Wayne Player played in the Open at 17, and showed great potential before quitting pro golf. Now 53, and in South Africa for his dad’s 80th party, he reflects on his life.
‘I was never the hardest worker when it came to golf.’
Wayne Player’s eyes start to water at a point in our conversation that I didn’t expect. For the son of Gary Player, who had the most potential and opportunity to follow in his father’s footsteps as a professional golfer, but later chose another path, you would expect these more obvious moments as the time for tears.
It is when he says, “I’m a very lucky person. I just pray for blessings and that I can continue to be healthy. That’s the most important thing,” that Player has to pause to gather himself.
A Type 1 diabetic who lives in Jupiter, Florida with his wife Shervon and three sons Tyler, Jordan and Nicholas, and who runs a successful events business, Player has at the age of 53 come to certain realisations, and in his own mind answered the most obvious questions everybody asks.
“My career has changed quite a lot. I was an aspiring golf pro with a lot of ability but who never was the hardest worker in the world. I probably rested on my laurels thinking that my talent alone was going to carry me through.We know that’s not the case.
“I mean, there’s nothing more common than unsuccessful men with talent. It’s not that I have been unsuccessful, but I never really reached the potential I had in the game because you have to practice hard. As my dad has always said, the harder you practice the luckier you get.
“I was never prepared to put in the time to become more repetitive.You know, if you’re out playing golf you need to hit one shot that looks like every other shot.You just have to work hard.”
Growing up under the weight of expectation around being Gary Player’s son, and having to play golf like him, Wayne showed immense early potential. He won several amateur and professional titles and was 17 years old when he made the cut (together with his dad) at the 1979 Open Championship at Royal Lytham. He played in three majors and several British and US Amateurs.
But he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t think about what could have been, and he is quite pragmatic about the decision to walk away from the dream of becoming a touring professional.
“I was blessed to have a role model such as my dad who set a great example. But you have to make a living.To a certain degree I was born with a bit of a silver spoon in my mouth. But I still had to be the one to get out there and do it. My dad wasn’t there just giving me everything.”
Even when it comes to his own love of fitness and health, Player says there was never a sense that just because his father personified this that he naturally gravitated to it as well.
“I used to binge workout. I’d run a couple of miles a week and think I was getting in shape. I don’t think that just because my dad has stayed in shape and the Player name personifies health and fitness that it lends itself to me just being the same. You’ve still got to make the effort yourself.
“I’ve been a Type 1 diabetic for 23 years. I stay in very good physical shape – I do the Cross Fit type circuit training. There are probably very few 53 year olds in better shape than I am. It’s an absolutely essential thing for me to do seeing I am a Type 1 diabetic. I’ve got aspirations of having my own foundation to raise more awareness or to try and help people not get diabetes. I want to motivate them to look after themselves and to eat well. And for those that do have it, maybe I can help them to live with the problem in a positive way.”
Watching his father at his 80th birthday celebrations during the Gary Player Invitational at The Lost City Golf Club in November, Player says he understood again the words his father had often said to him.
“I’m very proud of my dad. Time goes by so quickly. My dad has always said that. He always told me to get out there, work harder and never quit, because time will go by very quickly. I may not have been the greatest golf pro, but I played in three major championships – two Opens and one US Open. My dad and I are the only father and son to have played in both the Open and the US Open at the same time. I’ve had a great life.
“Now I’d like to keep working on my golf and my fitness. I know I haven’t lost the ability that I have. But any time you put a card and pencil in your hand and you haven’t played a lot of golf, it’s a nerve-wracking experience. Everybody’s always trying to get better, even Tiger Woods.”
Another trait he shares with his father is a love for South Africa. “I miss South Africa terribly. Whenever I come back I get quite emotional. Even though I’ve been out of South Africa for close on 30 years now.”
For Player, golf is now a social activity and one he sees more value in through its ability to create friendships than pile up trophies.
“Golf has given me great friendships, and that’s what it’s all about.The world is a tough enough place to make a living without friendships.You know, we all make mistakes along the way. I did. I had a bad temperament. I threw some clubs and made some mistakes along the way. But I had a great mom and dad who were role models for me, and even though I misbehaved in certain ways, I still knew the right way to behave around people.
“Having respect for people and listening to them – little things like that are the things that people will notice. Reaching out to all people in life with great respect and dignity, no matter how small they may be. So when I go out and play golf now with people, it’s not about the golf. It’s about how I connect with those people on a very sincere basis. I’m not a phony. What you see is what you get.”
But he wouldn’t be a Player if there wasn’t still that nagging desire to always get better.As he walked off the 18th green at the Lost City Golf Club, mom Vivienne was there to hear how the golf went. “My mom said to me, ‘You know, you’re so dedicated to health and fitness, you should hit balls for half an hour every day’. You know what, my mom is right.”