On a recent Saturday evening, just two weeks after he had won the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Gary Player sat in a Houston motel room almost drowned in a sea of news clippings, letters and telegrams. There was an uncharacteristic expression of worry on his alert young face.
"I just don't know how I'll get all these things answered," he said in a distraught voice, picking up a few of the envelopes and letting them flutter back to the bed.
In the room with Player were his wife Vivienne, his 2-year-old daughter Jennifer and his baby son Mark, born last February. Even the presence of his family, who had flown over from South Africa four weeks earlier to join him on the professional golfing tour, was not enough to lift Player's spirits noticeably.
That day Player had shot a respectable par 70 over a course that was acting very skittish, and he appeared to be in serious contention, only three strokes behind the leaders. But the following day his score went up to 72, and he dropped another four strokes back to finish in a tie for ninth. "I don't seem able to get up for this tournament," he had complained several times during the course of the four-day event. "I'm flat. I can't feel anything, and my concentration isn't good. There are too many things on my mind, and there's been so much excitement and so many decisions to make these last two weeks. It isn't a good atmosphere for playing your best golf."
May 7, 1961
This was hardly the Gary Player who had charged so self-assuredly week after week through the winter golfing schedule, winning two of the tournaments and far more money than anyone else on the professional golf tour and then going on to a climactic, hairline win in the Masters. For the time being, Player had become a nervous, harried man whose temper had grown thick and whose patience was wearing thin. He was finding the public adulation a heavy added burden to carry in his golf bag.
Just a few weeks before, despite an impressive list of achievements in six years of tournament golf, Player had been regarded merely as another of the fine golfers on the tour. Except when he was paired with Arnold Palmer, who attracts crowds like a white sale after Christmas, he was able to play in a relatively unfrenzied atmosphere. His day's work done, he could retire to his room in the local motel, enjoy a few records on the portable stereo phonograph that he carries with him everywhere, dine (almost always on steak) with a couple of friends, conduct his outside business with a few phone calls and get the 10 hours of rocklike sleep that he considers indispensable to his fitness.
Suddenly he felt like Marilyn Monroe at a San Quentin prom. The question many began to ask was, would Player's emergence as a celebrity ruin him as a competitor? It will take more than the Houston Classic and other tournaments to tell, but there is much in the Player background to suggest that his case of nerves is only transitory. Player himself has as much as intimated that his fame as a golfer is all part of a plan that began in 1955, when he was 19. In that year Player became aggressively certain that he would succeed. His father, then a foreman in a Johannesburg gold mine, borrowed money to send him to England. He made enough there to cover his expenses, and in the five years since Player has purposefully stalked his golf ball across the fairways of Great Britain, North America, Australia and his native South Africa in search of victories. His arms swinging at his sides like a British guardsman on parade and his figure clothed in an inky costume more suited to Hamlet than golf, Player resembled a kind of ravenously hungry raven, and like a raven he got mostly what he wanted.
At 20, back again in England, he shot a brilliant five-round score of 70-64-64-72-68—338 to win the Dunlop pro tournament and later was fourth in the British Open. After an exploratory year in the U.S., he returned in 1958 to finish second to Tommy Bolt in the U.S. Open at Tulsa. The next year he won the British Open—at 23 the youngest man to win it since the days of Disraeli.
Those were the highlights of Player's career when he arrived in Los Angeles early this year. "I have," he said one day in his vivid Springbok accent after completing a practice round, "several ambitions in golf. I want to have won the three major tournaments—the British Open, the Masters and your Open. And I want to see how much money I can win on the American tour."
Player thereupon undertook a formidable assignment. He played a major PGA tournament every week from the L.A. Open on the first weekend in January until the Sunshine Open in Miami two weeks before the Masters—a total of 12 consecutive tournaments. In between, he compiled a statistical consistency that was, to put it mildly, amazing.
He averaged 69.2 strokes per round over 49 rounds; his winnings were $25,-217.29, the highest ever accumulated by a golfer that early in the year; he was in the money in all 12 tournaments and finished among the top five seven times: he had nine consecutive rounds in the 60s (12 including the first three rounds of the Masters).
The Presley routine
No one was less surprised by all this than Player, who takes an immodestly realistic view of his golf. Coming off one round recently he said, "I was hitting the ball terribly well." Another time he said, "I hate to tell you how well I was playing." Before the Masters he told reporters, "I'm hitting the ball wonderfully well," and there wasn't the least trace of braggadocio in his voice.
