Scottish Daily Mail


Father of six, grandfathe­r of 22, winner of nine majors. And he still does 200 sit-ups every day. This is one of sport’s most extraordin­ary lives...

- by Riath Al-Samarrai Sportswrit­er of the year

GARY PLAYER was striding through an airport recently. He does that a lot. By now, he figures he’s up to 16 million air miles and this being Player, he reckons it is a world record. This being Player, he might even be right.

But that is not the point. It’s to do with a conversati­on he had when he was there, in his latest chapter as an 87-year-old widower ‘trying to find a girlfriend who will have me’.

There is a deep sadness in part of that tale, but he rather enjoyed one of his chats as he cleared customs in Cape Town. ‘I met this lady,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘She goes to me, “Gary, you’re looking so young”. I said, “Yes, and I’m feeling strong”.

‘Well, then she asks how old I am, so I tell her. She’s 84 and she says, “I believe you are single now. Would you put me on your list?”. I told her we’ll have to see.’

He is chuckling away, this father of six, grandfathe­r of 22, winner of nine majors and explorer of a great many tangents. He has joy in his voice and the spring of youth in his step, so he wants to share the secret. In fact, he almost insists upon it.

In time he will get around to the loose purpose of this discussion, which was planned as a chewing of the fat around the Masters. He will have plenty to say on that — in fact, he will rank it last among the big four tournament­s.

He will also back Rory McIlroy to win and from there he will talk of love and loss and the scourge of shorts, before digressing to the mistakes of Tiger, the bitterness of Greg, the ‘crap’ of Harry and Meghan and even the challenges of his own family. Goodness, the old boy knows how to cover the miles, by plane or by video call from his home in South Africa. But first to that secret. ‘I am in the gym 90 minutes a day,’ he says. ‘I push 300 pounds with my legs, run the treadmill, do 200 sit-ups and exercise my fingers as well — the arthritis wants to get you. Don’t let it.

‘In my house there’s an ice bath and a warm one for circulatio­n. Footballer­s think it’s new, I’ve been doing it for 70 years! But exercise is only 30 per cent — diet is the rest. The greatest destroyer of mankind is over-eating. Two meals a day for me and I consider bacon and white bread poison. Sugar is a killer but I love chocolate — do not judge me, please. With all of that, I play golf five times a week.’

He will gladly tell you about that, too. ‘I average par, I’m hitting 240 yards off the tee and I have scored lower than my age 3,071 times in a row now, which is a world record,’ he says. ‘I want to get to 4,000 but I don’t know if I’ll live that long.

‘I sent Arnold Palmer a text in heaven yesterday. I said, “Make sure the golf course there is a Gary Player design”. He came right back with, “Not on your life — it’s a Palmer and there’s no gym!”.’

He is feeling good over all his shots this morning.

‘Laughing is the key because it enhances the youthful cells in your body,’ he says. ‘The older I get, the more I look back and things I thought troublesom­e were not.

‘If there is a choice of happy or sad, I’d choose happy and family. Mine must be 40 people with all the aunts and grannies. I have to win a golf tournament just to feed them all at Christmas. But you have to laugh, every day if you can.’

And so he does, loud and long, from topic to topic, down the beaten track and the colourful sideroads of one of sport’s most extraordin­ary lives. Some folk will never quite get him — his way just doesn’t do it for them.

But across nine decades this gold miner’s son was never one for being dull when shiny was an option. He still is not.

PLAYER will be at the Masters next month. Of course he will, having barely missed a year since his debut in 1957.

He has won three green jackets, in 1961, 1974 and 1978, contended a dozen other times, and these days does the ceremonial gig at the first tee with Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. He is as bedded in as the azaleas. For now, he is telling a story about tradition, or rather how he broke one.

It goes back to that win in 1961, when the 25-year-old claimed his second major by beating Arnold Palmer and in doing so became Augusta’s first overseas winner.

