SINCE GARY PLAYER TURNED 75 on Monday, I thought I should share a story about the Hall of Famer and one of the Big Three along with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
The problem is, I don’t have a Gary Player story. I haven’t met golf’s first globetrotter. I have seen him play on a few occasions. Author friend John Coyne had a terrific Player story, though. He told it to me when we attended the 2008 Masters and watched Player walk up one of Augusta’s fairways.
It’s 1969. You’re traveling through South Africa and decide to pick up the phone book and find the listing for Gary Player. There it is. You call and the South African golf great and five-time major winner (at that time) invites you over for tea. No kidding, that’s how it happened.
Here’s the story in John’s words:
I interviewed Gary years ago at his home in South Africa when I was visiting all the countries I hadn’t seen when I was with the Peace Corps. Gary invited me to his farm for tea one Sunday afternoon.Player later said his views about apartheid began to change as he traveled the world. Nonetheless, many assumed that he supported the system. He had said so in his book in the mid 1960s.
His father was there, a retired mine worker, as well as his step-mother. Gary’s wife was playing in a golf tournament. She, too, was a fine player, a South African women’s champ.
Gary had designed his ranch home so that each room was a collection of items he had picked up from around the world. For example, he had a Western Room full of saddles, horse gear, and wild west paintings from America. There was a Spanish Room, as well as an Asia Room.
In the doorways of his kids’ rooms he had a bar installed so that his boys (Vivienne and Gary have six children) could do one or two chin-ups entering and leaving their bedrooms. It is not for nothing that Gary is nicknamed Mr. Fitness. (He is also called the Black Knight for his history of always wearing black when playing tournaments.)
Gary was a poor kid who lost his mother when he was 8 or so, and started to play golf at 14 when his father took out a loan to buy him a set of golf clubs that he could play with. His father worked in the gold mines of South Africa. Gary had a brother who is a famous environmentalist.
Gary only finished secondary school and then turned pro. His father wrote a letter to Bobby Jones more than 50 years ago asking him to invite young Gary to the Masters, saying how great his son was, and it worked!
When I visited Gary back in 1969, he kept talking about the “winds of change” coming to South Africa as he led me around the farm and introduced me to his African workers, all of whom he knew by name. I was there, of course, during the apartheid years. It took over 20 years before apartheid finally ended in South Africa.
At the 1969 PGA Championship in Dayton, Ohio, someone threw water in Player’s face. At the 1971 U.S. Open at Merion, he received death threats. That same year, Player invited Lee Elder to play in the South African PGA Championship in Johannesburg. It was the first integrated golf tournament in South Africa’s history.
In 2004, Charlie Sifford, the first black man inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, asked Player to handle the introduction. In his speech, Sifford called Player “my man forever.” A product of a racist system, it seems to me that Player had a genuine conversion.
Gary Player was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974. He has 165 professional wins, including 24 PGA Tour victories and nine majors.
−The Armchair Golfer
(Images: Keith Allison/Flickr)