At the ripe old age of 72, Gary Player had an eventful 2007. In addition to his sundry business pursuits and eight appearances on the Champions Tour, Player competed in his 50th Masters, tying Arnold Palmer's mark for most Masters starts (a record Player will break this month); set the sports world atwitter when he revealed that at least one professional golfer had admitted to him that he had used steroids; and captained the international team at the Presidents Cup in Montreal — all while finding time for his famously rigorous daily workouts.
"I could beat the majority of the world's 40-yearolds in a fitness contest," the South African says without a trace of facetiousness.
It's a claim, given Player's longevity and trim physique, you'd be foolish to dispute. Just hours after stepping off a flight from Johannesburg, a peppy and at times fiery Player explained why he disclosed (sort of) his knowledge of steroids in golf, why he continues to compete in the Masters, and how Mike Weir made Player look wise beyond his years.
Golf Magazine: We'll get to the Masters, but first let's discuss your steroid claims. At last year's British Open, you said that at least one pro golfer, who you wouldn't name, admitted to you that he used performance-enhancing drugs. Retief Goosen then said, "I don't know what Gary Player's trying to prove by making these comments." What were you trying to prove?
Gary Player: I'm trying to make sure golf stays a clean sport. Because in most other sports (performance-enhancing drug use) is so prevalent. You see it happening in track and field, the Tour de France, in baseball.
I did not go into the press tent to talk about it. But the question was put to me: "Was I pleased that the World Golf Foundation was going to come out with a drug-testing program?" And I said, "I'm very happy about that." And then they said, "Well, do you know of anybody who takes (performance-enhancing drugs)?" And I said, "Yes." I told the truth. I think that's what people want you to do — tell the truth.
I had two (players) come to me and say, "We'd like to discuss this with you, but will you give us your solemn word that you would never discuss it with anybody?" And I said, "Yes, I give you my word." And they said, "We've tried these growth hormones. What do you think?" And I said, "I think you shouldn't. It can only do you harm. There are athletes dying all around the world. Don't you dare try any of this until we know more about it."
You'll never part with the names?
No — imagine me turning around and giving up the names. Those guys would be crucified for the rest of their lives.
Are they household names?
I would never even give you a hint because I'd be going against my word. This is what Retief didn't understand (when he said Player should not make accusations without naming names), and understandably. He didn't have the true story. There's a lot of naivete among athletes today, and particularly among golfers.
A (medical) professor in Phoenix told me about one guy who was on his way to Qualifying School, and that he was such a bunch of nerves that he couldn't play at all. This professor gave him betablockers and he went out and finished sixth.
People are being naive by not recognizing this. I was able to contribute to golf by publicizing this, and Dick Pound (head of the World Anti-Doping Agency) praised me for it.
Some Tour pros still contend they see no real need for testing.
Colin Montgomerie said, "How can performance-enhancing drugs help us? They hurt your touch and all those kinds of things." He had no idea what he was talking about. First of all, (drugs) can give you more energy and therefore you can practice longer and play more tournaments without getting tired and it improves your reflexes. How could he turn around and say something like that? It's absolute nonsense.
Would you feel guilty if one of the players who confessed his drug use goes on to win a tournament?
To be fair, golf has not had a drug policy. So anybody who's taking beta-blockers (or other drugs), I don't think you could say he was cheating. Now that we have a policy, if anybody does it, it's serious.
But would you feel guilty?
No, because after speaking to them, I think they respected what I said about how it could affect their health. I don't think they'll continue (using HGH).
Have you spoken to them since the British Open?
No. I only played eight events (on the Champions Tour) last year. I was on my ranch for five months.
So they are senior players?
I'm not going to mention a single thing! The sad thing is I've been to nine doctors and every one of those doctors recommended that Itake human growth hormones. I went to one doctor in Jacksonville with the golfer Bob Charles and (the doctor) told us we should be getting on (HGH). And we said, "There's noway we should be doing this."
Are performance-enhancing drugs of particular benefit to older golfers, guys who have lost some of their strength and flexibility?
I don't think it applies to seniors or juniors. I think it applies across the board in all sports.
In 2007, you tied Arnold Palmer's record for most Masters starts. How important is it for you to break that record this year?
I'm so pleased to have the record, not because I'll beat Arnold's record, but because young people will be able to say, "Well, here's a guy who's playing at Augusta for the 51st time, and you've got to be in pretty good shape to do that."
The one thing I've always done all my life is I've eaten properly, and I've worked out very, very hard. (Playing the Masters) is just a means of getting my message across that young people need to look after their bodies.
So does this mean you'll play the Masters into your 80s?
No, no, no, no. I'll either play one more or two more, and that'll be it.
