Half Way to Mars
The first time I met Gary Player he gave me a little cuddle in front of a big crowd. It was in early 2010, shortly before the official opening of Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, the Abu Dhabi course designed by the South African. I was there with a dozen or so other journalists and had made the mistake of fluffing a chip in front of Player. Unable to abide my incompetence, he threw a ball out of his pocket, wrapped his arms around my waist and showed me the correct motion. There was a TV camera, and a crowd with a lot of smartphones. I could feel my face reddening. The next chip still wasn’t good, but it was at least less pitiful. I’ve used that chipping technique ever since.
Any awkwardness I felt at the time has long since been converted into a neat anecdote, one I often tell when playing golf with strangers. To me, that brief tuition from Gary Player was a big deal; to Gary Player, I was just one of thousands of people he met that year, and likely tens of thousands over the intervening years. Imagine my surprise, then, when the first thing he says to me on the phone from his home in South Africa is: “I’ve spoken to you before, haven’t I?”
When it comes to the things Gary Player says, perhaps surprise isn’t the right response – this is a man who has dedicated much of his long and storied career to doing the unexpected. His remarkable biography is well known, but bears repeating all the same: son of a miner, lost his mother when he was a child; took up golf with borrowed clubs, scrapped to turn pro; sold lessons at a dollar a go to fund his travel to tournaments; took a heroic stance against his homeland’s racist Apartheid government… His colossal talent took him to the very top of the game in one of its golden eras – on the way to collecting nine Majors, Player was regarded as one of the game’s Big Three, alongside legendary figures Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
The little big man from Johannesburg turned 80 a few months ago, celebrating in Sun City with his family, including 22 grandchildren, and a golf event. “They all ate like it was their last supper,” he says, laughing before he can get to the end of his sentence. “I had to win that tournament just to break even!”
Despite his advanced years, the Black Knight still travels seven or eight months a year. Though he occasionally gives over to hyperbole, it’s hard to challenge his claim that he has travelled more than any living person: 63 years of international travel in the name of golf, first as a player, then as a course designer and now tournament host. One estimate puts his combined air miles at over 17 million and rising every year. If that’s accurate then Player has, in theory, flown halfway to Mars in conventional aircraft.
Confidence he does not lack, not when it comes to his game (“I still shoot less than my age – last week I beat it by 11 shots”) nor his Abu Dhabi course (“It’s absolutely magnificent”) nor his health (“I’m still very, very, very fit”). Inevitably, though, he is starting to think about the future and what his legacy may look like. His incontestable golf record will stand for itself (the only player to win The Open in three different decades, first foreign player to top the US money list, etc, etc) but as time wears on, Gary Player is increasingly thinking of other people. “Our goal is to change people’s lives, that’s the big thing,” he says of his self-titled invitational tournaments that have been set up around the world as part of a widespread philanthropic effort. “It’s very exciting to go to these countries where I’ve played and performed and to be able to give back, to change the lives of tens of thousands of people… We’ve raised over $60m with the various Gary Player Invitationals, in China, in America, in England, in South Africa and now in Abu Dhabi,” he says.
His goal is typically Player: $100m before he “can no longer travel to these places.” To that end, he hopes the inaugural Abu Dhabi event will boost the coffers, helping a local charity (still to be decided at the time of writing) along the way. But while he’s on the theme of golf in the capital, he’s got a bone to pick. Why aren’t they hosting the HSBC Abu Dhabi Golf Championship at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, his club, rather than the “very ordinary” National Course?
When Gary Player asks a question like that, it’s not your job to answer – indeed much of an interview with the great man is more an exercise is steering his wonderful stream of consciousness in a direction that may be useful to you. His Twitter account matches his conversation: a flurry of sporting updates and retweets, from the latest score in a Barclays Premier League match to inspirational quotes from Sir Winston Churchill. And golf, of course, lots and lots of golf.
In the modern game, the emergence of three new figures has drawn comparison with Player, Palmer and Nicklaus; Jordan Speith, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy, three different characters from different countries, all likely to be near the top of every tournament, occupying the three top ranking slots in world golf. Does Player see the comparison? Sort of. A little. Not really. “They are, at this moment, the Big Three, at this time… But, you know, Arnold, Jack and I, we won over 300 tournaments – time will tell if these young men can do the same.”
For all the bombast, it’s impossible not to like Gary Player, one of those rare sportsmen utterly unafraid to speak his mind, free from the shackles of sponsor obligations and expectation. And besides, there’s no doubting the sincerity behind his charity work, even if he frames it with another little flourish of self-promotion. “I don’t want my legacy to be as a man who had the best international golf record,” he says. “I would like to be known as a man who changed people’s lives, who knew what it was like to be poor, who knew what it was like to suffer, and who has love for people, irrespective of race, creed or colour.”