Gary Player talks Tiger, mental toughness and how he stays fit at age 74

November 8, 2011

The 74-year-old nine-time major champion has written a new book, Don't Choke: A Champion's Guide to Winning Under Pressure.

Most pro athletes hate to even say the word choke. You wrote a book about it. Why?
I've done about 14 or 15 books in my career, and it's mostly been on theory. And so I thought, is theory really the important thing? You look at Trevino — he takes the club outside the line, and he's shut. Palmer takes it back, and he's shut. Nicklaus takes it upright with a flying right elbow. Hogan took it back on the perfect plane. Snead took it back inside and up. You have all these different swings. So what makes a champion is certainly not the swing. The swing is not the thing. It's what's upstairs.

Look at me. I was small, I had to travel and I had great difficulties to compete on the Tour. I was far from home, and I saw a lot of demonstrations against me because I was from South Africa. There was a lot of adversity.

In the book you say that you never choked. How did you avoid it?
I really believe that when you're young, the difficulties you've encountered are to your advantage. When I was young my mother died when I was 8. My father worked in a gold mine 12,000 feet underground. My brother went off to fight alongside the Americans in World War II. So I said to myself "when I play one day — and I never said if, I said when, — one thing I'll never be is scared to win. Most of the time when I was playing in these big championships, when I had a chance to win, I won. I can honestly say I never lost a tournament because I flat choked. The thing is, after what I'd gone through, subconsciously I said, man, this playing in a golf tournament is Mickey Mouse compared to what I'd gone through as a young person. The worst thing you can do is to start thinking about the trophy, or the check, or the fame that you'll get out of the experience.

Are young players today softer than they were in your era?
Young people today are coming along at a different time. [Many are] obese — 26 percent of the youth, 55 percent of the grownups … how do you go into life and excel? You cannot obtain success unless you're in good condition mentally, physically and have a positive attitude.

I look at the Tour now, and there are all these international players coming in and taking over. What is the reason? You know what is? I think, we live in this great country of milk and honey. You think there's a sense of entitlement. We've got to get people to get back to the grindstone.

At one point in the book, you tell a story of how Jack Nicklaus encouraged you to practice with him right before the 1965 U.S. Open, which you won to complete a career Grand Slam. What was your rivalry like with Jack and Arnold back in the day?
We had a great rivalry. We were all very fierce competitors. We had great love and affection for each other as friends, but we did tell each other, "Look, I want to beat you like a drum." There's no question it was a tremendous rivalry.

When I read a book that says "show me a good loser, and I'll show you a non-winner," that's hogwash. Nicklaus was the most gracious loser when he lost. It was known that I wanted to win the [career] Grand Slam before him, and yet he turned around and said to me, "Why don't you come along with me and practice at Bellerive?" I said, "Jack, I don't have that kind of money, I need to go play in another tournament." He said "It'll help you win the tournament. Come on." And I went with him and roomed together and practiced together, and I've always thanked him profusely for that.

You spend a lot of time in the book discussing your mental approach to pressure situations. You write that you often played in a state of self-hypnosis. Did you will yourself into that, or did it come naturally in the heat of a round?
It's a very debatable issue. When I played, I can remember playing against Arnold Palmer in Augusta in 1961. I'm playing there, this young guy from South Africa coming over and playing against The King. There are 50,000 people there, and the only ones pulling for me are my wife and my dog. And I loved it. A lot of pros would say how hard it was to play with Arnold. I turned it around the other way. I said, "They're all pulling for Arnold. I'm going to beat him!" I taught myself to do that.

But I also got into a reverie. I've played when I didn't even recognize my wife out there. I didn't recognize my children, my best friends. I was so focused because I knew when you're trying to win a major, it's usually about one shot. I wanted to put every bit of concentration into that one thing, every time. Look at Ben Hogan, who I still think is the best player who ever played. Look at Tiger. They're in a zone. Nicklaus was pretty much in a zone. Even Trevino, for all of his talking, when he got within 30 yards of his ball, man, he was irritable. He was keyed up. Once he got near that ball he switched everything else off.

How concerned are you about performance-enhancing drugs in golf?
Let's talk about sports in general. It's getting worse. Way worse. And the problem is much bigger than professional sports. Look at the boys of 16 years of age in America who are taking human growth hormone or steroids. Look at South Africa, or any place in the world today. They're doing it because the rewards are so great. They say to themselves, "If I don't take it, I cannot be a champion." And that's the most serious thing facing sports today. It's very, very sad.

I've had golfers come to me and tell me they're taking it, but to not repeat it, and I never have. We're dreaming if we think they're not doing it. I think golf is by far one of the best in terms of performance-enhancing drugs, but we're dreaming if we think players haven't done it.

So golfers are beating the sport's new testing program?
When I was having dinner with Jack and some of the other Olympic members in Geneva, what they were saying happens today is, as they find a device to test people, so are the scientists finding a way to mask it. Look at what they found at the last Olympics. The Chinese, the Bulgarian weightlifters. You just recently read about something with Lance Armstrong and [Floyd] Landis. Would Landis say something like that if it wasn't true? It makes you wonder. Could a man really say that about another man, that he took drugs if he really didn't? It's a strange world we live in.

In a recent SI survey, 24 percent of PGA pros said they believe Tiger Woods used PEDs. How concerned are you about Tiger's potential link to steroids?
You know, I don't really want to get into a specific individual like Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods has been a great champion, he has a great work ethic, and he's had his problems, which I feel very sorry for. I must say I've found it very interesting that he's apologized and I hope that his problems are solved as soon as can be.

It's interesting how people want to just destroy him. Show me anybody that has not committed a sin in life … why are people who have committed sins in their own live so vehemently intent on destroying a guy like Tiger? The man has said he's sorry, and if he does it again, then he's a fool. But it's time to let him go on with his life now.

If Tiger came to you for advice, what would you tell him?
You've got to say that I'm sorry, and I'd like my wife to stay with me, and my children, but if she leaves it's my fault. And be humble. But I think he's done it. He's said he's sorry. What more do you want the man to do? Let him go and play golf now. Golf needs him. Golf needs him badly. He's twice as good as anybody who's played in the last 10 years. Let's give him his due. He's got the best record by miles, and golf needs him. It needs a champion.

You devoted a chapter in your book to the Latin word reviresco, which means to grow young and strong. What are you doing now to stay young and strong?
I'm a vegetarian. I try not to put any fat in my body. I try to keep this (points at stomach) like a piece of steel. I still do 1,000 sits-ups at least four or five times a week. And I continuously work on my mind. And I fill my life with happiness, because that's an essential ingredient.

I was actually going to ask how many push-ups you've done so far today.
I do a fair amount of push-ups, but not too many because I don't want to develop the front part of my body. Sometimes I'll put a 100-pound weight on my chest and do sit-ups with that on. I think there are probably very few young people who could beat me in a fitness contest.

Speaking of which, I believe we have some sort of contest planned for today. Something tells me this isn't going to end well for me.
(laughs) Well, you've been challenging me.

For the results of the contest and more with Gary Player, watch the accompanying video.