In 1978, after your third Masters win, you said: 'I won't do what Sam (Snead) does. I won't play in any golf tournament that I can't win. I'll go to my farm.' Yet here you are 30 years later, playing a tournament you can't win.
Well, you know, Winston Churchill said, "I've never gotten indigestion from saying the wrong thing." He also said, "Change is the price of survival." So we all change and say things at the time that we think are important, and then we (recant) later.
My great dream today, if I can, is to influence at least 100 million young people in the world to eat properly and exercise, because the kids are eating absolute crap. They live on pure crap.
Why are you so passionate about this cause?
Because my son, Wayne, has diabetes. He's a Type 1. I reckon in 40 years time, unless there's a miraculous medical discovery, there will be 100 million Americans with diabetes. It's not a disease anymore — it's an epidemic. I see a great deterioration in children, and it really perturbs me. We've got to look after our young people, got to educate them.
What was your finest moment at Augusta?
Augusta's been a great hunting ground for me. I hold the record for most consecutive cuts made (23, shared with Fred Couples). I have 15 top-10s. But if I had to pick one highlight, it was shooting 30 on the back nine in 1978 to win by one.
You started seven strokes back that Sunday but said later, 'I knew before I teed it up I was going to win.' How did you know?
I was very much an extrovert when it came to being behind because in my 163 career wins I guarantee you there were at least 15 tournaments where I was six or seven behind and went on to win. I won the British Open when I was four behind. When I played Tony Lema in the World Match Play, I was 7-down and I won.
So before that round my son, Wayne, said to me, "Dad, I've never seen you play so well and you're not holing many putts. Hole some putts today and you could shoot 65 and win." Turns out, 65 would have tied. So for me to shoot 64 with a bogey on No. 9, that was my highlight.
Some people have said that Palmer handed you the 1961 Masters when he double-bogeyed the 72nd hole to forfeit the lead. How do you see it?
Everybody saw (Palmer's miscue) on 18, so this is the conclusion they all came to, particularly because Arnold was such a popular man. But when I played 13, I hit my drive to the right and had a big gap in the trees to go up the 14th fairway. I could have hit a 7-iron up there. Then I could have taken a sand wedge and might have birdied the hole.
But I couldn't move the people. I was an inexperienced young man. If that had been Nicklaus or Tiger Woods, they would have just sat down until everybody moved. But I thought, "I better not do that." I felt uncomfortable. I should have just sat there. Instead, I tried to chip it back on the fairway. I chipped it into the creek, and got a 7. Then I made a 6 at No. 15. But because Arnold Palmer made a 6 at 18, everybody forgot about (how I recovered after) my 7 and my 6.
One of the things that I'll always be grateful for is Sports Illustrated, because they said, "Gary Player wonthe Masters." They got it right.
Arnie got his due a year later.
That's right. I was leading Arnold by two shots with three holes to play — and this is the biggest disappointment I ever had at Augusta. I put my tee shot about 12 feet from the hole at 16 and Arnold missed the green to the right. He put it in the fringe between the bunker and the green, and the flag was back-left.
At the time Jimmy Demaret said Arnold would need a shag bag to get down in two because you've got to hit it 20 feet to the right. So I said to my caddie, "We've won the tournament." Sure enough, his chip came down at a tremendous pace and whacked the flag and went in. Then at 17 he hooked the ball into the Eisenhower Tree, hit a 5-iron to 25 feet and holed it. People are quick to forget these things.
You've said that chip shot was the best Masters shot you've seen.
It was fives times as difficult as the chip that Tiger Woods holed there — five times as difficult. It was the most unbelievable shot ever played at Augusta.
As captain of your Presidents Cup team last year, you selected a struggling Mike Weir as a captain's pick. He went on to beat Tiger in their singles match, then won the following week on the PGA Tour. You had to feel vindicated.
It made me feel so good because you hear this and that — how can he select him in front of me? It's a tough deal. Then he becomes the man of the match. What makes me feel so good is that selecting him could change his whole life because he hadn't been playing well last year.
Did you give Weir a pep talk?
I said to my entire team, "Understand this: That little ball doesn't know who you're playing. You just need to introduce that little ball to the hole." I played Jack Nicklaus twice in the World Match Play Championship, and beat him 5 and 4 and 6 and 4. Size has nothing to do with it. It's how you prepare yourself.
Let's discuss your recent cameo on the HBO show, Curb Your Enthusiasm. How'd that happen?
They approached us, and I heard Larry David is such a nice guy. I'm so pleased I did it because it was a lot of fun.
Might you have a second career in Hollywood?
(Laughs) No, no. I'm a farmer, man.