Gary Player, slouched cozily among a circle of friends gathered
around a barbecue pit, yawns into the South African night. He is
in the sanctuary of his 5,000-acre stud farm, located in
Colesburg in the midst of his beloved country's vast Karoo. The
black night is penetrated only by the glowing coals and dense
clusters of blinking stars. All seems well, but in fact the
natural order on earth has been disturbed. Gary Player, human
dynamo, is worn out.
Few people have witnessed this phenomenon. In past years,
45-hour-long, propeller-driven flights from Johannesburg to New
York with six children and 33 pieces of luggage, four-hour
sessions on the practice tee, 36-hole final days in major
championships and 100 or so one-arm push-ups were needed to
At 60, it takes only slightly less. After six weeks of a
breakneck schedule that had him crisscrossing four
continents--61 hours in the air, he figures, resulting in 56
hours' worth of time changes--Player has had it. In the lap of
his favorite place, the strain of all the rounds of golf, the
course building, horse buying, people pleasing and deal making
seeps away, and golf's Jack LaLanne allows himself, for a
moment, to go to seed.
For three relatively bacchanalian nights, Player makes a mockery
of the most trumpeted health and training regimen golf has ever
seen. The man who says "Rest is rust" averages 12 hours of sleep
a night, doesn't touch a club and doesn't do a single jumping
jack. The Player who says he "eats like an African--little meat
and little fat" ignores his customary diet of wheat germ, fiber,
fruits and juices in favor of hunks of roasted lamb, dripping
sausages, chocolate and, yes, even alcohol. When someone offers
to refill his wineglass, Player accepts with a giggle. "Oh, am I
Gary Player tipsy? Man alive, to use one of his favorite
expressions. Before things go too far, however, Player clicks
back to his usual self. When a friend comments on the design of
the barbecue area, Player is energized. Rising to his full 5'7",
he holds forth, cutting the air with his famous clipped accent.
"This is nothing," he says. "The area we have planned for the
other farm will be 10 times better. It will overlook the river.
There's a canopy of trees. It will be perfect. Oh, I can't wait."
So it always is with Gary Player, the game's greatest life
force. He lives by the premise that the present--and especially
the future--must outdo the past. For a man in his seventh
decade, it's a hard rule to live by, especially for a golfer who
has won 159 tournaments, including nine major championships (and
eight more senior majors, he is quick to point out). But even as
his intimates wonder when Player's energy will ebb, he continues
to take on the challenge.
Next week at Royal Lytham and St. Annes on the west coast of
England, things will be no different. Player will compete in his
record 42nd consecutive British Open at the site where he won
his third Open, in 1974. That victory made him the only man to
have won the venerated event in each of three decades. Player is
going to Blackpool with an idea to make it four.
"I have to be realistic, but I tell you I can still win a major
championship," he says in low, sincere tones. "You've got to be
putting super, but, gee whiz, I can do that."
To those who are picking up Gary Player late in his life, such
talk must sound slightly insane, almost pathetic. After all, he
hasn't finished in the top 10 of a major since the 1984 PGA
Championship and has won only one Senior tour event in the last
three years. But Player should never be underestimated.
"Everything Gary's ever done in golf probably seemed impossible
to most people, but the man's got more belief in himself than
anyone I've ever seen," says Lee Trevino, no piker when it comes
to overcoming obstacles. "He's always been David against
Goliath. He had a gigantic heart. That was all he needed."
The men he beat were almost always better-armed. Sam Snead
maintains that Player "did more with less than anyone I ever
saw." Jack Nicklaus, whose tournament, the Memorial, has
designated Player as its honoree next year, pauses when asked
what skills make Player so special. "There was nothing really
exceptional about Gary's game except his desire to win,"
Nicklaus finally says. "I've seen him win tournaments on pure
guts. I don't think Gary was a great driver of the ball. I don't
think he was a great iron player. He was a good putter, not a
great putter. But when he really needed to be, he was a great
driver and a great iron player, and he made the putt when he
needed to make it. Gary, as much as anyone I ever saw, has that
thing inside that champions have."
Player can't really explain the origin of that thing Nicklaus
says he has. There is the easy answer that it came from seeing
his late father, Harry, drag himself home after toiling
thousands of feet underground in the gold mines of Johannesburg.
