Former golf star Gary Player making mark as business tycoon
This story appeared in the June 30, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
On the night before the 2014 Masters, executives from Rolex, Callaway, Coca-Cola China, SAP and other major brands gather in the huge backyard of Gary Player’s guesthouse. They eat meat, swap business cards and listen to the blaring of a Scottish band called The Red Hot Chilli Pipers.
It is the annual braai (a South African barbecue) that Player hosts every year on the property he rents near Augusta National. The party is a perfect example of how the three-time Masters champ has used his achievements on the course to build a thriving business off it. Each year Black Knight International -- an umbrella company that includes Gary Player Design, Player Real Estate, The Player Foundation, The Player Collection and the Gary Player Invitational Series -- spends big to fly business partners in for a week of hospitality. Marc Player, 52, who began managing his father’s business when he was in his 20s, puts it like this: “It’s a wonderful thing to have the head of a big development company from Eastern Europe or India say, ‘I’d like to meet with you,’ and we say, ‘Would you like to come watch the Masters?’ That’s so powerful.”
Gary Player won the first of his nine majors, the 1959 British Open, at 23, and the last at the 1978 Masters. The first golfer to play a year-round international schedule, he won 165 tournaments on six continents over six decades, and for years he claimed to have flown more miles than any athlete alive (he’s up to 15 million), which he did largely on commercial planes with his wife, Vivienne, and six kids in tow. Now 78, Player attributes his longevity to his early embrace of nutrition and physical fitness, including workouts on the days of tournaments. As he represents Black Knight at meetings, events and a nearly unending list of functions, he pours all the positivity and energy he exhibited in his playing career into connecting with clients. “He’s at dinners, he’s shaking hands, he’s a raconteur telling stories,” Marc says of his father’s week at the Masters. “And he knows there’s a very clear objective.”
That objective is to embrace those drawn to Gary Player the golf star and convert them to supporters of the brand that represents him. On the first day of the Masters he took two executives from the German bank Berenberg to Augusta National, where he, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus -- the Big Three -- would officially start the tournament by hitting the ceremonial opening tee shots. On Augusta’s practice tee, the bankers watched as Player whacked a few balls. He then let one of them, Hans-Walter Peters, be his caddie for the affair. The soft-spoken German was visibly delighted. After the tee shot and a morning of VIP treatment, the bankers decided to up Berenberg’s commitment to the Gary Player Invitational, a charity golf tournament at the Wentworth Club in Surrey, England, from $500,000 to a cool $1 million. That’s in addition to the three-year, $10 million deal Berenberg has to put the bank’s name on Player’s sleeve.
“They are perfectionists,” Berenberg’s Hendrik Riehmer says. “Everything Marc and Gary do is carefully laid out and highest level.”
Player started simply enough, by designing golf courses, a business he followed Palmer and Nicklaus into. (He laid out his first course, Crown Mines, in Johannesburg, in 1970.) From there he branched into merchandising -- including apparel and wine -- real estate development, licensing, events and publishing. The Player Foundation focuses on education for underprivileged children around the world, and it’s funded in part by a portion of the proceeds from the Invitationals, a series of four events in which corporate VIPs pay to play with professionals and celebrities.
Although Gary is the face of Black Knight, Marc runs the show, taking on a role that mixes agent, manager and promoter. “I’ve never, ever said that I have a great business acumen,” says Gary. “What I do have is a very shrewd team, led by Marc, and I have more experience than them all with common sense.”
Still, Player’s core business remains designing golf courses. And while Nicklaus has designed more in the U.S., Player has more international layouts to his credit -- some 325 courses in 35 countries, with 43 more on the drawing table. That’s an advantage: As funding for new courses in the U.S. has dried up, Player has been well positioned to secure jobs in the Middle East, China and India, where he recently designed a course for DLF, the country’s biggest real estate company. In the process he’s championed a new style of bunkering called geo-textile, which requires almost no maintenance and saves water. Environmentally friendly courses were unpopular for a time, and some clubs still resist them, but Player makes it a priority to design them.
Player’s merchandising business is also strong. The Black Knight website sells $200,000 worth of apparel and accessories every month. And Marc plans to make the business a lasting one. “Even though I don’t like to tell him, because he thinks he’ll live forever, he will die,” says Marc. “And I think about that every day. But I think 20 years from now, 50 years from now, people will go into the Gary Player boutique, and they will buy the apparel, they will buy the book on diet and health, they will buy the golf instruction video. They will believe in the spirit that is all things Black Knight -- healthy, enthusiastic.”
As if to prove the point, Player walks out of the Augusta National clubhouse after a long morning of signatures, handshakes and television interviews and announces in a chipper tone, “O.K.! Made another million friends. Wasn’t that nice?” And he means it.