You would have to be a curmudgeon to not recognise Gary Player as a South African icon.
He is a phenomenal individual, a giant of not only the sport but across other walks of life too.
One Friday night in May, with Irish pop singer Ronan Keating, Player helped raise R1-million for Cape Town’s Red Cross Children’s Hospital’s efforts towards fighting children’s cancer.
One of Player’s goals is for his own foundation to raise $100-million for charity. As he often says, ‘No other sport has the capacity to raise as much money for charity as golf.’
At the age of 82, he also remains fiercely competitive and often shoots his age, while bemoaning the advances in equipment and the technology that goes into them.
As a nine-time Major champion, he remains fit and active. He is never short of an opinion and will take any opportunity to defend his legacy. The morning after attending the 2015 World Golf Hall of Fame induction ceremony at St Andrews, he was still bristling. ‘Can you believe it? They introduced me as someone who “has won 100 tournaments around the world”. It’s actually 165. How can you just knock 65 international victories off the list?’ he told me.
That pride in what he has achieved continues to shine through. ‘I see @GolfChannel and @ChampionsTour continue to ignore the fact that I have won 9 Major Championships on the Senior Tour. Every official global tour recognises this fact except those in the USA. Quite sad and hurtful for me actually. C’est la vie,’ he tweeted in May.
He also criticises ‘today’s golfer’ for preferring to put money ahead of spreading the sport around the world. He reckons no golfer has racked up as many air miles as him, based in South Africa and flying all around the world on countless occasions. Actually, he would probably have the exact number if one asked him.
‘Unfortunately, I can only count 6 players from the USA playing at Wentworth in the @BMWPGA on the @EuropeanTour “flagship” event. What a shame for our global game. You can never be a world champion if you stay at home,’ he tweeted before the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in England.
It was while watching him play at the inaugural Gary Player vs Ronan Keating charity day at Westlake Golf Club in late-May that I wondered how appreciated (or not) he is in his home country. Where else could you see Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and even Nick Faldo, Phil Mickelson or Ernie Els playing 18 holes of golf on a public golf course with a handful, at most, of spectators enjoying the ringside seat and the walk around the course on a beautiful winter’s day?
Sure, the one-liners have been used plenty of times over the years. ‘I love this club, it’s my favourite in the bag. If I had to choose between this club and my wife … well, I’d miss her,’ he says while warming up, watched by a smattering of staff. Teeing a ball up before hitting a practice drive, he says, ‘The last time I missed a fairway the Pope was an altar boy.’ Bang, down the middle where the lawnmower goes.
He gave Keating a tip. The Irishman is a 15-handicap and was pulling his drives left. Simply helping adjust the stance – ‘stand back a bit, a bit more, a bit more … rotate and follow through the ball, drive through the ball’ – and Keating hit a succession of drives down the middle.
A ball is just off the fringes of a green. ‘A bad putt beats a good chip,’ he tells his playing partners, one of whom is a 19-handicap. Player didn’t use the supplied golf cart on this particular day, and he ate an apple and a sandwich during the round. He regularly shares his messages, about climate change, the environment, politics, world leaders and golf.
A walking, talking, preaching global ambassador, indeed.
– This article first appeared in the July issue of Compleat Golfer, now on sale!