Gary Player on hosting the Humana with Bill Clinton, Rory McIlroy’s Olympic dilemma and being the world’s most frequent flyer

Gary Player
Phil Inglis / Getty Images
Gary Player won nine majors in his pro career.

Former President Bill Clinton will have some help hosting the Humana Challenge and promoting the sponsor’s message of healthy living: nine-time major winner Gary Player. A longtime advocate for physical fitness, Player, 77, is a new spokesman for Humana. We caught up with him to talk about breaking his age by six shots, frequent-flier secrets and why majors are easier to win today than in Jack Nicklaus’s time.

What’s it like stepping into Bob Hope’s shoes as a brand ambassador and host for the Humana Challenge, formerly the Bob Hope Classic?
I played there quite a lot and enjoyed being there and meeting Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. Palm Springs was a wonderful spot to go to, and I’m very excited to go back now, and to see a man like President Clinton who’s heavily involved in this great tournament. They do so well with the money that they raise. I can honestly say that I don’t know any association that I’m more excited to be with than Humana because this is something that is very close to my heart. In 1953 I started exercising with weights, and there were only two of us who did it, Frank Stranahan and myself. Now I’m 77 years of age and still as fit as ever. I can still do a thousand sit-ups, and I work out with weights every week. I’m very careful not to eat food with high fat and excessive sugar; I’m probably about 75 percent vegetarian and it stood me in great stead.

Why were you so far ahead of the curve in your attention to exercise and diet?
When my brother went to war in 1943, I was 9 years old. He went to the America’s Fifth Division. I can still see him standing there in his khaki uniform saying to me, “Look, you’re small of stature, you must promise me you’ll exercise for the rest of your life because you want to be a professional athlete.” I made that promise and I’ve adhered to it.

Have you played golf with President Clinton yet?
I’ve not played golf with him but I’ve spent time with him at the Presidents Cup, and he’s the most warm and personable person you could wish to meet. We spoke about South Africa and how great it was to see the change in South Africa, and we spoke about a man we both love very much, President Nelson Mandela. And we spoke about diets and keeping fit. It’s a wonderful experience being around him.

Have you had any contact with Nelson Mandela since he’s been ill?
No. He’s been living away from society now at his age of 94. I used to see an awful lot of him, but not now.

You claim to be the “world’s most traveled athlete.” President Clinton’s wife, Hillary, logged 950,000 miles in her four years as secretary of state. How does that compare with your schedule?
I don’t have any hesitation saying I’ve traveled more miles than any human being who ever lived. I’ve been doing it for 60 years. Think about that. We’re talking about a secretary of state traveling for four or five years, then we walk about businessmen representing a company for 25 years, or a pilot. The other day I met a Lufthansa pilot in Germany who said, “You’ve traveled almost as many miles as I have. I’ve been traveling for 35 years.” I said, “Mr. Captain, you’re dreaming. I’ve been traveling for 60 years. You’re nowhere near me.” I’ve never met anybody who’s traveled consistently millions and millions and millions and millions of miles for 60 years.

Tell us one of your travel secrets.
Yesterday I left my ranch in South Africa [to fly to Florida]. I set my alarm for 20 past 4 and I got up and exercised profusely. If you exercise profusely, then when you get on the plane you’ll be able to sleep well. I watched everybody around me eating like it was the Last Supper, and all I had was three bananas and a lot of water. The worst thing you can do is overeat on these planes, having these drinks and eating all this fatty bacon. I just don’t understand it.

What city has the best airport?
That’s a very hard question. The best airport I’ve seen might be Beijing or Hong Kong.

In 1963, you lost the Bob Hope in extra holes to Jack Nicklaus. What stands out most in your memory about that tournament?
Meeting and spending time with President Eisenhower, whom I admired very much. Also, there was a very beautiful movie star who was at the presentation. She loved golf and she was so sweet. A sudden death playoff is always so tough. There’s so much luck to it. I lost a lot of sudden death playoffs in my career, but fortunately I won a lot of 18-hole playoffs, which meant a lot, particularly the U.S. Open.

I thought the 1963 Bob Hope Classic was an 18-hole playoff.
It might have been. I really cannot remember. Sorry about that.

It was 40 years ago.
That’s right. Isn’t it wonderful? I was ridiculed and teased an awful lot doing weights. There was a famous golf architect who said, “Gary Player will be finished when he’s 35 because you cannot do weight training and play golf.” The other day I played in a golf tournament in South Africa and I shot 66 at 77 years of age. On average I beat my age by six shots.

What’s the biggest difference between a Tour event in 1963 versus today?
There are probably 100 guys who can win a tournament now, and back when we played there were probably 60. But I think it was harder for Jack Nicklaus to win a major championship than it is at the moment because when Jack won major championships there were so many other guys who had won numerous major championships. There’s a very big difference between a major and a regular Tour event. Plus, the prize money. They win more money today in two tournaments than I won in my entire Tour career. But that’s fine. Money was not the criteria for me. I wanted to be the best. I wanted to try to win the most major championships. I didn’t do that on the regular tour, but I won the most major championships on the Senior Tour. I always tell people, winning the grand slam on the senior tour was far more difficult to win than the regular grand slam. They don’t understand that and I say, “Well, first of all, I had to do it after the age of 50." The reason I did it was that I stayed in shape and I kept my weight down.

Rory McIlroy is going to have to choose between representing the United Kingdom or Ireland in the 2016 Olympics. It’s very different, but as a South African golfer during the apartheid era, you often dealt with political considerations outside the game of golf. What would be your advice to McIlroy?
That’s purely something he has got to decide himself. This is nothing you can give anybody advice on. He’s not going to win either way, that’s the tragedy. When I played in the British Open in the 1960s I had one leg white and one leg black. It was a quiet way of demonstrating against apartheid. You get criticized by some and praised by others. I invited Lee Elder to South Africa. President Obama should be the first president to give Lee Elder a medal or award or some recognition. He came to South Africa and we broke the apartheid barrier [at the 1971 South African PGA Championship, four years before Elder became the first African American to compete in the Masters in 1975].

I went to my prime minister [John Vorster] at that time, who was a great advocate of apartheid, but I played golf with him. I said, “Please, Mr. Vorster, I want to put a spike in the wheel of apartheid” -- I thought he was going to kick me out of his office immediately -- “and I’d like to invite Lee Elder, the black golfer to come and play in our PGA.” He stood  there and he pondered. It felt like five hours. Then he said, “Go ahead.” Lee Elder was under great pressure from certain groups not to go, and I was called a traitor at the airport in Cape Town. But Lee Elder came down and the tournament went off extremely well. I just felt that was a big thing. I see medals being award for athletic prowess, but that doesn’t compare to what Lee Elder did, and he’s never been given the recognition he deserves.

The other news with Rory McIlroy is that he is switching to Nike Clubs. Did you ever make a major club change in your career?
I must have done it at least five or six times.

Does it make a difference?
Not at all. If you’ve got talent, you can handle most things. I go to Callaway twice a year. You just can’t believe it. They tell you what spin rate you have, what club speed you have, they give you a driver that gives you more topspin, they can tell you the flight, they can tell you the kick point. It’s just a miracle. When I think of how far I can hit it at my age today. If I never had these clubs, what would I do? I would love to see how Nicklaus would have played with these conditions.

Who’s your early Masters pick?
I don’t see how you go by two players: Rory and Tiger Woods. Those are the two guys. No. 1 and 3 in the world, and they both want to win that very badly. But to pick a player, you’re talking about four days of a man’s career. He’s only got to have a really hot putter that week and he’s the winner. It’s almost impossible.

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