At 75, Gary Player still spreads the gospel of the game

At 75, Gary Player still spreads the gospel of the game

Gary Player won three jackets, the last in 1978.
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AUGUSTA, Ga. — On Monday evening, just a couple days after arriving from South Africa by way of West Palm Beach and a speaking engagement in San Antonio, nine-time major-winner Gary Player entertained a small group of clients, business partners and colleagues at the cavernous home he is renting for Masters week. Servers dressed in black poured shirazes and chardonnays from the Gary Player Major Championship wine collection as Player regaled his guests with sepia-toned stories of Jack and Arnie and Masters past. Just outside, a patio overlooked a Gary Player-designed golf course.

When it was time to eat, all 23 guests squeezed around a table in the dining room. Player sat at the head. To his right sat George Fellows, the chief executive of Callaway, the equipment manufacturer that Player promotes. At the opposite head, more than 50 feet away, was Marc Player, Gary’s garrulous son who heads up Gary’s deep portfolio of businesses. Shortly before the tenderloin made its way out of the kitchen, Marc announced to the table that Player Enterprises had recently been approached with an unusual endorsement opportunity. A medical firm had called to inquire if Mr. Player, who is renowned for his vitality, might be interested in putting his name on a plastic pump designed to help men with erectile dysfunction.

“It’s a $50 million company!” Marc boomed. “What do you think?”

Gary Player no longer has to decide whether to pull 7-iron or 8-iron at the 12th hole at Augusta National, but he is still regularly faced with decisions — the business kind. Two years since his last Masters appearance and 50 years since winning his first, the Black Knight remains a white-hot commodity, with a wide variety of demands — and potential partnerships — requiring his attention.

Flip through the three-ring binder that holds Player’s schedule for Masters week and you’ll find a taxing to-do list of meetings, dinners, golf outings and interviews with media outlets ranging from National Public Radio to Men’s Health. On Monday, before the schmooze session, he gave a 30-minute TV interview to a Japanese reporter, who asked Player to send words of encouragement to the tragedy-stricken people of Japan. Player didn’t flinch. He looked compassionately into the camera and told the country that it has overcome hardship before and it will do so again.

Staying engaged is in Player’s blood. “I came from a very poor family,” he says of his upbringing in Johannesburg; his father was a gold miner and his mother died when he was 8. “I was a workaholic. I had to be. Nobody ever hit more balls than this pair of hands. I don’t care who it is. And I’m still that way today. When you think of where I travel and the hours I put in and how I get up at 5 o’clock in the morning on my ranch and work all day – and that’s what keeps me young.”

Player’s not shy about trumpeting his accomplishments — the nine majors, the 162 worldwide wins, the 1,000 sit-ups a day. (“I’m 75,” he said in a press conference Tuesday, “and I could beat 80 percent of young boys off the street in a fitness contest today.”) But you can’t blame the man. As a rising talent out of South Africa in the late 1950s, Player couldn’t possibly garner the same attention and adoration as his greatest rivals, Palmer and Nicklaus, even when Player flatly deserved it. That much became obvious to him when he warded off Palmer — and the galleries — during a Monday finish at the ’61 Masters.

“It was difficult because understandably they’re pulling for Palmer,” Player says. “They’re more or less screaming for Palmer. The only people pulling for me that day were my wife and my dog.”

Player didn’t play his best, shooting 74. But a gritty up-and-down from the bunker at 18 helped him edge Arnie by one and become the first Masters winner from overseas. “That gave me great recognition in America,” he says. Having already won a British Open, in 1959, Player needed just four more years to button down the career grand slam.

Player’s global success and the estimated 15 million miles he has flown to play tournaments, build courses and spread the gospel of golf has played an undeniably important role in popularizing the game. It’s a duty Tiger Woods inherited in the late 90s, but Player worries that Woods’s recent downturn has limited his ability to attract new golfers to the game.

“When Tiger was playing [at his best], people always put their television on,” Player says. “No question it made a massive difference. This dominant figure, this strong athlete — and lucky to be black, because he was giving a message to people of the world who weren’t white. He was giving them confidence. I know in South Africa they’d put the TV on, and, man, these little black kids in Soweto with their little TV sets, they’d see that the best player in the world is black. They’d think, ‘It gives me this dream.’ It was so important for Tiger to be up there at No. 1 — it was about more than just golf.”

Masters week is also about more than just golf. It’s about pageantry, and history, and the beauty of Georgia in April. Player, who will play with Palmer and Nicklaus in the Par 3 Contest Wednesday, says he doesn’t miss it. “When I won the Masters at 42, if you said to me, ‘Gary, you’re going to have to stop playing here when you’ve played 52 times — will you miss it?’ I’d have said, ‘I will die because I’ll miss it so much.’ But I haven’t missed it that much. Why? Because when I was an athlete growing up my father gave me some good advice: Prepare yourself with another interest so when you can’t play anymore, you can go into something that you love.”

Player has gone into many other things that he loves: farming, course design, and above all thoroughbred horse racing. “I love it more than golf,” he says. Which is appropriate, because like a filly galloping down the home stretch, Player refuses to show even an ounce of letup.

“One of the greatest players that ever lived told me the other day, “I’m bored as hell,’ ” Player says. “Me? I don’t have a day where I’m not working flat-out. Thank God for that.”