easy to pack by bags and move permanently to America with my wife before we had children. However, I am a proud South African and wanted to travel to compete in tournaments all over the world. My goal was to become a true global champion.
So, the hardest part for me was being away from my family for months at a time. I missed the birth of several of my children. There was a lot of times when I was by myself on the road living in hotel rooms and in airplanes. It was tough, but gave me courage and a purpose.
You’ve won 168 tournaments throughout your career, but if you had to single out just one, what would you say was your career defining moment and why?
Either when I completed the career Grand Slam by winning the 1965 U.S. Open, I still remain the only non-American to do so. Or perhaps when I complete the Senior Grand Slam in 1988 because although I was competing against the same players like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino, I won more than they did because I was so fit. I was probably in just as good of shape when I was 50 as when I was 25.
I highly commend Bernhard Langer for being the second man to accomplish the Senior Slam this year as well as passing my total Senior Major record. It furthers the truth about fitness and diet helping your longevity on the golf course.
What prompted the move into golf course design in the 80s, and to-date, how many courses have you designed?
It was a natural transition as my playing career became less demanding. You see, retirement is a death warrant. So is slowing down. I wanted to keep moving and having a golf course design business certainly keeps me busy. There was absolutely no way I was going to stop competing or stop being active.
Throughout my time as a pro, as early as the 1960s, I consulted on many projects and knew the industry. I blink my eyes and now we have designed more than 400 projects across 38 countries.
What would you say is your design philosophy, and do you have any personal favourites from your portfolio?
Our saying is, “Environmental sensitivity, sustainability and playability.” A golf course should be a gift to the players and to nature.
That’s tough, just like it’s hard to pick a favorite tournament win. In South Africa, the Links at Fancourt where the 2003 Presidents Cup was played is one of my favorites, as well as the Gary Player Country Club where I host a European Tour event. DLF Golf and Country Club in India is hosting a European Tour event after being open only a few years. Saadiyat Beach Golf Club in Abu Dhabi is super. If you ask me next week, I will probably have another different selection.
In 1983, you established The Player Foundation, which has raised more than $63m for children around the world, so what sort of projects does the Foundation support?
Actually, my son Marc started The Player Foundation’s and our first project was the Blair Atholl school in rural South Africa. We turned it into a proper facility that could provide education for hundreds of unprivileged children. They (the children) became our mission. We now support several charitable organizations around the world, and I get personally involved with all of them.
Our Gary Player Invitational series of charitable events are staged around the world, and the money we raise at the event stays in the host country. Just last month in London, we raised money for Depaul, who is an organization that supports homeless youth in the United Kingdom.
Of all the courses that you’ve played around the world, can you pick out just one, as the best course you’ve ever played, and why?
No doubt it is the Old Course at St. Andrews because it’s the home of golf. The history, tradition and the old town are very special indeed.
Do you still find time to play golf, and if so, how often do you get the chance to play and what sort of scores do you shoot?
I do and my game is sharp. I just won a tournament playing with Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Jerry Pate. We shot 18 under par! And can you believe it, our prize money split was more than I received for winning The Masters. Shows you how far we have come in that regard.
My entire family, 44 of us, went to Thailand this summer for my wife’s birthday. Playing with my grandchildren, I shot 65. Of course, a score this low would be difficult for me to shoot at course like Augusta, but I still love the game and enjoy playing.
Is there any reason why you have always worn predominantly black apparel out on the course?
It’s my style, my mantra, my identity. My father encouraged me come up with a brand that would differentiate me from other players and we decided on all black which became the “Black Knight” back when I first became a professional golfer. It’s been important part of separating myself from others and hopefully will continue after my passing.
Throughout your illustrious career in golf, can you highlight one area of the modern game which you feel has benefitted golf, and one aspect which has diminished it?
We have to thank the fans of professional golf and the weekend golfers. There are more of them than there are professionals. The sponsors and the media have helped golf become a global game and spread around the world, so we must appreciate their contribution as well.
In my opinion, nothing has diminished golf, but at the same time everyone – especially golf’s governing bodies – need to be conscious of how the advancement in equipment is negatively effecting golf courses because of how far professionals can hit the ball. Let the amateurs and weekend golfers use the latest and greatest, but put restrictions on equipment used in the professional game. We need to introduce bifurcation.
In your opinion, how do we, as an industry, widen our appeal, especially when it comes to attracting more women and children into the sport?
We need to make golf less expensive, quicker to play, more accessible, more fun. Let the kids play music on the course. And there is no reason to ever exclude women in club membership. We must welcome everyone who wants to play. Change is the price of survival.