Rather than crumbling under pressure, Player seemed by all signs to be getting better as the forces around him grow more fierce. One important reason for this may be that Player loves the limelight. Several weeks ago on the Perry Como TV show he gave a hilarious impersonation of Elvis Presley. He had worked up the routine for his own amusement in front of a mirror in the privacy of his room, with his phonograph blaring the appropriate background music, and had willingly put it on at parties or anywhere else where people cared to watch him. In short, Player enjoys being "on."
Some people would call him a ham, but Hollywood Producer Hal Wallis, who played a round with Player in Palm Springs last winter, was so impressed with his public presence that he made a date to give Player a screen test at Paramount next week, after the conclusion of the Las Vegas Tournament of Champions. "Gary has looks, flair and a strong, colorful personality," Wallis said. "I think he might make an actor."
Player claims he is in no position to judge, but he is looking forward to the experiment. "I would never give up golf," he says emphatically, "because that's my profession. But I wouldn't mind making one picture a year if I have the ability."
The enjoyment that Player gets from performing in public is immediately apparent on the golf course. If things are going well, he chats amiably with the spectators. Whenever he sinks a long putt, he takes off the white visored golf cap that is a part of his sartorial trademark and waves it in the air as if in pantomime of an exuberant "whoopee." Then he dances a mincing little step up to the cup, removes his ball and jigs away in obvious ecstasy.
At a recent tournament, when Player's and Arnold Palmer's shots ended up equidistant from the flagstick and there was some question as to who should putt first, Player pulled a coin from his pocket and gave it a flip in a way that could have been offensively showy if done by someone less unself-consciously charming than Player. It was obviously a small play to the gallery, but it was fun and attractive the way he did it, and it was performed at the right time. In show business they call his technique timing.
Player's flair for showmanship is also evident in his clothes. He favors black, he says, "because it makes me feel stronger. Black is a color that retains heat and I feel as if it makes me supple. It helps me pivot." Even so, Player is well aware that black has become a personal signature for him like Salvador Dali's mustachios. Once or twice during a tournament he will relieve this pitchy costume with something equally flamboyant—the pink trousers, for example, or, as in the British Open last year, slacks that have one black leg and one white. When you see Player on the course there is no mistaking him for someone else, and that is his intention.
Another of Player's ostentations is his hair. In the last couple of years he has taken to wearing it very short on top so that it stands up almost like a crew cut, but on the sides it is very long and flows sweepingly astern. In the locker room it takes Player minutes of careful grooming to get his hair meticulously in place, and despite the ribbing he gets about it from some of the pros the effect is a good one. He emerges as a handsome man—his well-chiseled face glowing healthily tan under his full head of hair, the shiny whites of his eyes accentuating the deep color of the irises and the white-white teeth perfectly symmetrical.
Although Player willingly acknowledges his love of the drama of tournament golf, he firmly believes that his greatest asset under the pressure of competition comes from "guts." He translates this as "my belief"—that is, his spiritual faith. Player carries a Bible with him wherever he goes and tries to read a little of it every night before he goes to sleep. Another book he carries and reads often is The Imitation of Christ, a volume that was a gift from Tom Nieporte, one of his closest friends among the touring pros. Like Player, Nieporte gives a lot of attention to the spiritual side of life, and Player describes him as "one of the finest men you could ever meet anywhere."
A family man to his finger tips, Player spends most of his off hours with his wife and the children when they are traveling with him. He has an old-fashioned belief in the importance of discipline, and recently when Jenny, a gay and chubby little girl, refused to obey her father's order to leave the bedside telephone alone, he shook his finger in her face and shouted sternly, "If you do that again, I'll whack you."
In the evening after the children have gone to bed, Gary and Vivienne Player are apt to lie on the beds in their motel room and watch television. Then, perhaps, Gary will play a few records on the stereo phonograph. His taste in music runs to Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley and other popular moderns that have caught the fancy of the younger generation. "Gary has a nice feeling for music," Vivienne says in her quiet, wifely way. "It relaxes him. I think he could learn to play an instrument very quickly if he ever decided to take one up."
The family unity of the Players lies deep. Player is extremely close to his 61-year-old father, and when he began to make money out of golf he was able to get his father out of the mines and set him up in business supplying equipment to mining companies. He also has a deep affection for his brother Ian, a South African game warden, and his married sister Wilma. Player's mother died when he was only 8, so he was raised by his father, who has had to serve in the capacity of both parents. This summer, for the second time in his brief career, Player is giving his father a trip to the British Open. "He deserves it," Gary says. "He's been a wonderful father to me."
