Gary Player’s sur­prise visit to Hume­wood.

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents 2/ 15 - Dave Simp­son, Port El­iz­a­beth

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.

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