GOLF Magazine Interview: Gary Player

Gary Player
Al Tielemans/SI

This interview originally appeared in the June, 1972 issue of GOLF Magazine.

Historical and geographical circumstances have both served to make Gary Player’s highly successful tenure at the top of the world’s golf scene one of mixed blessings. Or so it would seem, at least.

His homeland is South Africa. That one fact is the two-pronged fork that punctures slightly what might otherwise be the totally free-flying balloon of his outstanding success. Even with today’s convenient and quick air travel, Gary is relatively isolated from the so-called “Big Apple” of his profession, the U.S. PGA tournament circuit, and even from the lesser hubs of world golf. Thus, Gary has probably traveled more miles than any other champion golfer the game has had-travel that has meant long stretches of time very far from his home and family.

To those who know Gary well, his sometimes tortured longing for home is a much-heard plaint. Yet, while he may repeat himself in this wise with some regularity, the gypsy life that all tournament pros must live for much of every year has greater impact on Gary, simply by virtue of the distance that separates him from his wife and children.

At that, he plays exceptionally well when alone in the U.S. He came here in late February this year to play the Florida portion of the winter tour. In four events he collected some $13,884 without a victory, but never finishing worse than a tie for ninth. It is interesting to note, however, that when he won the New Orleans Open in late March, his wife was preparing to join him for the rest of his stay here. She came to Greensboro the week after New Orleans and stayed through the Masters, Gary’s last tournament during this first part of his yearly sojourn in this country.

That’s the geography. Historically, Gary came to the pinnacle of the game of golf at a time when the movement toward racial equality throughout the world, and especially in the U.S., reached a high peak, or pitch, if you will. Since Gary was, and is, a leading athletic figure from a country with very definite and strict ideas and policies of separation between its black and white peoples, he was inevitably thrust into the arena of social questions. He became an easy target for those who wished to demonstrate against racism generally and his country’s own racial practices.

As we know, tournament golf by itself is a trying profession. Those in it do not necessarily need the added weight of such problems. Most—almost all—do avoid it. Gary doesn’t. He can’t.

That Gary has done as well as he has under the circumstances of his time and place in the world is something of a marvel. In this exclusive interview, Gary Player talks about these things. While at times it may seem he has not entirely resolved the various conflicts with which he lives, he most assuredly is a man trying to do so.

GOLF MAGAZINE: How many miles a year do you travel?

PLAYER: Well I’ve been traveling now since 1954. That’s 18 years and I would say more than 1 million miles in all that time.

GOLF MAGAZINE: That works out to…we’ll do a little figuring here…about 75,000 miles a year. Talk about commuting to work! Did you call home a lot when you’re in this country?

PLAYER: I call my family on an average of three to four times a week. When I first came to the United States I used to book the call the day before, and now they dial through to Johannesburg or Capetown in a matter of minutes.

GOLF MAGAZINE: Good connection?

PLAYER: Fantastic! It sounds as if you’re speaking next door.

GOLF MAGAZINE: What does a call cost?

PLAYER: Well, I have to speak to all the kids and everyone wants to tell about their dolls and guns and this and that, so on average, by the time I talk to the whole family, I suppose each call comes to about 60 bucks.

GOLF MAGAZINE: No wonder you play so hard over here. With all this traveling for so many years, has your zest for the game—for tournament golf-diminished much?

PLAYER: I would say I’m in a very confused state of my career right now. My children are at an age when they really need me around. I think the reason you have delinquents is because parents don’t do enough with their kids. Now they need me. And it’s very difficult for my wife, too. The responsibility is very much all hers for a good part of the time. And I get homesick. I’ll get back to the motel and I’ll think, there’s a lot of space at home and my daughter could be giving me hugs and things like that. It can be terribly lonely out here.

GOLF MAGAZINE: You sound as though you could quit it all right now. Of course, you’re not going to. But even if you did seriously entertain the notion, how could you stop? You’re extremely successful-a great championship golfer—and this is your profession, your lifework.

PLAYER: Right. But, you see, money isn’t everything.

GOLF MAGAZINE: OK. But aside from money. When you’re very good at a very difficult game, how can you stop doing it? You must feel you have at least a few years of top golf left in you.

PLAYER: Oh, I’m only just in my prime now. I think I’ve got another 20 good years.

GOLF MAGAZINE: So what do you do?

PLAYER: Well, you see, quite honestly, I prefer ranching. My ranch is one of the most beautiful in the world. It’s not just a piece of ground with horses on it.

GOLF MAGAZINE: You raise thoroughbred horses, don’t you?

PLAYER: Thoroughbreds and quarter horses and also lumber for building materials and furniture.

GOLF MAGAZINE: How big is the ranch?

PLAYER: Two thousand acres. I could quit playing golf and I feel in my heart I’d be really happy with my family on my ranch. That is the only time I am, what I say, completely happy. But on the other hand, I think it’s a sin when God has given you a talent like He’s given me—I mean, I’ve already won 80 golf tournaments in the world—and you just pack it in.

GOLF MAGAZINE: So there’s the conflict.

PLAYER: There’s the conflict.

GOLF MAGAZINE: Yet you keep playing extremely high caliber golf. The highest. What is the stuff of a championship golfer?

PLAYER: That’s very difficult to answer, of course. Possibly it has something to do with, oh, athletic horse sense. Then there are reflexes. That’s one thing you never read about when they talk champion golfers. You hear a lot about strength, swing, being a good putter or a good competitor, but you never hear about reflexes.

GOLF MAGAZINE: What do you mean by that? When you think of reflexes in other sports, it usually has to do with reacting to a ball coming at you, or something like that.

