Not many people have gotten more out of their lives than Gary Player, regardless of his nine major championship victories. A few days before turning 80 (which, if you’re Player, is closer to half-time than it is the end of the third quarter) the Black Knight spoke from his West Palm Beach home, reflecting on his life’s work and opining on anything from retirement (he doesn’t know what that’s like) to America (he talks like he’s running for office, which wouldn’t be a bad thing).
You’re a few days away from your 80th birthday. There must be a big party planned…
There is, but not until the 11th of November. I’m going to be on a flight to China on my birthday for a sight visit at a course we’re building. But on the 11th we’re throwing a party at Sun City Resort in South Africa. My friends are coming from all over the world and we’re playing golf the day before the party and the day after.
Considering what you’ve accomplished, what’s left for you to do that’s more exciting than what you’ve done?
What’s so exciting about turning 80 is that I have so much energy. I work as hard at 80 as I did at 25, and I keep telling people that retiring is a death warrant. People that retire, they sit around, they do nothing and they die within three years. You have to keep moving, you have to keep working.
Your intense workout regimen is no secret. But what’s your diet like?
I had nothing for breakfast this morning except a glass of pomegranate juice and some green juice—just a bunch of vegetables put in a blender. I’m not a big meat eater. I’m 70 percent vegetarian. I try to have a good breakfast in the morning and a good lunch. I try some nights to have no dinner. When I do, it’s a very tiny dinner. I don’t eat a lot of bread, alcohol, or things like that at night. They say that you don’t put gas in your car when you park it in the garage. You gas it up during the day. The same applies to your body.
In your travels, what place or person has influenced you the most?
[Former Prime Minister of Singapore] Lee Kuan Yew is probably the greatest leader I can remember in my lifetime. He passed away recently, but to take a country of such a small size that had virtually nothing and turn it into No. 1 in the world in education is impressive. Singapore has no killings of people, no graffiti, no garbage in the street. And he did it by enforcing the principles that are necessary for everyday living.
You’re as big of a supporter of America as an U.S.-born citizen. What can we learn here?
I’ve been reading one of Lou Dobbs’ books, and I learned that in math and science America is ranked 51st in the world. We’re rated 28th in overall education! We’ve got to get the young people to realize that they live in the greatest country in the world. America used to have a monopoly, but now you’ve got China, India, Africa and Europe as competitors. The young people have got to work harder to keep America as No. 1.
I’ll never forget having dinner with President Eisenhower. He told me that you need to have the strongest army in the world because you get peace through strength. He said, ‘It’s my job to make America safe. When you’re safe others around the world invest in you.’ He said, ‘We’ve got to have discipline. We have to get people to honor this great country.’
Within the golf world, who has influenced you the most?
Ben Hogan was the best player I ever saw. He won nine majors, then went to war for five years, then had the bus accident. There were 32 major championships that he missed in his prime. Can you imagine how many he would have won? Imagine telling Jordan Spieth that you’ve got to go to war for five years.
What legacy to you hope to leave?
I’m the only person to win the career Gland Slam on both the regular Tour and the senior Tour. When I turned 50 I was in the same condition I was when I was 25. I’m the only one in the world to do it because of hard work, because I’ve looked after my body. If we want to accomplish things in our lives, we’ve got make some sacrifices.
Is there anything you’ve learned about the game that you wish you knew decades ago when you were still competing?
I won 165 tournaments with 18 majors—both regular and senior. I was second in seven majors. Had I taken the club back in my career like I do now, and had I discovered this as a young man, there’s no question I would have won four of those seven majors. That would have made a significant difference.
I played the 1969 PGA Championship in Dayton and there were protestors demonstrating against me during the event, throwing telephone books at my back, throwing ice at my eyes, charging me on the greens. I lost that tournament by one shot. There are a lot of things you look back on in life, and it’s fascinating how you learn with experience.
Golf has obviously allowed you many opportunities throughout your life. What are you most grateful for?
Arnie, Jack, Trevino and myself were recently asked what golf has done for us. Each said that golf was their life, understandably so. And I said that what golf has provided me is education. It enabled me to travel to all these different countries. I was able to understand different religions, educational systems and ways of living. I didn’t have wealthy parents; they couldn’t send me to college to get degrees. So I’ve got a degree of the world, which is far more important than a degree from Harvard or Stanford.
It’s not an interview with Gary Player, member of the original Big 3, until you’ve been asked about the “new” Big 3…how do they stack up?
It’s encouraging to see multiple guys playing at such a high level, wanting to be the future Big 3. And there are other guys who are mushrooms in the field who will come out, guys we don’t know about now. But you’ll never have a Big 3 like Arnold, Jack and myself. Playing wise, yes you might. They have to win hundreds of tournaments to pull that off. But the thing that we did that you’ll never see again—we traveled, they came to my ranch, we went down golf mines, we went to game preserves. I stayed at their homes. We traveled like three close brothers around the world playing golf. And at the same time we wanted to beat each other so badly. It’s a unique friendship, a competitive act and a traveling schedule that you’ll never see three athletes do again.
Last question, Mr. Player. What has been your most memorable birthday to date?
[Laughs] Well that’s a tough one. Every day is a great day with me. I realize you’ll have difficulties to encounter; you’re going to have good times. I once had a black gentleman working on my ranch, one of the most incredible men I’ve met in my life. He’s still alive at 95 today. And he had no education. I said to him one day, ‘Willy, when’s your birthday?’ He said he didn’t know. I said, ‘Surely you know when your birthday is. And he said, ‘No, every day is my birthday.’ He didn’t worry about age. He said, ‘It’s how strong you are today.’ It’s how strong you feel.