Interviewed by Michael Vlismas
Published by Playboy South Africa July 2012
Gary Player is South Africa’s most successful sportsman. He has won 18 Majors, including nine on the regular tour and nine on the senior tour, is one of only five players to ever win the Grand Slam, and the only player to win the Grand Slam on the regular and senior tour. He has 165 tournament victories worldwide and is widely considered the most successful international golfer of all time. He is a legend around the world as much for his golf as his humanitarian efforts.
PLAYBOY: Gary, you’ve got a number of titles people know you by. Grand Slam Champion. The World’s Most Travelled Athlete. Golf’s Global Ambassador. Mr Fitness. But perhaps the most well known is The Black Knight. How did this nickname and penchant for dressing in black come about?
GARY PLAYER: It goes back to my childhood. I loved watching cowboy films. There was one show in particular that I loved called Have Gun – Will Travel. The main character was called Paladin. He was this kind of gentleman gunfighter who helped people. He wore black and his calling card was a chess knight symbol. I imagined myself wearing the black Stetson and clothing that he did, and I liked the fair play that he represented. So I adopted the clothing, and we used the black knight symbol as our corporate identity.
PLAYBOY: It’s kind of ironic – The Black Knight coming from a then white-ruled South Africa. That was a difficult time for everybody?
GARY PLAYER: It was a dark time for a beautiful country, and it hurt us all in various ways. I was criticised a lot. Some people said I was too liberal, others said I wasn’t doing enough to help break down Apartheid. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my life, it’s that you can’t please everybody. I remember, I once told my mother-in-law that when I become a world champion, everybody will love me. She said, “Don’t bet on it.” I played in tournaments in the United States where people were throwing ice in my face and shouting on my backswing. I had death threats and people calling me a racist. But I have peace within myself that I have always done my best for my country, and to help bring about the equality we enjoy today. In 1971 I met with Prime Minister BJ Vorster and I said to him, “I want to try to end Apartheid in South African sport. Will you help me?” I thought he was going to throw me out of his office. But he said, “What’s your plan?” So I invited the African American golf professional, Lee Elder, to play in South Africa. He was the first black golfer to play in one of our three traditional “Major” tournaments in South African golf, the others being the South African Open and the South African Masters. It was also the first integrated sports event held in South Africa since Apartheid became official government policy in 1948. I was very outspoken against Apartheid. A lot has been said about me, both good and bad, and I have always tried to respond to both with love and humility. But what has been said about me and the supposed fact that I did not play a big enough role in bringing down Apartheid in South Africa has often hurt me most deeply, because it is so untrue. Upon his release from prison, I met with Nelson Mandela. He said, “Gary, thank you for being such a great ambassador for our country.” And that’s good enough for me.
PLAYBOY: As you say, there are still the stories and rumours. Can you set the record straight on what happened at Durban Country Club when Papwa Sewgolum received his first prize in the rain when he won the 1963 Natal Open?
GARY PLAYER: It has been reported that I sat in the clubhouse and did nothing about the situation. But the truth is that I wasn’t even there. I never played in that tournament. But I did sponsor Papwa on a trip to play in Australia. And when Vincent Tshabalala, one of South Africa’s leading black professional golfers, travelled overseas and won the 1976 French Open, I was proud to be able to sponsor that trip for him. In the 1980s I resigned as President of the Sunshine Tour – the professional circuit in South Africa – because the Tour refused to grant black golfers equal rights. My own regular caddie overseas was a black man – Alfred “Rabbit” Dyer. He caddied for me for 18 years. And when Charlie Sifford, one of the pioneering black golfers in America who did so much to gain equal rights there, was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004, he graciously asked me to perform his induction at the ceremony. Those are the relationships and friendships I will always treasure.
PLAYBOY: Golf is now a very multiracial sport. Let’s look at Tiger Woods. Do you think he’ll ever win another Major?
GARY PLAYER: Yes I do, when he stops listening to all the swing coaches he employs and goes back to his own understanding of the golf swing. But the way he’s swinging the golf club now, there’s no way he’ll win another Major. He’s moved away from some of the basics behind the golf swing. I don’t understand why he relies so much on these swing coaches. Most of these guys couldn’t break 100 on a golf course themselves. I must take a lesson from a guy who can’t break 100? When I want to invest my money, do you think I take it to my next-door neighbour?
PLAYBOY: Is Tiger Woods the greatest player in the history of the game?
GARY PLAYER: No. He’s one of the greatest, no doubt. He’s probably the most talented to ever play the game. But in my opinion, Ben Hogan was the greatest player in the history of golf. And, of course, Jack Nicklaus. Jack was just such an incredible competitor.
PLAYBOY: You, Nicklaus and Palmer had such a great rivalry as the Big Three. But c’mon, were you really such good friends? Surely you wanted to beat the hell out of each other?
