Indisputably one of the true greats in the history of the game of golf, 2013 marks 60 years as a professional for legendary South African Gary Player. As the diamond celebrations continue, europeantour.com's Will Pearson spoke to the man known as The Black Knight to reflect on a lifetime in golf…
The year was 1953.
Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to scale Mount Everest’s heady summit, Hugh Hefner published the first edition of Playboy featuring a certain Marilyn Monroe as centrefold, Elvis Presley made his first recordings at Sun Studio in Tennessee and Ian Fleming published his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.
In Johannesburg, South Africa, meanwhile, a 17 year old boy by the name of Gary Player teed it up for the first time as a professional golfer at the Santa Clara Transvaal Open, thus launching a career that would – unbeknownst to him then – make him as famous a public figure as all the luminaries listed above.
Player would eventually finish runner-up to the reigning Open Champion Bobby Locke, a striking start to his opening foray into the professional game just three years after first picking up a golf club.
Now, 60 years on, and aged 77, the 2013 season represents the Diamond Anniversary of ‘The Black Knight’s’ professional turn and, despite having established himself as one of golf’s true greats during a lifetime in the game, Player still remembers those exhilarating first steps as vividly as if they were yesterday.
“At the age of 14, I played cricket and football and rugby and didn’t really want to play golf as I thought it was a sissy’s game,” says Player from the Colesberg ranch he owns in his native South Africa.
“My father asked me to come out and play a game with him, though, and the first three holes were very short. It was a par three with a wedge and then two holes with a drive and a wedge, and I started par-par-par.
“After that I had eights and nines and 12s and all manner of numbers, but I was hooked. Absolutely, irretrievably, 100 per cent hooked.”
That unbridled passion for the game would manifest itself time and again throughout an incredibly successful career, a vocation that would see the Gauteng man claim 165 professional titles worldwide, including nine Major Championships that were later matched by nine Senior Majors after the age of 50.
|Player wins The 1965 US Open and the career Grand Slam|
Just 12 years after exiting the amateur ranks, Player would capture The 1965 US Open Championship aged 29, becoming – at that time – just the third man to complete the career Grand Slam of all four Major Championships after Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.
His profession has seen him journey millions of miles and to every corner of the globe playing the game and building his Gary Player Group dynasty, but despite his myriad of accomplishments in the game, Player remains as humble as anyone in golf.
“To be involved in a sport like golf as a professional for 60 years is just a thrill,” he reflects. “I’ve obviously exercised, watched my diet, been a good sleeper and a hard worker.
“But I’ve been extremely fortunate to have such a wonderful life, meeting so many terrific people and having travelled probably more than any other human being that has ever lived. Sixty years of constant travel and if I stay well I’m going to be doing an awful lot still.”
But what qualities does Player think have set the likes of him, Hogan, Sarazen – and subsequently Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods – apart from the rest and allowed them to achieve such an amazing feat as the career Grand Slam?
Erudite, thoughtful and engaging as always, Player muses his answer for a few moments.
He says: “It’s hard to speak on behalf of others but as far as I’m concerned it’s merely a gift from the man above. To be one of five is unbelievable, but I can’t take the credit for it.
“I don’t know how many superstars have played this game, probably 12. People use the word ‘great’ or ‘superstar’ so loosely these days but I think there have only been around 12 in the long history of golf.
“The common factor is they’ve all got, or had, what they call ‘it’. Nobody can define ‘it’. Nobody can describe ‘it’. But everyone has got an opinion on what ‘it’ is.
“I’ve played with players who were so much better than me in practice rounds but as soon as we get into the tournament environment, I beat them. What is that? I certainly don’t know. It’s an intriguing game and it continues to intrigue me just as much now as it did all those years ago.”
|The three grand old men of golf: (L-R) Arnold Palmer, Gary Player & Jack Nicklaus launch the 2012 Masters Tournament as honorary starters|
Player was awarded Honorary Life Membership of The European Tour in 1995 and his career has encompassed the 41 years of its existence since John Jacobs first established a unified European tournament circuit in 1972.
Since then, under the stewardship of Ken Schofield and now George O’Grady, The European Tour has continued to expand into a truly international Tour, a move Player is a keen advocate of and one he feels is only good for the game as a whole.
“I’m so proud of my European Tour membership,” Player continues. “I’ve always held the Tour in high regard and I basically started my international career in Britain and in Europe, and it was the greatest thing I could have ever done.
“I think that young people who want to do well in their golfing lives should try to start there because they don’t get too spoilt. They play in difficult conditions, which are part of the game and good for the mind and makes you appreciate the good weather.