‘I’d won so I took my nice green jacket and I put it in my suitcase,’ he says. ‘I’m back in South Africa and I get a call from Clifford Roberts, who ran the tournament.

‘Roberts was a dour man and he says, “Gary, did you take your jacket back to South Africa?”. I said yes. Roberts said nobody has taken it off the grounds and you’re not allowed to. I said, “Well, if you want it, you can come and fetch it”. He saw the funny side and told me not to wear it in public, so it lived in a wardrobe with my rugby and cricket blazers.’

Augusta has always seemed the right fit for Player. Aside from his wins, he was 12 times in the top 10 and his last of nine major victories, 45 years ago at the Masters, was arguably his finest. That was when he fought back from seven behind Hubert Green on the final day.

It is while recalling such an astonishin­g comeback that he makes an unprompted segue.

‘I will always remember that because of how I was playing at

‘I’ve scored lower than my age for golf 3,071 times in a row now, which is a world record. I want to get to 4,000 but don’t know if I’ll live that long’ ‘In my house there’s an ice bath and a warm one for circulatio­n. Footballer­s think it’s new. I’ve been doing it for 70 years!’

the time,’ he says. ‘I shot 64 and won and the next week, I was seven behind Seve Ballestero­s, shot a 65 and won again. The next week I was six behind Andy Bean. He came up to me and said, “You’re not going to beat me you little sawn-off runt”. I shot 64 and beat him. Time periods like that in a career really stand out.

‘But, never mind the Masters, the Open is by far the greatest tournament on the planet.’ He lets that sink in a moment. ‘I rate the Open at one, the US Open two, PGA three and Augusta four,’ he adds. ‘Four marvellous tournament­s.’ Fourth? That goes against the pristine green grain of discussion­s around Augusta. It is perhaps necessary to recall that Player has had his issues at the Masters, most glaringly in 2021 when his son Wayne was barred for ambush marketing. He does not point in that direction when he justifies his position.

‘It’s the youngest of the majors,’ he says. ‘The others are steeped in tradition and history and they still have to catch up. Nothing comes to the top without time.’

Punchy opinions are a recurring theme in conversati­ons with Player, likewise the idea of time and hard yards. He often refers to ‘suffering’ through his youth in Johannesbu­rg and why the combinatio­n of losing his mother at eight and his father’s absence below ground forged the resilience he needed to survive on £30 a month in his first three seasons of profession­al golf.

It takes us indirectly to the mysteries of McIlroy, who has walked a tough path at Augusta and whose presence in Georgia comes with the ever-loaded question of whether this will be the year he ends his long wait to win there. If McIlroy does get over the line, he would become just the sixth man to complete the Grand Slam, therefore joining Player as the only non-Americans in that elite circle. According to Player, McIlroy’s legacy as a great depends on it.

‘He’s got the best swing in the world by a mile,’ Player says. ‘He’s won four majors but none since 2014. I think he will win the Masters because the course is made for him. I think if he does that, he’ll go down as one of the greats, but that’s something he has to do.

‘I’ve always said my judgment of superstars is they have to win six majors. People these days say anyone who wins is a superstar. No. It’s not easily done, but I believe Rory can.’

PLAYER is laughing again. He is still on the subject of McIlroy and the Masters, but this time it is about LIV. All roads in golf lead there eventually.

‘You know what, I don’t think that Rory, even if he does win, would get as much satisfacti­on as he did over there,’ he says, referring back to January’s Dubai Desert Classic, when McIlroy beat Patrick Reed after the saga that became known as tee-gate.

The Masters will bring all frontiers together again, the old and the new. Player’s views on the dumpster-fire of that civil war are fascinatin­g.

‘I don’t blame those who went,’ he says. ‘Most who left do not believe they can win on the regular tour any more.

‘Louis Oosthuizen is probably the finest gentleman I’ve met in golf and he’s never won a tournament in America, so of course he’s going to take their money. Dustin Johnson and Cameron Smith, I was surprised they took the money but that’s their choice.

