Hall of Famer and three-time British Open champion Gary Player sounds off on faith, family and his special friendship with Arnold Palmer that survived the ultimate test.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
It was an education on having faith. Whether you’re a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu — whatever you are, that’s fine. For me, I’m a Christian, and that’s been the guidance of my life. I have not adhered to all the principles. I’m a sinner like anybody else, but it’s been a guiding light for me.
What’s your most prized possession?
My wife, my six children and my 22 grandchildren.
What’s your greatest accomplishment?
Being the only player on the planet to win the Grand Slam on the regular tour, and the Grand Slam on the senior tour.
How did it feel to close out the slam on the senior circuit?
I was ecstatic because nobody had done it, and I realized — I was not naïve like most people were about the Champions Tour — the standard of play was only one shot a round worse than the regular tour. Many players won on the regular tour, went to the Champions Tour, then went back on the regular tour and won. That gives you an idea. People conveniently forget about that.
How did you have so much success on the senior tour?
When I turned 50, I was almost — within 5 percent — as fit as I was when I was 25, which stood me in good stead. All the years of working out and realizing my body was a holy temple came to fruition. And today at 80 I’m not far off it.
Who is your hero?
You have to think very carefully about that. I would say Lee Kuan Yew [the late former prime minister of Singapore, who led the nation from 1959 to 1990], because he ran the most efficient country in the world. No drugs, no drug peddlers to ruin your children’s lives. No guns — nobody was ever killed by guns in that country. No graffiti to deface people’s buildings. No papers in the street. Per capita of $50,000, which is higher than any country in the world. Everybody had a job. Everybody had a home. People wanted to invest in them, and they wanted to invest in themselves. That was the epitome of perfection. And he did it from a country that was annexed by the Japanese in utter ruination, and he built it up like that. One of the most highly educated people of all time, and he did something beyond one’s imagination.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen on a golf course?
[Laughs] I’ve seen people streak on the 18th green at St. Andrews, which I was not accustomed to.
Any other stories?
I’ve seen other things — unpleasant things that happened to me. The most unpleasant thing was in 1962, playing at the Masters. I’d won it in ’61, and I had a chance to win it in ’62. I’m playing with Arnold Palmer, my dear friend. I’m two shots ahead with three holes to go. I’ve got it! I hit first on 16 and put it 12 feet from the hole. He hits the worst-looking shot you can ever hit — not even on the green, on the right fringe with the flag in the left corner. It is impossible — impossible — to two-putt from there. I said to my caddie, “We’ve won.” And his putt went around the corner, came down at 100 miles an hour, hit the flag and went in.
What happened after that?
[On 17] he hits a bad, low hook off the Eisenhower Tree — it just shatters in the tree and comes down. Then he hits a 5-iron to about 28 feet from the hole. I put a 9-iron well inside him, but he holed the putt and we were tied. We ended up going to an 18-hole playoff, which was so good.
What do you remember about that day?
I was out in 33, he was out in 36. He hits a shot on the 10th green 35 feet to the right of the flag, then knocks it across the green and in the hole. He comes back in 31 and beats me. I was shell-shocked. And that was the most unpleasant moment of my career.
Seems like the kind of experience that would end most friendships.
[Laughs] No. It enhanced it, because you gain in losing more than you gain in winning.
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