Gary Player’s surprise visit to Humewood.
The Bird Rock Classic is an annual tournament at Humewood Golf Club in Port Elizabeth, where golfing friends get together for 18 holes on the Sunday before Christmas. This December was the 30th playing of the event, and the organisers had a surprise for most of the 50-odd competitors when we gathered for lunch in the clubhouse before the round – a guest appearance from none other than South Africa’s Sportsman of the Century, Gary Player.
Yes, would you believe it? Gary took the time during the festive season to drive all the way from his holiday home in Plettenberg Bay to play 18 holes with us, golfers he had never met before.
It was in 1985 when two friends, Keith Simpson and Robert Stear, who sadly passed away in 2014, hatched a plan to hold an invitation tournament at Humewood, where friends could celebrate the spirit of Christmas together and ring in the new year. Their invitation policy has over the years instilled a proud sense of loyalty among all those who have participated. It’s an individual Stableford, and the Bird Rock Classic champion each year receives a white logoed champion’s shirt which he can wear at future events.
The Bird Rock being one of the year’s “majors,” the organisers thought it fitting that Gary Player, who has won 18 major championships in his career (nine of them on the Senior Tour), should be given the chance to add another to his collection.
Through the influence of one of our regular participants, Ashley Parker, a Port Elizabeth horse breeder who has regular contact with Gary when it comes to thoroughbreds, an invite was dispatched for him to take part. Imagine our great surprise when we heard back from him, saying he would be delighted to accept.
He arrived at Humewood on the Sunday morning with two golfing members of his family, son-in-law Bruce Throssell and grandson James Throssell. Remarkably, Gary had not played at Humewood for over 25 years, and never once played a competitive round at Africa’s only true links. He missed all the Goodyear Classics which were part of the Sunshine Tour from 1984 to 1992.
Gary unfortunately hadn’t picked the best of days for his Bird Rock debut. The prevailing south-westerly wind blowing across Algoa Bay was peaking at 57kph and gusting up to 83, making for incredibly difficult playing conditions. Nonetheless, after meeting all the guys upstairs in the bar, and greeting them like old friends, he warmed up for 30 minutes on the practice range before our tee time, evidence that he was taking this “major” seriously.
I was drawn in Gary’s fourball, along with my brother Keith Simpson and fellow organiser Mike Rishworth. I was nervous beforehand, but those pre-match nerves were completely unfounded, as he immediately put us all at ease.
The round was a blur of fascinating stories and anecdotes. Gary has a wonderful memory for people and events. He offered advice on equipment and helped us with our swings and putting strokes. He encouraged us and even made time for other players who recognised him. He was never daunted by the playing conditions, even though, he told us, a PGA
Tour event in similar weather would have been called off. Gary is determined and unyielding and yet kindly and a gentleman.
Gary never once declined a request for a photograph or a signature, and there were lots of them. At the end of the round he held a bunker clinic on the 18th green and demonstrated to us why his peers unanimously rate him as the greatest bunker player of all time. One could only marvel at his wizardry as he showed us how to play from all possible lies within the pot bunker, using a range of clubs from sand iron to 7-iron.
For those who may think a man of 79 is beyond a marketable age, think again. Gary Player’s current sponsors are global brands in both sport and business including Callaway, SAP and Berenberg, a reminder that he is not just a local icon, but continues to be revered globally. He is also committed to massive international fundraising events, primarily targeted to the welfare of children. In my opinion, he is fitter and has more energy than an average 25-year-old. Playing in that gale-force wind he inspired us with his skill on the course and his indomitable enthusiasm for life itself.
He scored 26 points off his scratch, which put him inside the top 20 on the day.
The indescribable privilege of spending 4½ hours at Humewood with The Black Knight, my sporting hero, was the experience of a lifetime. I will never forget it.
“Here’s my wallet.” Gary Player pays up the bet on the 18th tee at Humewood. From left, Keith Simpson, Mike Rishworth and Dave Simpson, his playing partners in the Bird Rock Classic.
Gary Player provided a bunker clinic after the round.