‘But I believe once you’ve decided that’s your tour, you should not be allowed to come back and play regular tournament­s.

‘I don’t like 54-hole tournament­s, nor the team side of it. Personally I think you shouldn’t be allowed to dress in shorts either.

‘But the freedom to choose is important. The thing that irks me is it’s become a damn war. Can’t stand it.’

The fire and brimstone has come from both sides, led primarily by McIlroy among the traditiona­lists and Greg Norman for the LIV disruptors.

‘Greg has basically had a vendetta against the PGA Tour for a long time,’ Player says.

‘He wanted to start a world tour (in the Nineties) and was deprived of it. He’s been a bit bitter about that. I get on very well with Greg but I think he has let it creep into some of these decisions, which I think is a pity.’

It is a debate that has defined this recent era of golf. In other matters of the sport’s history, Player is no less compelling on who ranks where in the all-time standings.

‘The greatest I ever saw was Ben Hogan,’ he says. ‘He went to war for five years and then had a terrible car accident, so never played in 30 majors. Nobody had a streak like he had (winning his nine majors in the space of 16 starts). If I was a young boy today, I’d watch his swing from 1953 every day.

‘Tiger Woods was the most talented golfer the planet has ever seen but he made a few bad decisions, which we all do. Having lessons when he won the US Open by 15 shots was inconceiva­ble — if he never went for a lesson he would have won 20 majors minimum and he would have beat Nicklaus’s record.

‘Then we come to Jack Nicklaus, the most majors in the world. I suppose my point is when you talk about the best players — and might I just say I have the best record for worldwide wins (159) — there are many ways you can judge golfers.’

Before long there are more opinions to speed through, from the ‘draconian’ Covid laws keeping Novak Djokovic out of the USA, to the ‘ruination’ of golf if the game does not act on its intentions to roll back the ball.

Somewhere among it all, he gets to his love of the royal family in this country.

‘The Queen came to South Africa in 1947,’ he says. ‘My school was called King Edward VII and had a crown on the blazer and I loved English manners. I waved at her. It broke my heart to see how Harry and Meghan behaved and she had to put up with that crap in the latter part of her life.’

There are few discussion­s in sport that visit so many stops as one with Player.

WHILE golf is in turmoil, so too have there been huge changes in Player’s life.

He lays claim to having met every US president of the past 65 years, dropping names like range balls, and still paints the picture of a globetrott­ing party that will never end. But there has been real pain.

That goes for a legal battle with his son Marc and grandson

Damian over accusation­s they sold his memorabili­a without permission, and more gravely through the loss of his wife of 64 years, Vivienne, who died in 2021.

On the situation with his son, Player says: ‘It’s pretty sad for me but we will see what happens. Right is right.’

Vivienne’s death from pancreatic cancer has brutally tested his usual outlook, but Player has searched for a happier context.

‘You know, I was with her 72 years,’ he says, as he slows himself down for the only time in this chat. ‘Everyone thinks their wife is the best, but there’s no way you could have a better wife than mine.

‘I miss her every day. But here’s the conclusion — I sat at the greatest table with the greatest food in the world and I left the table content.’

From there, just as the cloud appears to settle, Player springs back to his jauntier persona.

‘Now I’m looking for a girlfriend and I don’t know how the hell I will find one at my age!’

With that it is about time to wrap up as Player has golf to play.

‘You know, nobody in the history of the world has ever played golf like I play at this age,’ he says. ‘I’m happy. I’ve got wonderful friends. I love people and I love life. Everything is hunky dory.’

He laughs again, the oldest swinger in town and the youngest 87-year-old known to man.

 ?? BLOOMBERG / GETTY IMAGES ?? A life well lived: Gary Player, pictured (left) at the Masters in 1984, is still one of the most captivatin­g and interestin­g voices in golf
BLOOMBERG / GETTY IMAGES A life well lived: Gary Player, pictured (left) at the Masters in 1984, is still one of the most captivatin­g and interestin­g voices in golf
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