GARY PLAYER: Of course we did. We wanted to beat each other every time we played. Heck, we wanted to beat each other playing cards. But we respected each other too much to let our competitiveness affect our friendship. We travelled together, stayed in each other’s homes. We still do so today. Our wives are great friends. I don’t think you’ll ever see a time like that in the game again – when three dominant players can be such good friends as well.
PLAYBOY: What’s your favourite story of the three of you?
GARY PLAYER: On one trip we went to Zambia to play together, and we travelled through this thick bush at night and the locals were telling us about all these Gaboon Viper snakes and how deadly they were. Of course, we were a little concerned about that. We booked into our hotel. Our manager then, Mark McCormack, and Arnold were in a room together on the third floor. Later that night, with everybody still thinking about those Gaboon Vipers, I climbed out of my room window and walked along the balcony, which was only a few feet wide. And bear in mind that I’m very afraid of heights. I squeezed along that balcony all the way to Mark and Arnold’s room. Then I pressed my face right up against their window and slapped my hands on it. Mark looked up, saw this apparition and got such a fright he screamed, “Arnold!” And Arnold came running out of the next room with a golf club, ready to hit the first thing he saw. I began laughing like hell, but had to hang on as well. I shouted to them, “Open the bloody window before I fall to my death.” They were kind enough to let me in after that.
PLAYBOY: Golf has changed a lot since those days?
GARY PLAYER: It’s a different game now. It’s an easier game now. The ball goes 50 yards further. The clubs with their once illegal grooves, lightweight shafts, bunkers that are prepared with a machine. We used to rake the bunkers with our feet. Now, it’s all uniformly done, and fairways that are cut short and greens that are like a snooker table. We just never saw that in our era.
PLAYBOY: What concerns you most in the game at present?
GARY PLAYER: The distance the ball goes. Now everybody is lengthening their golf courses unnecessarily. All they had to do was let the technology go with the average golfer, and limit it with the pros. Otherwise, what’s going to happen to the golf courses? Are they going to make them longer? Are we going to spend more money on golf courses? That means more costs for water, machinery, labour, and that’s what’s hurting golf. The costs keep going up and up and they levy members and they don’t like that so they leave. I’m in favour of two balls – one for amateurs and one for the pros.
PLAYBOY: It seems like professional golf was a lot more fun in your era?
GARY PLAYER: We had some great times. The one year, in the World Series in Akron, Ohio, I left for the golf course and we hit this massive traffic jam. I could see the course but we just weren’t moving. I knew I wasn’t going to make my tee-off time like this. So I saw this hippie on a motorbike. I jumped out the car and stopped him, and I said, “I’ll give you $50 if you give me a lift to that golf course.” He agreed. So there I was, wearing these white pants and with my golf clubs on my back, sitting on the back of a motorbike and speeding to the course. We drove straight through the security, so they were all after us as well. But I made the tee off. The press got a hold of the story, and the next day the headline read: “Hell’s Angel gets Player to the Tee on Time.” But probably one of the funniest moments I ever had on a golf course involved my mother-in-law. It was during an exhibition match against Billy Casper at Kyalami Golf Club in South Africa. On the one hole I hit a big hook. And would you believe it, out of 7,000 people there, I had to hit my mother-in-law on the knee. When I got to her she said, “Yes, I know you were aiming for me.” I replied, “If I was aiming at you I would’ve hit you on the head.”
PLAYBOY: You have a very successful golf course design business. What’s your design philosophy?
GARY PLAYER: It depends on the client. If they want a championship course to host a tournament, then we give them one. But generally, one has to build golf courses much softer and easier for members. The majority of golf courses obviously would be for members. The trend now is environmental sensitivity. The days of massive and unnecessary earthworks are behind us. You’ll also see courses designed to minimise irrigation needs because water has become more and more scarce. I’m a farmer at heart, and all of these factors are extremely important to me.
PLAYBOY: You mentioned farming. Your farm in the Karoo is very important to you, as are your horses?
GARY PLAYER: Being on my farm is the greatest therapy in my life. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t say thank you for the privilege of having a place like that. I put on my old clothes and really get my hands dirty there. And I love it when my children and grandchildren join me. We ride horses, play cowboys and Indians. I’ve got an eco golf course I’ve built there as well. It’s a largely water-free golf course. I’m experimenting with new design techniques and so on. But I love it. I’ve got 21 grandchildren and 200 horses. Hell, I’ve got to win a tournament to break even, man. My children and the horses eat like it’s the Last Supper. One of my favourite stories of my farm is when we had just bought it. We used to have those old switchboard lines. Anyway, I was convinced my neighbour’s wife was listening in on my phone calls. I could hear her, but I wasn’t sure. So the one day, I’m talking to a friend about a horse I bought, and I mention to him how much I paid for the horse. The next minute, on the line I hear this woman say, “What! That much for a horse?” “Got you,” I said. And then she slammed the phone down, and never listened in again.
