One would have to really dig deep to find someone other than Gary Player to carry the fictional title of ‘South Africa’s Greatest Sportsperson’.
And yes, obviously, I do understand the history of the country and the fact that the majority of the population was discriminated against, and a huge number of world-class athletes weren’t able to represent their country due to apartheid.
However, if we have to allocate the title of ‘Greatest Sportsperson’, then Player surely is the No 1 candidate. He is now 87 and continues to go to the gym and play golf most days of the week. He also realises that he’s on the final few fairways of his long life, but that does nothing to detract from what he has to say.
Those of us who have been privileged to spend extended time in his company will therefore understand that Player does tend to tell the same jokes and he repeats things to different audiences that you’ve probably heard before. But, this is the thing with sporting greats – you never tire of listening to them talk, even if they are on a bit of a loop because there are always new audiences listening to them.
The thing that has been entrenched in my mind over Player’s last few visits to South Africa is how spiteful some of his own countrymen can be. Tall-poppy syndrome and jealousy abound. People who might never have been in Player’s company have opinions about him and what he has said. They even suggest that he ‘had it easy’, while travelling the world and amassing over 160 international wins and nine regular Majors.
‘He talks too much. He talks about himself all the time,’ I’ve heard many people say.
Well, of course, he talks and, of course, he has earned the right to. At least listen and you might learn something, and respect what he’s achieved and the fact that he’s a golfing giant. I’m constantly amazed to see how often when Player is on the golf course in the South African summer months that it’s a foreigner comes up to him and asks for a picture. The foreigners stop and watch him playing; locals tend to get on with their own business.
Now 87, Player says that he has ‘shot his age’ some ‘3 055 times in a row’. That number is already outdated. He argues that he would have to shoot 15-over-par to not shoot his age. I do know that his ultimate goal these days is to shoot 18-under his age, which he is yet to do. But surely it’s around the corner. Give him a nice quiet, windless day at Milnerton and let’s see him shoot 69.
While he has always been a gym animal, he tells the story, often, that these days you can walk into a gym and there are ‘10 golfers working out with weights. Years ago the only exercise golfers got was moving an olive from one martini glass to another’.
He always talks about golfers becoming athletes, with skin specialists, dieticians, fitness trainers and how the time will come, if they don’t reduce the distance of the golf ball, that golfers will hit the ball 450 yards. Golfers are now hitting 7-irons 200 yards and playing on manicured fairways and greens and bunkers that are raked with machines.
He speaks about the pressure of a six-foot putt to win or to make a cut. ‘The hole becomes the size of a Bayer aspirin,’ he says.
We have heard a lot of these stories before, but one can never become weary of them. If you appreciate history and love your sport, surely you can not be anything other than awed if ever you find yourself in the same room as greatness.
– This column first appeared in the January 2023 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine.