Gary Player is a household name for every golfing fan, and as he celebrates his 60th year of professional golf, the Sunshine Tour reflects on The Black Knight’s career.
“To be involved in a sport like golf as a professional for 60 years is just a thrill,” he reflects. “I’ve obviously exercised, watched my diet, been a good sleeper and a hard worker.”
At 77 years old, Player has seen it all in his six decades of golf and has chalked up 165 professional titles worldwide, including nine major championships that were later matched by nine senior majors after the age of 50.
From the get-go he was destined for greatness. At 17, just three years after he first swung a club, Player teed off in his first professional event – the Santa Clara Transvaal Open. He went on to finish second to the great Bobby Locke, announcing himself to the South African golfing fraternity and launching one of the greatest golfing careers in history.
His meteoric rise in the golfing world was due not only to hard work, but to passion, and Players recalls being a youngster who had little interest in the game – until the bug bit.
“At the age of 14, I played cricket and football and rugby and didn’t really want to play golf as I thought it was a sissy’s game,” says Player from his Colesberg farm.
“My father asked me to come out and play a game with him, though, and the first three holes were very short. It was a par three with a wedge and then two holes with a drive and a wedge, and I started par-par-par.
“After that I had eights and nines and 12s and all manner of numbers, but I was hooked. Absolutely, irretrievably, 100 per cent hooked.”
There are many steps on the road to greatness, and many players plateau before they reach the highest of golf’s honours. Player took each step in his stride and by the age of 29 he had completed the major grand-slam, a feat otherwise achieved by Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazan, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus.
“It’s hard to speak on behalf of others but as far as I’m concerned it’s merely a gift from the man above. To be one of five is unbelievable, but I can’t take the credit for it. People use the word ‘great’ or ‘superstar’ so loosely these days but I think there have only been around 12 in the long history of golf.
“The common factor is they’ve all got, or had, what they call ‘it’. Nobody can define ‘it’. Nobody can describe ‘it’. But everyone has got an opinion on what ‘it’ is,” said Player.
A lot has changed since The Black Knight first competed in the majors. Aside from using small rings to judge whether a ball was still round enough to use and from the incredible length of new courses the world of golf is totally different.
“I think of the first time I went on the tee at St Andrews in 1955. Dunlop came up to me and said ‘Here are a couple of balls for you for the week’! Now you get four-dozen balls, a new driver, new shoes, free phone calls, free lunches, free courtesy cars, free hire cars, a gymnasium, a million-dollar first prize, and there I was in ’55 sleeping on the beach where they filmed Chariots of Fire,” he said.
Ever the fitness fanatic, Player is known to endure gruelling workout sessions. He swears by physical strength and fitness in the game of golf, and attributes much of his success and longevity in the game to being a pioneer of athleticism in the sport.
“You’ve got to stay fit, you’ve got to stay lean and mean and not get heavy, and you’ve got to have the right mind-set. But I think particularly physically, to stay in shape is the important thing. Frank Stranahan and I were the first ones in golf ever to do weight training and people ridiculed and teased us and said we were nuts and couldn’t do it. And now today they are even lifting weights before they play.
“There was such a lack of knowledge back then. The power of fitness is just astounding,” he said.
Showing no signs of tiring and ever the optimist, Player would rather look ahead than reminisce, but when asked to consider his career in golf he said:
“I’ve been extremely fortunate to have such a wonderful life, meeting so many terrific people and having travelled probably more than any other human being that has ever lived. Sixty years of constant travel and if I stay well I’m going to be doing an awful lot still.”