The man behind the legend

NOVEMBER 2011 – The story of a boy who set out on a nickel and a prayer to take on the world, and became the man we call the ‘Black Knight’.

Who is this man so debonair in black with silver-streaked hair and a smile of content ambition? To the hallowed fairways of golf’s great theatres he is a conqueror, unbending in pursuit of victory. To the country of his birth, an ambassador. And to lovers of athletic pursuit everywhere, he is a paragon of all that is good about sport. Everywhere he goes he is Gary Player, the Black Knight. Long admirers of the champion golfer, Opulent Living’s Florian Gast and Barbara Lenhard wanted to know more about this fabled character. Accompanied by mutual friend and ladies’ golfing legend Sally Little, they recently met Player on his stud farm outside Colesberg, deep in South Africa’s Karoo desert, where a fuller picture of the great man emerged. Here, on land he chose, beside fences he built and gardens he planted, they discovered the grandfather, the businessman and the thinker – the poor boy from Johannesburg who became an icon.

Ever the good host, Player offers his guests “the best coffee you’ll ever have in your life”. The man himself doesn’t usually drink it, but he makes an exception when at home on the farm, “because the water is in the top three in the world,” he explains. Beverages made, he leads the way to the patio where he points out the stairway on the side of a nearby hill – just one of the marks of his irrepressible energy that dot the landscape. “My Wall of China – it took me a year to build,” he says, before settling down to chat.

The boy
Never given a thing he didn’t fight for, Player attributes his unrelenting drive to a boyhood ingrained by hardship. “I was poor and I had a very difficult time as a young child; going to school an hour-and-a-half each way, playing sport, coming home, my mother’s dead, my father’s working in the gold mine, my brother’s at war and my sister’s at boarding school. I had to struggle. So when I played golf it was easy compared to the struggle I’d had. I never choked because, although it was tough to win those Major championships, a lot of pressure for the average person, for me it wasn’t as much because subconsciously I had made a comparison to the difficulties I’d had.” of course, like any lad with a goal, Player had a hero he looked up to, whose movements he studied and who filled his chest with competitive fire. “Ben Hogan: he was just the best. As simple as that. And I still think he’s the best player that ever lived. Why? It’s like saying Pelé was the best. Talent? I don’t know. You can’t describe why someone is a champion in life.”

Becoming a man
At 16, and still a schoolboy at the famous sporting nursery that is King Edward VII School in Johannesburg, the tenacious Player decided he wanted to become the best golfer in the world. “When I told my father I was going to be a pro he nearly had a heart attack, because he had told my mother before she died that I’d probably go to university. He had never seen me hit a golf ball. I had a zero handicap but so did lots of kids. He asked me, ‘Do you think you’re doing the right thing?’ and I said, ‘Yes, because I will out-practise everybody.’ So I did, I out-practised everybody. Today, this pair of hands has hit more golf balls than any other.” Player set about achieving his dream the only way he knew how: hard work. Training in all the spare time he had, he worked as a teaching golf professional and saved whatever money he could for his passage to Britain, and the big time.

Once in England, young Player continued grafting like he had promised his father, earning money wherever he could. Sally Little, who has known Gary all her life through her father, recalls seeing photos from that time that show what a sacrifice this was. “I recall at the age of eight or nine seeing pictures of Gary when he was in England. He was wearing those suspenders and pants, washing dishes to earn some money to keep going. I remember it so well.” But instead of tiring him out, the work nourished Player and grew his understanding that the world owes you nothing. “Entitlement. Entitlement is a big problem in the world – when you think you’re owed something. You have to work for everything. That was the good thing for me coming up as a young person: there was no such thing as entitlement in my life. It didn’t exist. There wasn’t such a word in my mind. You can say, ‘I have the opportunity.’ That’s the important thing, that you have the opportunity.” The more he practised, the ‘luckier’ he got Standing just five foot seven inches in a boyishly light frame, Player lacked the natural physique to take on the ballistic hitting of arch nemeses Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. So, even though it meant pioneering a new approach to eating and training, he overcame. With voracious dedication, Player turned his compact body into tempered steel with diet and gym programmes that were decades ahead of their time. “In America they used to say I was crazy, that you cannot do weights and play golf. One of the famous architects said I would not last to 35 because the night before I won the US Open I was squatting with 324 pounds on my back. He saw this and said ‘You’re mad!’ But when my opponents were sleeping, I was in gyms and I was practising – I out-practised them and I out-exercised them.” And he hasn’t stopped. “I’ve cut out all animal fats: milk, meat, etc. The fats are what is killing people. And most people don’t worry about health, even though it’s the most important thing. I’m 76 and I’m still fit. Yesterday I did a thousand sit-ups at the gym.” Just then, as if on cue, a small and sleepy-eyed figure appears. It’s one of Player’s 21 grandchildren, visiting from home in America. “Good morning!” shouts the proud grandpa, “How are you? Was that you snoring last night?” A little voice retorts, “No”. “You wanna see this little guy here,” continues Player, “He looks like Nadal, look at him. And he is so fit. How many push-ups can you do?”. “67”, comes the answer. “67 push-ups!” exclaims perhaps the world’s fittest grandpa, through a beaming smile.

