The build-up is movie star-like. Bosses mention him in hushed tones. Autograph hunters double-check pens. Selfie seekers pull out smartphones. Bartenders take a break from wiping glasses and look over their shoulders. The glass door opens with a thud and the entourage rushes in. Pandemonium follows Gary Player at the Delhi Golf Club.
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Player enters the clubhouse like a taste of left-to-right headwind that has tested the 138-strong field at the recently concluded DGC Open. The golfing royalty is dressed in spotless whites, his blonde hair gelled back, and there’s an eager spring in his step. He’s happy after playing nine holes at the course he has proudly redesigned, and like always, in a mood to talk.
“You see son, no fat! I am still fighting fit,” he grins, slapping his sides and flexing his biceps. Fitness has long been his passion, and at 86, his infectious energy and boundless zest for life are worth marveling at.
“You see these hands,” he says, lifting his arms. “They have hit more golf balls than anyone else. The secret to a good life is good health, and the secret to good health is good habits. You have to sleep well, hit the gym, eat well. You must realize that two meals is all you need in a day. Eat less, laugh more, exercise more,” he says.
Player calls himself the most traveled man on the planet. That may be up for debate, but the fact that golf has taken him all over the world is beyond doubt. The man who won nine majors, teed off with world leaders, and left his signature — with his Gary Player Designs — on over 300 courses across the globe, is faultlessly graceful in assessing golf’s role in turning his life around.
The early years
“I owe everything to this sport. My life, my success, my learnings, everything. I was the son of a gold miner, growing up in Johannesburg with no money. And look where golf has brought me today.”
It’s a lifetime ago, but Player’s memory is sharp. He still remembers growing up as the youngest of three siblings, losing his mother to cancer when he was eight, and tales of horror his dad would narrate. “I remember it all. The stories of the mines that my dad told me are still fresh…8000 feet underground, people dying in the depths of the earth, mine falling on them. It was a dog’s life. Not good, not good.”
“I learned to live with loss very early in life. My dad didn’t make much money; I lost my mother when I was a kid. I struggled, but struggles produce world champions like Muhammad Ali. Such people develop killer instincts early in their lives. They are ready to take on the world.”
Player went to King Edwards School in Johannesburg, which he reckons was the best in South Africa. It not only gave him the best education, but saved him from going astray.
“There were a lot of criminal gangs active in the city, and I am certain I could have joined one of them. Education saved me. One of the things my dad did great was that he never compromised on our education. The school I went to emphasized a lot on discipline; you know, clean shoes, ties, stand when a teacher enters the class. It had the best sporting facilities, debating halls, languages…you name it.”
Still, Player grew up lonely and depressed. His brother, the late Ian Player who was a conservationist, was attached to the American 5th Army in Italy during World War II, and his sister was away in a boarding school. Player would come home to an empty house, and lay in bed thinking of death.
“I was in a bad place, you know. No one to talk to, dad away in mine, mom dead, siblings away. I would make my own bed, cook, and then lay thinking I’d rather be dead.”
Teen crush, lifelong bond
Golf entered his life around this time, although it was not his sport of choice. Player took an early fancy to cricket. “I was a decent spinner at my school. I once took seven wickets for three runs. Conceived!” he chuckles. When his father asked him to try golf, Player told him “it’s a game of sissies.” Regardless, he went to the Virginia Park golf course — now known as South Downs Country Club — and fell in love with the sport. He was 14 then.
Within a year, he met Vivienne Verwey, sister of professional golfer Bobby Verwey, a multiple-time winner on the PGA Tour. Player and Vivienne started dating, and soon, Player found himself with pro golfer Jacob Wynand Verwey, telling him that he wanted to marry his daughter.
“It was crazy. I was ready to get married at 15! Her dad showed me his hands and went, ‘These hands kill bulls. Get lost or I’ll knock your head off.’ I told him, ‘I am going to be the best golfer in the world.’ Love makes you do these things.”
By 17, Player became a pro, and four years late, married Vivienne. The couple stayed together for over six decades until Vivienne died of cancer last year.
“You got to have love in your heart. Skills alone don’t make you a champion. You ought to learn to live, love, and laugh,” he muses.
The Big Three
Player’s career soared from the late 1950s, and for the next two decades, along with the American duo of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, formed the celebrated ‘Big Three’ that dominated the greens across the world. Despite their fierce rivalry, the trio shared a strong bond.
“There will never be another Big Three like us because you won’t find three top golfers of their time who are such close friends. We wanted to beat each other every weekend, but we also lived in each other’s houses and farms. We traveled the world together; we went to gold mines, game reserves, holidays. It’s a different world now. Everyone means business.”
Player believes the trio’s common conviction in golf’s ambassadorial might was among the main reasons they remain lifelong friends (Palmer passed away in 2016). “We were committed to take golf to different parts of the world. We knew our success would draw more people to golf, and so we never wished ill for each other.”
Player’s active career coincided with apartheid in South Africa, and his pro-government views at the time earned him global criticism, besides costing him tournaments. In 1969 at the PGA Championship in Kettering, Ohio, Player faced crowd trouble and lost the title to American Raymond Floyd by one stroke.
The world, and golf itself, has undeniably moved on from those times. A golf tragic, Player still finds time to follow the action, and is in anticipation of an Indian or an African winning a major. “How wonderful will that be. Golf needs to go to these relatively unchartered courses. I hope Lahiri does to golf in India what Sachin Tendulkar did to cricket.”
‘Even a gorilla can hit 400 yards’
The only aspect he despises about the modern game is the ever-increasing thrust on hitting long. Back in mid-2020 when the golfing season resumed after Covid break, players and spectators watched in awe as a visibly bulked-up Bryson DeChambeau felt balls longer than anyone around. His 367-yard drive at the Charles Schwab Challenge triggered a debate on golf’s future, as the American continued to push the limits of range hitting like never before. Player believes the game runs the risk of “getting out of proportion.”
“People are hitting 400 yards easily now, and yet I can’t remember a big man play golf. The last was perhaps George Bear. We need is to cut that ball back by 50 yards for professionals,” he said.
“Many years ago, I told the BBC that people will hit 400, and everyone laughed. Now, I say people will hit 500 yards. Just watch; it’s crazy! Golf is still about the short game — chipping, putting, using your head. Even a gorilla can hit 400 yards.”
Player is not off the mark. On the Sunshine Tour in 2021, South Africa’s James Hart du Preez averaged 373 yards off the tee. “I don’t believe people enjoy watching just the big hits. A 300-yard hit is big enough. Jack Nicklaus hit 300, and he had fans everywhere.”
The fad has had a cascading effect on courses that are gradually lengthening greens and fairways. The added cost, Player reckons, is avoidable and the money saved must be used to develop junior programs. “Courses are becoming longer by the day, which means more land, more water, more resources. Golf administrators must spare a thought for the environment too.”
His biggest takeaway from golf? “It made me the man I am. It taught me manners, and manners make a man. Whatever you become, don’t forget your manners. Don’t forget to be nice to people. Don’t forget to work for the needy,” said Player.
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