Interview conducted by Kenneth Quillinan, Contributing Writer
There has been an endless amount of controversy leading up to the return of golf to the Olympics after its 112 year absence. However, now that it has finally arrived, the excitement has certainly outweighed all the previous negativity, and this undoubtedly is set up to be one of the greatest weeks of golf in living memory.
One thing is for sure, the ever obliging and energetic South African captain Gary Player is fired up and determined to help his team leave Rio with a medal. Having never had the opportunity to represent his country at the Olympics, this is quite possibly the final piece missing from Mr. Player’s illustrious golfing career. I recently caught up with him to find out his thoughts about this unique event on the golfing calendar:
After such a glittering career, where would winning a gold as captain of South Africa rank in your list of achievements?
Captaining my country to an Olympic gold medal will rank among my finest achievements. Of course I wish I could have competed in my prime but this would be very special. There is no golfer today that can say they are an Olympic Champion, so that in itself is special. I always take such pride in being from South Africa and representing our country to the best of my abilities. No doubt we are fired up and ready to play.
Do you think you would have done everything possible to compete if given the opportunity?
Absolutely, believe me I would have gone anywhere. There is little that would have stopped me, if anything. I think that goes for most golfers from my generation that haven’t played for $1 million purses their entire professional career. If myself, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer or Lee Trevino had the opportunity to play, we would have been there in a heartbeat. Just imagine if it was us on the podium. Of course I would have goosebumps with the South African National Anthem playing and our flag raised.
How disappointed are you to see so many top names withdraw?
It was very disappointing, but that was their personal decision. Will they regret it 10 or 20 years from now? I can’t say. But I know the golfers here in Rio are world class athletes who are excited to compete on sport’s biggest stage for their countries.
It is obvious to see that you are a sports fanatic. Is there any other Olympic events that you are hoping to attend?
The Olympic sports I grew up playing were rugby and I was on the swimming team too. I love track and field. If you think about it, each sport represented at the Games is so unique. Different skill sets are needed to be the best in the world. It’s remarkable to see all the athletes together. You have everything from weightlifters to quick and agile table tennis players. When you watch the best compete, it’s exciting no matter what sport it is.
Are you happy with the format being used for Rio or would you have preferred to see a Matchplay event?
The IOC made the decision that stroke play made the most sense for golf’s debut in the Olympics. It is what most people are accustomed to seeing on TV as all Majors are this format. But I do believe match play or different format would have added an element to the competition in that it can make the tournament more team oriented. I do not know if we are set on stroke play for 2020 and beyond, so we will see what happens.
Many people have suggested that the Olympics should have been reserved for amateur golfers only. What is your opinion on this?
I previously said we should kick the professional golfers out of the Olympics and reserve it for amateurs who would hold it in higher esteem. I may have to retract that statement as the professionals here in Rio are grateful for the opportunity to be an Olympian. Luckily, this is for the IOC to decide. I just want what is best for golf worldwide, and for us to stay in the Olympics for as long as possible.
After Tokyo 2020, it is unsure if golf will be a part of the Olympics again. What do you feel needs to be done over the next few years to insure its ongoing existence?
We will do everything in our power to make sure golf stays. Let’s look at tennis. It was the same situation. The IOC realized tennis in the Olympics needed some time to catch on in the professional ranks because of how important Majors are just like in golf. But only time will tell.
If given the opportunity to sacrifice one of your major victories for a chance to win an Olympic medal, do you think you would take it?
Does that mean I can go back to my prime too? I think I would because I have 18 Majors, Regular and Senior Tour, and no Olympic gold medals. No seriously, I would never give up my Majors but would have cherished winning a gold medal for my country. You are world champion for a year but an Olympic champion forever.
What changes, if any, would you make to insure golf at Tokyo 2020 attracts all of the top players available?
We shouldn’t have to do much. It’s the Olympics. The greatest sporting event in the world. How can you pass up the opportunity? Like tennis I think our top players will see how special Rio was and make more of an effort for Tokyo.
Are you still very confident that South Africa can win a medal in Rio?
No player competing is very familiar with the course so it’s anyone’s match. Jaco and Brandon have played well recently. Ashleigh and Paula are very focused and determined. Obviously having the others would have helped our chances, but my, wouldn’t it be something if any of them brought home a medal after taking someone else’s spot? It would bring such pride to South Africa.
Finally, which Olympic athletes, past or present, do you admire the most and why?
I like to root for athletes who have overcome adversity to make it to the Olympics, no matter the country. I never saw him compete, but when I met Jesse Owens back in 1956 at the Melbourne Olympics we spoke about how Hitler would not shake his hand. Unbelievable. He won four gold medals! Feeling the passion and drive around this man just by talking to him made me want to stand up for others. You have to admire how he handled himself in one of the worst times. I also admire many of the Winter Olympic athletes too.