Gary Player loves attention, and always has. He likes people looking at him, and people will look at him this week, as his Presidents Cup team gets decided. Sunday’s the last day you can make the team on points. On Monday, he’ll announce his two captain’s picks to round out the 12-man squad. You can already imagine the drama with which he’ll reveal the two names. He remains one of golf’s best showmen, and there aren’t too many of them left.
Even at 71, he still makes news pretty much regularly. He played the Masters this year for the 50th time, tying Arnold Palmer’s record for appearances. Next year, he’ll break it, generating more headlines. At the British Senior Open last month, giving up 21 years to some of the players in the field, he made the cut on the demanding links at Muirfield. That’s amazing, really. Along with Sam Snead and Bob Charles, he has to be one of the best 71-year-old golfers ever. He’s still fit.
Of course, fitness is one of his subjects, and that subject dovetails these days into steroids. Steroids demean what Player did to stay fit, just as modern equipment diminishes what he did with a wooden driver. Player loved playing in his era, and why wouldn’t he? He was a prince in one of the most glamorous periods golf has ever known. Still, he has said that he would have liked to have had today’s equipment back then. He might have narrowed the gap with Nicklaus even more.
The performance-enhancing drugs, though, are another thing. He regards them as cheating. At the British Open at Carnoustie, Player set off a mini-storm by saying he knew the names of at least two pros who were using performance-enhancing drugs. He was at a press conference where he was supposed to talk about the new inductees at the World Golf Hall of Fame. Some people were all over him for that, for saying what he said and for saying it where he said it. A classic case of kill the messenger.
You can be sure he won’t do that again, at least not at the Monday press conference to name his captain’s picks. That would be stealing attention from himself. But you can be sure he’ll do something interesting. Jack Nicklaus, for his captain’s picks for the American team, will likely take the players ranked 11th and 12th on the qualifying points list. But who knows what Gary Player will do? Maybe he’ll pick Nick Price and his son Wayne Player. With the Black Knight, you never know.
That is why the man continues to be so alive. But if he wants to talk about possible steroid use in golf, who are we to shut him down? For decades, Nicklaus used almost every press conference to say the golf ball was going too far. He did it out of respect for the game and its courses. He was trying to bring about change. Gary Player has won all four of golf’s major titles and a whole lot more. He didn’t get there by working off a script, and he has no reason to work off one now, whether he’s talking about drugs or his captain’s picks or anything else.
The fact is, he did golf a huge favor by saying what he said. (“I know some are doing it. We’re dreaming if we think it’s not going to come into golf.”) The denials were fast and furious, from Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and Nick Faldo, and even from golfers who will be on Player’s international team come September, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen. Some time ago, Woods said he didn’t think drugs were a problem because he didn’t see “240 or 250 [pounders], in shape, all cut up, all ripped up. We don’t have guys out there like that.”
For a man of Woods’s intelligence, that’s a surprisingly naive comment. “You can have any body type you want on steroids,” says Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor who studies the role of steroids in sports. Do any Tour de France cyclists weigh 240 pounds? An athlete takes steroids so that he may recover more quickly from a workout, so that he may workout again. Size has nothing to do with it. Strength, speed and agility do.
Gary Player, the wee little man, proved that 40 years ago, when he managed to use his mushy ball and dead driver to play with Big Jack and Arnold and Billy Casper. He did it with diet and sit-ups and a few hundred balls a day. At 71, not much has changed. His score at the Masters this year was 16 over par for two rounds. On greens that fast, on a course that long, from a man of that age? One-sixty for two rounds is amazing.
The man’s earned the right to pick up the microphone and talk about what he sees in the game, as long as he’s being honest. We know he likes us to look at him. That’s OK. You know, too, that he loves the game. The way he plays, the amount he plays, the things he says, his captaincy of the international team — he has to.
When he makes his captain’s picks on Monday, he’ll be trying to stick it to his old rival, Jack Nicklaus, once again. He’ll be keeping himself in the game. But he’ll be trying to do something good for golf, too. That’s what he was doing at the British Open when he opened his mouth.