“The changes that I’ve seen in my 60 years as a pro in The European Tour, though, have actually been remarkable. It has done so well with prize money and we have so many wonderful young players there now. Just look at Luke Donald, to be leading money winner on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and then for Rory McIlroy to do the same was extraordinary!
“If you look at the top 50 players in the world in the last five years, probably 35 have been international players and that’s very good for the game. It makes people work harder and promotes the game all over the world to a greater degree. America used to have this sort of monopoly, but they certainly don’t have it anymore.
“I firmly believe that one of the reasons I was able to win 18 Majors and 160-odd tournaments was because I travelled around the world playing – as The European Tour are doing so aptly now.
“And this is the reason why they are also winning The Ryder Cup so frequently now. In the old days, they were never doing a lot of either travelling or winning. Nowadays they are doing so much of it, learning a variety of shots, under all kinds of different conditions, with different food, different cultures and it’s a great test for the players.
“The international expansion has really improved the European golfers out of all recognition.”
|Player won a total of nine Major Championships|
Numerous other facets of the game have irrevocably developed during Player’s time as professional, not least the equipment, “golf courses like billiard tables” and “million dollar prizes”, and he frequently compares the different world the game inhabited back in the 1950s.
“We used to carry a ring to push a ball through it to see if the ball was round every day and if you had a good ball, please believe me you didn’t change it!” he recollects.
“I think of the first time I went on the tee at St Andrews in 1955. Dunlop came up to me and said ‘Here are a couple of balls for you for the week’! Now you get four-dozen balls, a new driver, new shoes, free phone calls, free lunches, free courtesy cars, free hire cars, a gymnasium, a million-dollar first prize, and there I was in ’55 sleeping on the beach where they filmed Chariots of Fire.
“What a vast transformation.”
As famed for his humanitarian exploits as he is his liquid-smooth bunker play, Player learned some harsh lessons of life growing up in a poor – albeit happy – family and lost his mother to cancer at the age of just eight.
Perhaps these experiences laid the groundwork for his multitude of charitable exploits operated under the Gary Player Foundation, an organisation celebrating its 30th anniversary this year that has in total now raised almost $50million.
“Golf is a great platform for raising money for different charities and we’re very proud of what we have achieved for such a small company,” Player enthuses, with compassion unquestionably driving his still-strong voice.
“We’ve raised a lot of money for underprivileged children with our theme mainly being education. It’s not so easy for me to do it at my age of 77, to fly to China and India and Africa and Europe and America but I still have the energy to do it and it’s been very exciting.
“I was very poor as a young man and struggled a lot so to be able to give people a place in the sun and change their life is very rewarding.”
Earlier, when Player answered his phone he had just returned from one of his near-daily, punishing workout routines in his home gym. Indubitably a trailblazing champion of the importance of fitness to golfing longevity, Player hails the physical revolution of the game as one of his crowning glories in a wide-ranging, stellar career, right up alongside his 18 Major Championships.
“I think the greatest thrill in my career was not winning the Grand Slam on the regular Tour, but the Grand Slam on the Senior Tour because I’m the only one to have done it,” he says. “(Arnold) Palmer, Nicklaus, (Lee) Trevino and (Tom) Watson and all the fellas tried it and for me to do that after the age of 50 gave me the greatest thrill.
“You’ve got to stay fit, you’ve got to stay lean and mean and not get heavy, and you’ve got to have the right mind-set. But I think particularly physically, to stay in shape is the important thing.
“Frank Stranahan and I were the first ones in golf ever to do weight training and people ridiculed and teased us and said we were nuts and couldn’t do it. And now today they are even lifting weights before they play. I was squatting with 325 pounds the night before I won the US Open before winning the Grand Slam in 1965!
“There was such a lack of knowledge back then. I mean, I got out there this morning and I did my 1,100 sit-ups and got on my treadmill and I lifted weights and did all kinds of leg squats, and I honestly felt like I was 25 or 20 years of age again. The power of fitness is just astounding.”
It was history-making climber Hillary who famously once said, in the wake of his renowned Everest ascent: “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
And just as Player scaled the golfing world to sit within the select pantheon of the game’s greats, moreover he has mastered himself both physically and mentally for the duration of a now 60 years long, magnificent professional golfing career.
Renowned as an orator of some distinction, I ask him this time to conclude by summing up the game of golf in just three or four words.
“Friend making machine,” he replies sincerely. “Game for a lifetime.”
For Gary Player, his words imprinted with the wisdom only time can bestow, these are sentiments etched inexorably in truth; the legend of The Black Knight lives on and on.