Sport Golf

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Competitive instinct made Player easy to admire but difficult to like

You could imagine South African fitness fanatic suing God if the plug of life is pulled before he becomes a centurion

Gary Player
Gary Player
Gary Player

Dermot Gilleece

While I could be counted among cynical scribes who have viewed Gary Player as an interview waiting to happen, his extraordinary impact on tournament golf must be acknowledged. Indeed the staging this weekend of the Nedbank Challenge on a course he designed at Sun City offers the opportunity of further extending the celebrations for his 80th birthday, which fell on November 1.

This is also the golden jubilee of Player's outstanding year on tour. Victory in the 1965 US Open in St Louis made him, at 29, the youngest to have completed the career Grand Slam at that time. There were also wins that year in the Australian Open, World Match Play, World Cup and the South African Open, and he picked up $50,000 for capturing the World Series of Golf involving the year's four Major champions.

The World Cup triumph, for which he partnered Harold Henning in Madrid, was especially impressive for the fact that it ended a five-year dominance by the United States. On this occasion, Jack Nicklaus and Tony Lema finished third and Player even edged out the Bear for the individual title.

Though he almost invariably projects an air of self-confidence, even arrogance, Player looked strangely vulnerable when I met him in Hawaii in January 2006, two months past his 70th birthday. When I wondered how it felt to have reached that particular milestone, he expressed alarm at the way the years were rushing by. "I'm saying to myself that if I live to 80 I'll be doing pretty well," he said. "That's quite a frightening thought. And 85 would be a bonus."

Well, he's now firmly on his way towards 85, not that anybody is surprised. And with the apprehension of Hawaii apparently in the past, one can imagine him suing God if the plug of life is pulled before he becomes a centurion. On which point he later asserted: "The human being is built to live a long time and if you go into the outback of say Japan and India, people are living to 115. And 100 is quite common. I'd like to live to 100, I certainly would. Because I have such a zest for life."

Highlighting his famous exercise regime, he claimed recently: "I still feel like a young man. The other day in Atlanta, I pushed 410 pounds with my legs and I did 1,300 crunches with a 100-pound weight on my last 200."

If there have been great years for Player, there have also been difficult ones, generally associated with his status as a celebrated white South African during decades of apartheid. Especially difficult was 1969, when the odious Vorster regime rejected the Lusaka Manifesto on human equality and dignity, adopted by 13 African nations in April of that year and warmly welcomed in the US.

As it happened, the 1969 PGA Championship was staged at Dayton, Ohio, Nicklaus's home state. And the Bear was paired with Player in the third round in which both men were to be subjected to the worst spectator abuse they had ever encountered in a Major championship.

A small group of radical agitators were bent on disrupting both competitors, despite the presence of 400 policemen. It started when a tournament programme, thrown over the heads of the gallery, landed at Player's feet as he took his stance on the fourth tee. Calmly, he stepped away and after someone removed it, he played his shot.

Then, as Nicklaus was about to putt on the ninth, a spectator yelled at him and he, too, stepped away. But on resuming play, he missed the putt. And as both men headed towards the 10th tee, Player had a cup of ice thrown in his face. Confronting his assailant, he asked: "What have I ever done to you?" Which brought the reply: "You're a damned racist."

Things got even worse when a spectator charged directly at Nicklaus as he crouched over an eagle putt on the 10th green. When the Bear raised his putter to defend himself, the police moved in and ended up arresting 11 troublemakers. As for the impact of these scenes on both players: Nicklaus seemed to fare worse in that he drifted to an eventual share of 11th place behind Raymond Floyd while Player battled admirably to finish runner-up.

Like most successful performers, Player has a huge ego, which makes him difficult to pin down. You wonder whether certain things are done to boost that ego or out of genuine concern for the future of the game. Like the Wednesday of Open Championship week at Carnoustie in 2007, when he made the totally unsupported claim of "almost 50 to 60 per cent of athletes" worldwide, using drugs.

He further asserted: "I'm not saying golfers; I'm saying just across the board with all sports." What did he think the number was in golf? "Well, I'd be guessing. I'd be guessing. But I think it would be . . . you want me to take a guess?" Indeed. "I would say in the world tour today . . . I would say there's 10 guys taking something. I might be way out. Definitely not going to be lower, but might be a hell of a lot more." You can imagine what a sharp lawyer would have made of that.

Then there is his lighter side. As when considering the importance of the hips in the golf swing, he was reminded of Elvis Presley, no less. "Elvis asked me for a golf lesson once," Player recalled. "He didn't have great technique but when I told him to swing those hips, his face lit up and he began dancing away. And, boy, could he swing those hips!"

When Player competed in his 50th Masters in 2007 to equal the record set by Arnold Palmer, he vowed to be back to set a new target. Which brought from Palmer the memorably dismissive retort: "Who gives a shit? If you can't win, it doesn't matter."

But setting a new record of 52 clearly mattered to Player. It's what made him a great champion, but a difficult one to like.

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