PLAYBOY: Tell us a bit about your own family.
GARY PLAYER: Well, I had a wonderful mother who died of cancer when I was eight. That was very hard on me. I think it shaped me into the person I am today. It’s hard for a boy to grow up without his mother. I loved her dearly. My father worked in the gold mines. He showed me the power of hard work. And he had a great sense of humour, which I share. I love a good practical joke. I have a sister who is a wonderful person. She’s a real giggler. And my older brother, Ian, played a big role in my life. He toughened me up and helped me develop the positive attitude I have to life and challenges. I also respect him immensely for his global work as a conservationist. The reason we even still have rhinos today is largely thanks to his efforts.
PLAYBOY: You’ve won 18 Majors – nine on the regular tour and nine on the Senior Tour – and 165 tournaments worldwide. Is there one tournament or one shot that you can single out as the best of your career?
GARY PLAYER: The shot I hit on 14 at Carnoustie in the final round to win the 1968 British Open is one of my best. The wind was howling. Billy Casper, Bob Charles and I were tied for the lead, but there were five us all within one stroke of the lead as well. The par-five 14th is a beast of a hole. I went for the green with my second, carrying the “Spectacle” bunkers. It was a blind shot and finished 14 inches from the hole. It was a great three wood. I made the putt for eagle. As for tournaments, I think the nine Majors I won on the Senior Tour are special, because it’s that much harder to do after you turn 50. You have a shorter time frame as a golfer to do that.
PLAYBOY: Who did you admire most?
GARY PLAYER: As a golfer, Ben Hogan. Nobody understood the golf swing better than Hogan. And he’s still the best player I ever saw. As people, I’ve always admired Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Theresa – great people like that who’ve had an influence on the world.
PLAYBOY: Why do you feel such a need to give back through golf?
GARY PLAYER: Because I had so much given to me. Yes, I grew up poor. But my father took out a bank loan to buy me my first set of golf clubs. The members at Killarney Golf Club raised money for me to travel overseas and play for the first time. I’m thankful for every bit of help I received along the way. And I lead a privileged life. So I do see it as my duty to give back to people who don’t have those opportunities. We formed The Player Foundation almost 30 years ago, and in this time have raised over $50 million for underprivileged children on six continents. We have our Gary Player Invitational tournaments in Europe, America, Asia and South Africa, and they raise a phenomenal amount for charity every year. And they do so with the help of all our friends in the golf, business and entertainment industries. I want to look back on my life and say I’ve contributed more than just golf to this world. I want to be remembered more as a good human being than a great golfer.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of looking back, you celebrated something quite unique at The Masters this year when you became an honorary starter there for the first time. How was that experience?
GARY PLAYER: It was a great privilege. When they asked me to join Jack (Nicklaus) and Arnold (Palmer) as the honorary starters, I felt very honoured. I was the first international winner of the Masters in 1961, and now I was becoming the first true non-American to be an honorary starter. It was a special moment.
PLAYBOY: Who hit it the furthest?
GARY PLAYER: (Laughter). I made no secret of that fact that I wanted to outdrive them both. They hit it past me all my life, and now it was my turn. And I’m proud to say I outdrove them, which is testament to my dedication to staying in shape.
PLAYBOY: For all your achievements in golf, you’ll be the first to admit that when you started you didn’t really have the best of swings.
GARY PLAYER: I had a terrible swing. There were so many pros who said I’d starve on tour. I remember playing with Sam Snead in a PGA Tour event. We were tied after regulation play, and then he beat me in a seven-hole playoff. I thought I’d done ok, so afterwards I asked him, “Mr Snead, is there anything in my swing that you saw which could perhaps help me?” He said, “Son, I ain’t seen you swing properly yet.” Talk about being cut down to size. I also remember playing in my first British Open at St Andrews in 1955. I hit the worst tee shot of my life. It scrambled towards the out of bounds on the right, hit the fence and fortunately kicked back onto the fairway. I started walking down the fairway when the man who was starting us shouted out, “Come here, laddie. What’s your name?”
“Gary Player, Sir.”
“Where you from?”
“I’m from South Africa.”
“And what’s your handicap?”
“I’m a pro.”
“You’re a pro. You must be a hell of a chipper and putter, because you can’t hit the ball worth a damn.”
A few years later I became the youngest man at 23 to win The Open. And would you believe it, this same old man was there. He couldn’t believe it, and I bought him a drink afterwards. I always said I would be a world champion because I’d work harder than anybody else, and I did.