The target
Having beaten poverty, silenced the critics who decried his swing as unwieldy and built up the body of an Olympian, Gary Player’s glittering career collided with an opponent no athlete should have to face. Now a multiple Major winner, he became the target of furious demonstrations against the politics of a country he had left as a young man. Even 10 000 kilometres from the epicentre of apartheid, he could not escape the growing backlash of the much-reviled system. “You know, it’s been a difficult life, very different to any other athlete’s. They called me a traitor. There were demonstrations, death threats, people charging me, throwing ice in my eyes. Imagine walking to the tee and they throw ice at your eyes? And telephone books at the top of your swing so you hurt your back! Every week people threatened to kill me. I had policemen walking around with me at every tournament, every hotel. I wasn’t even allowed to play in Japan for 18 years. Once at the PGA Championship at Dayton, Ohio I was busy putting when I saw balls come rolling through my legs. I lost by one shot, and that was probably the best tournament of my life. To have all that going on and lose at a Major championship….” This was a dilemma Player couldn’t resolve with the famous sporting grit and ruthless training he’d employed to defeat all comers so far. But by now he was a worldly fellow who had met all manner of characters on his travels and conversed with paupers and presidents. He turned to his wits and growing charm to strike a victory for equality in his divided homeland. “I came back home in 1970 and we actually broke the apartheid barrier in golf – I brought Lee Elder, the black golfer, to South Africa. I had to go and ask for permission from the prime minister, Mr. Voster at that time, and I played some golf with him, too. I was criticised for doing that, but if the president of China invited me to play with him, I’d play with him – it doesn’t mean I’m a communist. I don’t worry what their political views are. But it turned out to my advantage. When I went to Voster’s office to say I’d like to bring Lee Elder out, expecting the staunch believer in apartheid to say, ‘Get out of my office!’ he told me to go ahead. Then Lee was put under great pressure in America not to come. I thought Lee did an incredible job and he was never given the recognition in America for that; and I was never given the recognition in South Africa – never.”

The legend
Yet to retire in any conventional sense of the word, Gary Player can look back on a lifetime of golfing achievement only comparable to those of the most revered names the game has seen. His inaugural Major victory was the British Open of 1959 and two years later he became the first international (non-American) Masters champion. With his win at the 1965 US Open he became the third man ever to complete golf’s coveted career Grand Slam: victories at all four of the sport’s flagship events. Closer to home, he also won a record 13 South African Opens. But perhaps most revealing of the man’s competitive drive is his match play record. He never appeared more lucidly devastating than in this combative format, squared up to just one opponent at a time in an hours-long battle of strategy, resilience and nerve. He won the World Match Play Championship five times, including memorable triumphs over the Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus, in 1966 and 1971. But from these myriad achievements, the Black Knight’s choice of professional highlight may surprise many. “Being the only man in the world to have won the Grand Slam on both the regular tour and the senior tour.”

