Happy 82nd Birthday to the Black Knight, Mr. Gary Player…
By Claudia Mazzucco – On this day, November 1, 1935, Gary Player was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, the third of three children to Harry and Muriel Player. His father was a captain in a gold mine who spent most of his working life 12,000 feet underground. His mother was a well-educated women who died of cancer when Gary was eight. “My brother went to war at 17 to fight with the British and Americans in WWII, while my sister went to boarding school,” he said. “I’d come all the way home from school each night, by bus and tram, to a dark house, nobody there. I was eight. I’ve got to cook my food, iron my clothes, get up in the morning at five. I lay in bed every night wishing I was dead, crying. It’s the reason I became a champion: because I knew what it was to suffer. To struggle. And to never give up.”
Player began his pro career by giving lessons at a dollar a time on a driving range. “I had to give my boss 50 cents and I kept 50. That’s how I saved money to go overseas.” At age 15, during a recovery from a serious neck injury, he remembered looking in the mirror and repeating over and over, “You will be the greatest golfer in the world.” He turned professional in 1953 at age 18 and won his first tournament in Egypt two years later. He traveled to Great Britain and Australia. In 1957, he came to the United States. The next year, he won the Kentucky Derby Open and was second at the U.S. Open in Southern Hills Country Club, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Becoming the best golfer in the world was a goal I set as a young boy,” he said. “Getting to where I am today was extremely difficult and took unbelievable sacrifice and hard work.”
Player is one of the finest sportsmen to emerge from South Africa. A diminutive (he is just 5 feet 6, 150 pounds), holier than thou, sometimes self-opinionated pain in the neck. Arnold Palmer said, “His accomplishments in golf and life rival the achievements of any person who has ever played the game. The obstacles that he overcame in the formative years of his career are what made his great success so remarkable and admirable.”
He won the Open Championship in 1959, 1968 and 1974, and he regards it as the greatest championship in the world. “Historically, there’s nothing in the game to compare to The Open,” he said. “The thing about The Open is – it’s not ‘well caddie, how many yards have I got to go? 150? Give me an 8 iron!’ You can say, ‘Caddie, how many yards have we got to go? Today, it’s a sand wedge, tomorrow it’s a 2 iron.’ And that’s what I love. You have to use instinct, which is the way you should play golf. The Open Championship gives you the ultimate test that no other championship gives you in comparison.”
Throughout a career spanning seven decades, Player has captured 167 tournaments with 18 majors – both regular and senior. He won nine majors on the regular tour and nine on the Senior Tour. he won the World Match Play title five times, the Australian Open seven times and the South African Open thirteen times. He shot 59 to win the Brazilian Open in 1959 (the only 59 ever in a national open). He was second in seven majors. He represented his native South Africa in 16 World Cups.
He became the first foreign-born winner of the Masters in 1961, the first non-American to top the money list on the US Tour (1961), the first and only player to win the Open in three different decades and one of only five men in history to achieve the Grand Slam, which he completed at age 29 with his victory at the 1965 United States Open in Bellerive Country Club, where he defeated Kel Nagle in a 18-hole playoff. He did it all while flying from South Africa with his wife Vivienne, six children and a mountain of luggage, which meant a 90-hour round trip, in a plane, “without disposable diapers,” as he once recalled. He also muscled in on Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, to make it the Big Three.
“You’ll never have a Big 3 like Arnold, Jack and me,” Player said. “We traveled, they came to my ranch, we went down golf mines, and we went to game preserves. I stayed at their homes. We traveled like three close brothers around the world playing golf. And at the same time we wanted to beat each other so badly. It’s a unique friendship, a competitive act and a traveling schedule that you’ll never see three athletes do again.”
Player earned the nickname Mr. Fitness because of his impressive dedication to exercise. He was working out long before such terms as high intensity training, core body strength and strength training, were common in locker rooms and gyms all over the world. “Looking back on the attitudes of golfers toward exercise, I am very proud to be the first to have helped changed their mindset,” Player said. “Golfers were not really thought of as athletes even just a few decades ago. Now, they train like athletes do in other sports like rugby. The PGA Tour even has a traveling gym. We have come a long way from when I had to go to the local YMCA.”
A strong mind along and an excellent putting ability were of the most importance for him to become a golf superstar. In fact, he thinks that only those who have won six majors classified as superstars. “The greatest weapon that exists is the mind, the second greatest weapon is being a good putter. To be a superstar you’ve got to putt well and to win majors you’ve got to putt extremely well. The old Scottish saying ‘you drive for show and you putt for dough laddie’ is so true.”
His greatest disappointment happened in April 1962. “I was leading Arnold Palmer by two shots with three holes to go at the Masters,” Player said, “and he hit his shot to the 16th up on the right where you can’t go. I was twenty feet away and I said to my caddie: “We’ve won this.” Well, he hit his shot, it is travelling about 100 mph because it is impossible to stop the ball from up there, and didn’t hit it the hole and go in. At the 17th hole, he hook his tee shot into Eisenhower’s Tree, and then hit a five iron to 35 feet and holed that one as well. So we have a playoff and I was leading him by three shots with nine holes to go. And he shot 31 for the back nine. That was one tournament Arnold won with miracles.”
His other majors included the PGA Championship in 1962 and 1972, and the Masters in 1974 and 1978. The last was perhaps the most surprising. Player, at age 42, trailed by seven shots entering the final round, but birdied seven of the final ten to shoot 64 for a one-shot win over Rod Funseth, Hubert Green and Tom Watson. He has made another fortune on the United States Senior Tour and developed extensive business interests. As he wrote in his autobiography: “What I have learned about myself is that I am animal when it comes to achievement and wanting success. There is never enough success for me.”
Claudia M. Mazzucco is a researcher at Golf Channel and teacher of History of Golf at the PGA of Argentina, in Buenos Aires. She is the author of Legendary Lessons (2016), El Golf de los Tiempos, A Novel (2002) and The Guide of Golf Courses in Argentina (2003). She received the PGA Award from the PGA of Argentina in 2005