It was Player's father, a two-handicap left-handed golfer some years ago, who started him in golf. When Gary was 15 his father gave him a rudimentary set of golf clubs and the lad took them out for a round at the Virginia Park course in the country near Johannesburg. By then he was already a fine natural athlete, and he shot par on the first three holes he ever played. Among those who were impressed was Jock Verwey, the pro at Virginia Park. He was soon giving young Player lessons.
A lot of Player's early golf was played with Verwey's daughter Vivienne, who was a year younger than he and an excellent golfer in her own right, later playing to a two handicap. They became sweethearts, and Player now says proudly, "She's the only girl I ever had." They were married in 1956, the year of Player's second trip abroad.
Until he began to make a go of it as a touring pro, Player worked at Virginia Park as an assistant to Verwey, helping to repair clubs, giving occasional lessons and practicing in the early morning and far into the night. Today the Players' only home is with the Verweys in their house in Johannesburg, although Gary has a chicken farm in the country and hopes soon to build a house of his own.
What with the duties of motherhood, Vivienne hasn't played a round of golf since Jenny was born. But she is the ideal golf wife. She loves to follow her husband around the course, is considerate enough to remain anonymous in the crowd, but will respond intelligently if he should want to talk about his playing problems, as he sometimes does. A pretty girl of about Player's height (5 feet 7½ inches), with an athletic figure and brown hair streaked with blonde, Vivienne certainly rates among the more comely of the golfing wives.
Possibly because the current political turmoil in Africa is so much in the news, there have been rumors that Player is a passionate supporter of the apartheid policies of the Nationalist government of Hendrik Verwoerd. Actually, he is pretty much of an apolitical animal who is quick to explain that "I've had very little time in my life for learning much about politics. But I will say this," he goes on. "Any government that is elected by the people of South Africa will do its best for the entire country. I know that. And with the white people in our country in such a minority, you couldn't very well give the blacks complete freedom and power. All you have to do is look at the trouble in the Congo to realize it wouldn't be very long before the blacks would chop off all our heads."
Ever since he sprang into the headlines, a great deal has been made of Player's fetish for physical fitness. There is no doubt that it has helped him maintain his peak form consistently. When he was in his teens Player built up his physique with strenuous calisthenics and weight lifting, but he had to give up the latter in 1958 after an operation for bone chips in his elbow. Now he confines himself mostly to finger-tip push-ups and deep knee bends and a few basic yoga exercises that he is learning out of a book and which he thinks will help him with his concentration.
Player's diet also comes in for considerable attention, but actually it is based mostly on common sense. He steers clear of fried foods and lives on such basic commodities as broiled steaks, baked potatoes, honey and other energy-replete items. In his luggage he keeps boxes of dried fruit like prunes and apricots and raisins, and he always takes some in his golf bag to nibble on when he gets hungry. He passes these around to the other players when they want them, and before long the dried-fruit habit could become a fad. The problem of eating in the middle of a round of tournament golf has always been a stickler for golfers.
New woods and irons
The only major change in Player's life since his sudden success has come as a result of the bonanza of endorsements that always fall to a new sports hero. Player, who signed a new contract last fall as one of the pros on the staff of the First Flight Co., one of the smaller of the golf equipment manufacturers, was given a $5,000 bonus by the company after he won the Masters. He has been promised another $10,000 if he ends up as the year's leading money winner on the circuit. In addition, First Flight is putting out a set of woods and irons bearing Player's signature, and on these he will get a percentage of the sales.
Player can't even begin to guess how much his new success will add to his income. "It might be anything—$30,000, $100,000, anything," he says. To handle all the requests for his endorsement and personal appearances, Player has retained a young business manager-agent who has been performing the same services for Arnold Palmer.
Since self-discipline is the most predominant characteristic in Gary Player's arsenal of worthwhile personal qualities, it would be surprising, even shocking, if it took him long to adjust to all the pushing and pulling that distract a golf celebrity from his work. Player may not enjoy this bustle and confusion the way Arnold Palmer does, for he has some very definite ideas about the sanctity of his private life, but he also has an immense respect for money. As long as these annoying byproducts of success are profitable, it is a cinch that Player will learn to live with them.