Or from the void left when his mother, Muriel, died of cancer
when Player was eight. He often tells how his older brother,
Ian, renowned today for his work as a conservationist in
Africa's game reserves, "kicked my backside" when Gary, then 14,
tried to quit during a mile run. "Ian gave me my first lesson in
being determined," Player says. As a young pro on a shoestring
budget, Player remembers winning the 1955 Egyptian Match Play
while wearing a pair of heavy wool trousers--the only decent
pants he owned--in the heat of Cairo, and, later that year, in
his first British Open, spending his first night in St. Andrews
sleeping on a sand dune to save the cost of a hotel room. "I
wanted it so badly, nothing could stop me," he says.
Whatever is pushing Player often spills over into what his four
daughters and two sons have come to call "a Gary Player
statement," an outrageously enthusiastic assertion filled with
italics and exclamation points and ready-made for mimicry. The
subject could be anything--from the number of miles that make
him the most traveled athlete in history to his reverence for
Nelson Mandela, the president of South Africa. ("I would kiss
the man's feet, with honor," says Player.) "I tell you," Tour
player Peter Jacobsen clips off in one of his favorite and
easiest impressions, "I had two dozen bananas and four boxes of
raisins, and, I must tell you, my bowel movements have never
been so solid!" It's all excess exhaust from one of the
highest-revving engines ever seen in sports.
"My dad aspires to the most and the best of everything,"
explains Player's eldest son, Marc, who administers his father's
business empire. "It's what challenges him. He can exaggerate or
get overly dramatic, but it's genuine. He sees life new all the
time. Most people are bored. He never is."
Adds youngest son Wayne, a golf professional who has been in the
field with his father at both the U.S. and the British Opens,
"When my dad is competing, he will not acknowledge what other
people call reality. Reality is full of negatives. My dad deals
only with the positive because he knows that will put him in a
frame of mind to win."
Such an outlook has made Player both a maverick and a visionary.
He started lifting weights and doing heavy calisthenics in the
1950s while everyone around him, save for the equally eccentric
Frank Stranahan, assured him the practice would ruin his game.
"Gary always had so much confidence in himself," says Stranahan.
"Once in front of this hotel in Kansas City, he spotted me and
yelled out, 'Hey, Strannie, you think you've got muscles, watch
this.' And then he did a handstand and walked clean down to the
corner and back."
Before there were sports psychologists, Player intuitively knew
that the mind was the key to being a champion, an idea that was
confirmed by the highest source. After Player finished second to
Tommy Bolt in the 1958 U.S. Open at Southern Hills, Ben Hogan
"got about an inch from my face and locked me with those cold
eyes," recalls Player. "I'll never forget it. 'Son,' he said,
'you are going to be a great player.' Can you imagine hearing
that from Hogan? Man alive!"
Self-belief is what led Player to win the World Match Play five
times, twice easily defeating the great Nicklaus. That kind of
faith gave him the courage to birdie seven of the final 10 holes
to win the 1978 Masters with a closing 64, his proudest
achievement next to being one of only four men--the others are
Hogan, Nicklaus and Gene Sarazen--to win all four majors.
Still not willing to concede that Nicklaus has put together the
greatest record in golf, Player always emphasizes his
accomplishments as a world golfer as well as his senior totals.
"As great as people say Jack was, I played with him at his peak
and he was even better," says Player in tribute, "but longevity
is the ultimate criterion. All I'm saying is to wait until all
the playing is over before we judge the record." Such statements
betray an insatiable hunger that is unsettling even to Player.
In his 1991 autobiography, To Be the Best, he wrote, "What I
have learned about myself is that I am an animal when it comes
to achievement and wanting success. There is never enough
success for me."
Such drive can be off-putting. Because he has such a palpable
need to beat people, Player has been accused of gamesmanship and
called a cheat. "My record speaks for itself," he says, meeting
the issue head-on. "First of all, any professional golfer who
complains about gamesmanship is a baby. As to rules disputes, my
view is this: You either do the rule, or you don't. I have
always done the rule."