PLAYBOY: Is it true that you broke your neck while still at school?
GARY PLAYER: Yes. I was 14 years old. There was a compost heap of grass and dried leaves next to the sports fields at King Edwards. During break, we used to go and jump into it. But this day, I decided to put my skills as a springboard diver to the test, and I performed this beautiful swallow dive head first into the compost heap, expecting a soft landing. Instead, I hit the bottom and was knocked out. I had fractured my neck. For three months I had to wear a brace, and I couldn’t play golf for a year. At one point the doctor even doubted I would ever walk again. Fortunately I recovered fully. But that year away from golf gave me an even greater sense of urgency, and I practiced harder than ever.
PLAYBOY: Most golfers say they started playing because of their fathers. Your father did get you started in golf. But we think it was really a pretty young woman who made sure you wanted to take golf a lot more seriously.
GARY PLAYER: (Laughter). You’re absolutely right. The golf course is the one place where I’ve always been deadly serious. But when I was 14, I was dazzled by the most beautiful pair of legs I had ever seen. That’s when I met my wife, Vivienne. Her father, Jock, was the professional at Virginia Park Golf Club. It wasn’t long before I asked Vivienne to join me for a round of golf. I always won, but Vivienne says she doesn’t know how because I was always staring at her legs. Vivienne was a great golfer. She had the chance to play for South Africa. But when she started supporting me, she couldn’t realise this dream. She knows what a good swing looks like, and many times I would ask her to watch me swing and let me know if I was on plane or not. I asked Vivienne to marry me when I was 14. I told her we just needed to wait until I’d made enough money to get married. We were engaged in August 1956. I was playing the Ampol Tournament in Australia. The first prize was $5,000. I won it and sent her a telegram that simply said, “Buy the dress.” She was at Maccauvlei Golf Club in Johannesburg when she got it. Somehow the press got wind of it before even she did. They arrived there just when she got the telegram, and she jumped for joy. That photograph was the South African photograph of the year. From early on in our relationship Vivienne knew how important golf was to me, and she has been such a pillar of support for me over the years.
PLAYBOY: And it hasn’t always been easy for her?
GARY PLAYER: Absolutely. Vivienne has always put herself second to my golf and my career. She could just as well have said to herself, “You know what, I’m an attractive young woman. And here I am, on my own, reading a book in bed every night and looking after children while he’s travelling around the world, seeing new things and meeting people. Why am I doing this?” But she didn’t. She also had to be unselfish with her emotions. She couldn’t look at me sideways during a tournament and I would say, “Don’t upset me because I’ve got a tournament on the go.” I know it was hard for her. In April 1959, our first child, Jennifer, was born. We had five babies in six years, plus all the travelling. After Jennifer came Marc, Wayne, Michele and Theresa. And then Vivienne says she got so sick and tired of my nagging that she finally relented, and Amanda Leigh was born in 1973. Sometimes I don’t know how we managed to travel with all those children. And when I was away, I don’t know how Vivienne coped. But she did such a wonderful job in raising our kids. I missed the births of three of our children. The first time I saw our first child, Jenny, was when she was three months old. That’s tough. To this day I wish I could have things like that over.
We have a very good life thanks to golf. But make no mistake, both Vivienne and I made our sacrifices. Vivienne has been an absolute rock in my life. For a golfer, it’s a wonderful blessing to be able to step onto the course and not have any personal worries in your mind. When I was travelling, I knew she was looking after our children and home. And she could trust me to know I was doing my best for them on the golf course, and also not getting into trouble off it. I have never been much of a TV watcher, so I would spend the time in my hotel room putting on the carpet or going over my round. I also wasn’t one for late-night parties or drinking. I’d often have dinner with the other South Africans on the circuit, but then go to bed soon thereafter. Throughout my playing career I could take great comfort in the fact that I had the love and full support of my wife. That gives you a calm mind when you are playing.
PLAYBOY: You’re famous for the saying, “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.” When did you first say this?
GARY PLAYER: It was in Texas in 1958. I was practicing a bunker shot and a man stopped to watch me. I holed the first shot he saw. So he said, “You’ve got 50 bucks if you hole the next one.” I took the bet and holed it. Then he upped it to $100 if I could do it again. And I did it – three times in a row. As he handed me the money he said, “Son, I’ve never seen anyone so lucky in my life”.
“Well, sir,” I said, “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”
PLAYBOY: You are so well known worldwide. Is there anything people don’t know about you?
GARY PLAYER: I once recorded an album of country songs. It was called Sing Along with Gary Player. I think if Sam Snead had heard it he probably would’ve listened to the whole thing from start to finish, and then told me, “Son, I ain’t heard you sing yet.”
Michael Vlismas is currently writing the official autobiography of Gary Player