The family man
Reminiscing, it also becomes clear that Player’s golfing highs are only part of what fulfils him. For decades he toured the professional golf circuit with wife Vivienne, six children, a nanny and a tutor. In fact, he may be the most travelled man to have lived. Today, as the spry grandpa sits back on the farm he spent nearly four decades building, the joy his loved ones give him is palpable “If you could see the love that I get from my grandchildren. They all sit on my lap, touching my ear – like you saw with the boys just now on the veranda. I have incredible love for my children and my grandchildren. The tragedy of my life was always saying goodbye, saying goodbye, saying goodbye. Big sacrifice.”

The admirer
One might expect a man who has achieved on the edge of human possibility for so long to have no need for role models of his own. But when asked who inspires him – who he would invite to his ultimate round of golf – Player answers promptly and with an energy that betrays his gratitude. “The five heroes I have are Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela – I’m such an admirer of Mandela – Mother Theresa, Mahatma Ghandi and Lee Kuan Yew from Singapore.

The inspiration
Just like these exalted names have motivated Player, Sally Little recalls the day the rising star helped inspire her to an illustrious 30- year career on the ladies’ professional tour. “Gary was very influential to me when I was growing up because there were no women that I could dream to be like. So I used to watch him whenever I could. I’ll never forget that day when I was 12 or 13 years old and Gary came to our club, Metropolitan, in Cape Town. He gave a clinic, and he pulled me out of the crowd to have a shot in front of him. I was already scared, and then he gave me a one-iron. Now, what was I going to do with that? But I was so happy to have this club – and what a memory!”

The philanthropist
Having never forgotten what it’s like to be poor, Player speaks of destitution and hunger as a virus in need of eradication. “What upsets me most in the world is poverty. And it’s unnecessary – the world is in a position to prevent it. There’s just so much waste. You go to a restaurant and they give you all this food, but you can’t eat that much and you waste it. You know, I’ve seen a man pay £75 000 for a bottle of wine. Think about what that money could have done for people in a squatter camp. But golfers have raised more money for charity than any other sport. It’s not even close. My foundation has tournaments at Fancourt, at Blair Atholl – big tournaments – and that’s how we raise money.” Sally Little confi rms a similar level of altruism in the ladies’ game. As the global ambassador for breast cancer foundation Komen, she’s at the forefront of this impressive drive. “The amount of money the LPGA has donated to charity is amazing. We even have thermography units that come on tour for the public to get screened for breast cancer. It’s a wonderful thing to do. I’ve also started my own foundation for women’s cancer in this country and represent Pam Golding as a golf ambassador where we run a series of tournaments locally for lady golfers.”

The legend at leisure
So he farms and lifts weights and helps the poor, but does the self-confessed workaholic and veritable jackrabbit of a man ever rest? Is there space for indulgence in the jet-setting life of an indefatigable 76-year-old? Of course there is. “Luxury for me is sitting on top of that mountain with my wife and my dog and my grandchildren; hearing the birds and seeing the animals.” Then there is his passion for horses. Player recalls the origin of his fascination with these majestic beasts as a trip to a friend’s farm as a child. The thrill of that first ride never left him, and in 1974 he bought this barren patch of earth where he’s sitting today, and built it into one of the country’s top producers of thoroughbreds. Of course, he still chases little dimpled spheres around the countryside when he can. Now one of the world’s foremost designers, his interest in course architecture is well known, too. And with the experience of over 350 Gary Player signature tracks around the world, you’ll forgive him for picking out his own designs (or ones he’s contributed to) as his favourites to play in South Africa. “You’ve got to go to Sun City and you’ve got to go to The Links at Fancourt – it’s just been put in the top 100 courses worldwide. I’d say for enjoyment, Durban Country Club. Then there’s Blair Atholl, a real championship course. Finally there’s Leopard Creek. Where else in the world do you have a course like that with such a magnificent clubhouse and homes right in the wild? It’s unique.

The immortal Black Knight
As morning transforms to afternoon, one final question for the man who’s been posed so many over half a century: What is the one thing he has always wanted to be asked? “It’s a controversial one: Do I want to be to be buried or cremated? I think I’d like to be cremated. I don’t see why you should have a grave and prevent people building or having a highway. That’s just for the living. You’ve had your turn, now you’re going to another place.” On that reminder that we all are mortal, no matter the heights we achieve, there is no doubt that while one day the time will come for Gary Player the man, his legend will live on for as long as the rest of us need heroes and fathers and champions.

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