Player's zealousness for physical conditioning can sound like
boastfulness. Now, though, he is running headlong into the
physical limitations of age. Those around him worry that he is
pushing too hard. His close friend of nearly 40 years, South
African real estate developer Bobby Jamison, says, "At 55, Gary
looked 40, but at 60 he looks 55. He is wearing down." His wife
of 39 years, Vivienne, can hardly believe that her husband has
never reached a saturation point. "At a time when he should be
cutting back, Gary's schedule has gotten a little out of hand,"
she says. "I have to tell you, golf now is totally without
meaning for me. I just can't see why he wants to do it anymore."
Says daughter Theresa, "My father has an inhuman energy. It's
A small but growing part of Player agrees. Although he maintains
a U.S. office in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., he has three
residences in South Africa--a 1,000-acre primary estate, Blair
Atholl, outside Johannesburg where Player has built and helps
fund a school for more than 400 black youth; a beach home in
Plantenberg Bay near Cape Town; and his stud farm in Colesburg.
All are underused, and beckoning. With each tournament or
business trip, Player admits that he misses his family, which
includes six grandchildren, and his horses, more and more.
Although he fears inactivity--"Sit on your ass and die," is one
of his more earthy bromides--he reluctantly concedes, "I've got
to ease out. I just haven't sorted it out yet." Player is firm
that the 2000 British Open, at St. Andrews, will mark the end of
his string of consecutive Opens. But as for quitting competition
altogether, "I just don't know right now."
If Player has a need as great as or greater than to compete, it
is to be liked--no, make that loved. In South Africa he is a
bona fide hero to both black and white. Among golf fans Player
is unfailingly gracious and often a rapt listener, though he can
sometimes let his concern go too far. "You are fat," he once
told an obese boy who had asked him for an autograph. "I only
tell you this because your parents are afraid to hurt your
feelings. But you must change your diet." Among his peers Player
is the king of the compliment. When he was a member of the Big
Three, it was Player whose more deferential character allowed
him to move freely in and around the sometimes tricky
relationship between Palmer and Nicklaus.
"Whatever you might think of him, you're going to end up liking
him, because he is going to make you like him," says Steve
Elkington. "He is just unreal positive."
Whether his need for friendship and approval stems from the
effect of his mother's death, Player is not sure. He only knows
that throughout his life he has had a recurring dream in which
he tells his mother what he has achieved, but she is unable to
hear him. Player always wakes up in tears with what he calls "a
burning regret that she never saw what I had made of myself."
The loss of his mother taught Player that he could come back
from devastating hurt, that adversity is actually an opportunity
for growth. It was just such an attitude that sustained him when
anti-apartheid demonstrators routinely disrupted his rounds in
the late '60s and early '70s. Player early on developed a
personal philosophy similar to Eastern dualism. It was reflected
in his dress, which favored black and white, in his personal
habits, which included taking showers that alternated between
hot and icy cold and, of course, in his no-pain, no-gain work
ethic. "When we were kids," says Marc Player, "and we stepped on
a thorn walking on the beach, he would tell us, 'Stamp it in,
stamp it in. You have to have pain to appreciate pleasure.'"
But as he enters his 60's, Player is coming around to the view
that he could survive without the trials of competition. "I have
nothing to prove anymore," he says. "As you get older, fewer
things matter. You know, as much as I am proud of my record in
golf, it will be forgotten. People are already forgetting how
great Jack Nicklaus was."
In calm moments Player speaks of his desire to spend more time
in his homeland. "This soil is like cake--I could eat it," he
says while tramping through one of the huge paddocks on his
Colesburg farm, where thoroughbred mares and their yearlings
roam. "In the end, I'm African. It's why I could never leave.
It's why I will always stay."
As if to force himself to slow down, Player recently purchased a
large piece of property adjacent to his horse farm, a paradise
in which to sit still. What makes the land magical to Player is
that it is bordered by the Orange River, a source of precious
fresh water. "It's hard for an American to understand, but in
Africa, where droughts are so damaging, to live on a river like
this is like a dream," says Player as he helps clear trees on
the future site of his grand barbecue pit. Player has named the
new farm Madiba, a name of affection and respect South Africans
often use when addressing Mandela.
"I have been so blessed, so lucky, with golf, with my family,
with my health, all I can be is thankful," says Player, sounding
for the moment at least like a dynamo in winter. "As for the
future, life tells a man what to do. It's nothing to fear. When
it speaks, I'll listen. I always have."