South Africa’s greatest golfer is fuming at the attitude of those who have turned their backs on the Olympics.
‘To have that gold medal among my nine Majors on the regular tour and nine Majors on the senior tour would’ve been the thrill of my life’
‘I’m nearly 81 and I must listen to young professionals complain about a schedule. They should travel with me and I’ll show them a schedule. The pros have become spoilt’
For a generation of South African golfers that were denied Olympic Games participation because of politics, this generation’s lukewarm reception to golf at the Games is difficult to understand.
But Gary Player is a bit more direct than this.
‘I’m shocked, appalled and sad to see what’s happening with regard to the greatest sporting event in world,’ he says from his Coworth Park Hotel where he is preparing to host some of the game’s leading players and celebrities at his Gary Player Invitational tournament in the United Kingdom.
For a start, the Zika argument just doesn’t wash with Player.
‘I travelled for 63 years to countries with malaria, polio, typhoid and yellow fever. Does that mean you stay at home and in your cupboard? In America there are 100 000 people killed by guns and cars every year. You’ve got way more chance of that happening to you than of Zika.’
But beyond Player’s indignation is a real inability of a sportsman from his generation to understand how you would possibly not want to be part of the Olympic Games.
‘I would’ve given anything to play for South Africa at an Olympics. To have that gold medal among my nine Majors on the regular tour and nine Majors on the senior tour would’ve been the thrill of my life. To walk under the South African flag and be there with my team in the arena – what an experience. It’s something to savour because you might never have it again.’
South Africa was excluded from Olympic participation from 1964 to 1988 as a result of its policy of apartheid and the global sporting boycott against the country.
It was around that time that Player was also at the height of his powers, winning six of his nine Majors on the regular tour, 11 PGA Tour events, and a further 70 tournaments worldwide.
‘I always followed the Olympics with great interest,’ he says. ‘I went to watch the 1956 Olympics and met Jesse Owens. I had a long chat with him. He told me how Adolf Hitler refused to shake his hand at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. It was sad. But I had such a great experience watching the Olympics.’
The Rome Olympics of 1960 punctuated Player’s first Major at the 1959 Open and then becoming the first non-American to win the Masters in 1961.
As a young boy who boxed, he would have watched with keen interest the emergence of Cassius Marcellus Clay (Muhammad Ali) winning the light-heavyweight gold medal.
By the 1964 Games in Tokyo Player was a three-time Major winner, and the 1968 Games in Mexico coincided with his Open victory that year. The latter featured the famous raised fists on the podium of black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos after the 200m final, in protest of the treatment of blacks in America, and which would have resonated with Player after he had a meeting with the Black Panthers in America to try to clear their own issues around race and his South African heritage.
Then came the 1972 Olympics in Munich, and the tragedy of the murdered Israeli athletes. Player won the PGA Championship that year, but adds, ‘I remember the Munich Olympics like they were yesterday.’
The 1976 Olympics in Vancouver again reminded Player what he was missing out on as other African countries boycotted the Games as a result of the New Zealand rugby tour to South Africa and New Zealand’s place in the Olympics that year.
So you understand quite easily why Player cannot comprehend an athlete not going to the Olympics if given the opportunity.
‘We were barred from the Olympics for so long as a country and as a sport, and now that we’re in it the golfers don’t want to play.
‘For me it’s going to be a massive thrill. I’ll be at the sending off parade in Johannesburg. I’ll fly to Rio and spend two weeks there. I’m nearly 81 and I must listen to young professionals complain about a schedule. They should travel with me and I’ll show them a schedule. The pros have become spoiled.
‘To have a South African team of all colours representing us under the national flag – I’ll go to my grave with great joy. In time to come I think a lot of the golfers who have said no will regret not having gone. I do have to have respect their opinion of why they don’t believe in going, but I vehemently disagree with it.
‘Hundreds of us worked so hard to get golf back in the Olympics to enhance the sport and now the top golfer aren’t interested in playing. If I was on the International Olympic Committee I wouldn’t have golf at the Olympics, and if they did I’d put amateurs in who would cherish it more.’
For Player the idea of promoting the game at the Olympics goes hand-in-hand with the prize money today’s professionals earn.
‘If we don’t keep promoting golf they won’t play for so much money for too long. Frankly, I feel that for pro athletes across the board, the bubble has got to burst some time. I’m always in favour of athletes making a lot of money but they’ve got a responsibility to go with it. The demands athletes make now are ridiculous. A golfer who is not even all that good and doesn’t have a great record can quite easily demand a quarter-of-a-million dollars just to go to a tournament. They want $500 000 to do a corporate day, and then they limit it to only eight hours of their time. I’m 81 and when I do a day I do a whole day, not just eight hours.’
No doubt when Player walks out with team South Africa at the Rio Olympics, he will feel he finally got the one ‘Major’ that was denied him.
And you can bet he’d tee it up as well, if they’d let him.