PLAYER: Yes. But you see, some guys will run back to catch a ball and they’ve got that natural position and balance. Others run back and have to grab for it. Both catch the ball, but one catches it the proper way. In position. It’s not the same in golf, of course, but putting all the parts of a golf swing together properly is a matter of reflexes.

GOLF MAGAZINE: Sounds like a gift from the gods. Perhaps it’s more. It always appears that even now, with all the great success you’ve had, you’re still trying to find ways to hit the ball better.

PLAYER: Sure, because I feel I still have a great lack of knowledge about golf I think there is still an awful lot to be learned about it. I’d say the man who definitely has the most knowledge of golf is Ben Hogan. He’s the only man who has studied it from “A to zed.” The golf game is a puzzle. You’ve hundreds of pieces and you’ve got to know where each piece fits in. When I hit a bad shot I don’t want to say, oh, that’s just another bad shot. I want to know why. And when I hit a good shot, I want to know why also. This is a very difficult game, as you say. At school I was a three-letter man and all those sports put together weren’t as tough as golf.

GOLF MAGAZINE: What were those other sports?

PLAYER: Football, that is, rugby football, and cricket and track. Ran the hurdles. I also did some springboard diving. But golf is surely the most complicated of games.

GOLF MAGAZINE: Some people think that they shouldn’t know anything about it. In terms of theory, at least. That they’re better off playing golf by instinct and hoping it’s a good instinct.

PLAYER: I think that’s the worst thing to do. I’m always terribly upset when I say to a young pro or amateur, “What do you think about when you hit the ball?” And he says, “Well, I just say, there’s the ball, hit it.” They have no chance. In the long run.

GOLF MAGAZINE: Let’s talk about Lee Elder’s trip to South Africa and black golfers in your country. You once said that it’s not an athlete’s business to get involved in politics or in national or social questions in any country. But the fact is, you have involved yourself, haven’t you?

PLAYER: Yes, but slightly. I think a man can have certain things to say.

GOLF MAGAZINE: Your inviting Lee Elder to play golf in South Africa was a step in what direction?

PLAYER: Well, I’ll tell you what stirred me up. Everybody was under the impression that a black man could not go to South Africa and compete.

GOLF MAGAZINE: You mean, it wasn’t true?

PLAYER: It’s wasn’t. We’ve had blacks from time to time playing in our tournaments. Look, I’m the first to admit that there’s a lot of things wrong in South Africa, but there are things wrong everywhere in the world. It doesn’t matter where you go. There is no such thing as Utopia. Anyway, I also felt that the black golfers over here have been so nice to me—all of them have been extremely charming—and I wanted to show the black people that a black man can go to South Africa and compete. I felt I wanted to return a little bit of the hospitality to the blacks over here who have been very nice to me. And also, it would give black golfers in South Africa a tremendous amount of encouragement by seeing a top American black golfer in their country.

GOLF MAGAZINE: Are there many black golfers in South Africa?

PLAYER: Oh, yes. There really are. I mean, for example, a very gratifying and interesting point is that once Lee Elder announced he was going to play in our PGA championship, we had 18 black competitors playing in that event. Some of them beat Lee Elder in the PGA, which gave them a great kick. I mean, it’s not all that important, but it gave them a great thrill to associate themselves with Lee and to think they could beat him. This is good for golf and Lee will be the first to admit it. Now, the very next tournament was a General Motors Tournament in South Africa and 50 blacks entered. Never had 50 blacks tee it up in a U.S. PGA tournament yet, have they?

GOLF MAGAZINE: No, they haven’t.

PLAYER: Now, the very next tournament was the South African Open and they had 40, perhaps 50 blacks in it. The thing is this, there’s been a tremendous change in South African sports. We had a big athletic meeting in Capetown with blacks from all over taking part. It was a great success.

GOLF MAGAZINE: When the Elder trip was announced, some black American members of the House of Representatives said your invitation was a kind of grandstand play—that you knew Elder wouldn’t be allowed to go to South Africa—that you were just trying to make a good impression on Americans.

PLAYER: Yes, I remember that very well. Not only that, but Elder himself was put under a tremendous amount of pressure from certain black groups in the United States. But the thing is this, you must keep communicating. Isolation is bad. By Lee Elder going to South Africa and doing such a great job, he, for one thing, collected an awful lot of money from top companies for a black university in South Africa. The university really needed funds, too. And as I’ve said, it was a great inspiration for the black golfers in South Africa. I’m not concerned about whether I make a good impression here or anywhere else. I want the black golfers at home to have an opportunity. Now, President Nixon has gone to China. Communications have begun. I mean, tug-o’-war is no good in life. We are never going to solve our problems by tug-o’-war. The only way to do it is by communicating—getting together. I’m a great believer in this. I really believe a fellow like Lee Elder should be invited to the Masters. I think it would be a great gesture on behalf of the Masters.

GOLF MAGAZINE: It seems we’ve covered that subject well enough. Bobby Locke was probably the first internationally successful golfer from South Africa. How much of an influence did he have on you?

PLAYER: Well, first of all, the last thing in the world you would want to do is copy Bobby Locke’s swing. Everything he did was completely unorthodox. But the thing Bobby Locke did, I think, was set a standard. That was the influence he had on me. I had this great desire to beat him and his record. Which is what I have done now in South Africa. Now the new young boys at home have a desire to beat me and knock me off the pedestal. That’s healthy—a great thing.

GOLF MAGAZINE: The last major championship you won was in 1968. You going to win another one, or two?

PLAYER: Oh, I think I’ll win quite a few more majors.

GOLF MAGAZINE: All the best!

PLAYER: Thank you.

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