Gary Player on retirement, rivals and Abu Dhabi
At 82, you’d forgive the golfing legend for wanting to put his feet up. But the sport’s most travelled man tell Esquire how retirement is nothing but a death warrant:
Good morning, sir. How are you today?
Very well thank you. Just finishing up our annual family holiday on the coast near our house here in South Africa.
Nice. So what does a Player family holiday entail?
Well, we have a lot of the family come. We go for lovely walks along the beaches. We play a lot of golf with my grandchildren, and sons and daughters in-laws. In the evenings we get together and sit around a outdoor arena called a ‘Beauma’, and talk around the fireplace.
It sounds glorious!
It really is. I have never seen a place in my life that is as beautiful as ‘Plettenberg Bay’. The beach, the golf courses and the climate in this quaint little town is just wonderful. It’s a place that really allows you to appreciate the beauty of nature, but many people do not realize that this kind of countryside exists.
Are any of your grandkids, keen golfers or do you put them all to shame still?
No, there are some very keen golfers. One of them has a scholarship in America at the IMG Golf Academy, and my granddaughter who only plays about five times a year, played nine-holes with me yesterday and got two pars, which is great. But you know, these kids do a lot of studying these days and it is hard to make a mark in life. They work all the time, and don’t get much time off.
Speaking of work, one of the stops of the annual Gary Player Invitational charity golf series is Abu Dhabi. Why the UAE capital?
I am a massive fan of Abu Dhabi, and I’d like to think that I am a bit of an ambassador for the city! I designed the Saadiyat Island Golf Club, and have been working with the government - who I have tremendous respect for - for helping grow and develop Abu Dhabi in a very sophisticated way, not just a big concrete jungle. It’s a place that a lot of people around the world are only just starting to learn about. I think the Louvre was marvellous thing to be done, but the thing that really impresses me is the Sheikh Zayed mosque. Having travelled more miles than any sportsman in history, it is still one of the most beautiful things I have seen.
You really know your Emirates!
Well, I host the tournament there every year and raise a lot of money for our foundation all over the world - UAE, China, Europe. We give a lot of money to local charities and it is a really great thing to be able to directly impact and change millions of people’s lives for the better. The money raised in Abu Dhabi supports the Zayed Higher Organization that provides humanitarian care for people with special needs. Being able to do that is a very special privilege for me.
After the global success you’ve had, do you feel duty-bound to give back?
I feel that everyone of us has an incurred debt. The world is in a dire position at the moment, with crime, terrorism, indiscipline among young people, and so if we are in a position to do good for someone who is less fortunate, then that’s what we are duty-bound to do. I think we are all in a position to help change the world.
How much of that comes from your upbringing?
Growing up for me was a real struggle. My ‘oupa’ [grandfather] went to war when he was 17; my father worked in a gold mine; my mother died when I was eight, and my sister was at boarding school. It was a terribly lonely childhood. I used to wake up alone in the house at night wishing I was dead. I used to have to travel an hour-and-a-half each way to school every day.
But the school I went to, King Edward VII, was one of the greatest school in the world, and still is. It helped save my life. I always said, ‘when' I do well, I would always look to help those who are struggling, because I was once in that position too.
That ‘giving back’ happened quite early on...
Exactly. When I won the US Open in 1965 - and became the first player to ever win the Grand Slam of Majors, beating Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus - I gave the total winning purse of $25k to charity. I was the first pro golfer to do that.
It’s staggering to believe that at the age of 82, you are as busy as you are. Just reading off a sheet here, aside from the Invitational, you have written 36 books on golf, you have designed golf courses on five continents, and you even have your on horse stud farm!
Yes, my portfolio is quite diverse! My stud farm is one of the most beautiful in the world, and it has done very well. The reason I love to write books, is because I have a deep love for the English language. I am very inspired by Winston Churchill. Not just his leadership qualities, but also his command of the English language. Obviously he had faults, but so does everyone. In fact, that is something I have learnt from our great South African leader Nelson Mandela, to forgive anyone who has faults.
So that would be your ideal dinner party? Churchill, Mandela, and...
Mahatma Ghandi. All three of those people are quite remarkable, aren’t they.
Do you ever just want to put your feet up and step back?
Not really. I enjoy it. I’m 82 and I have travelled more miles than any athlete ever, but I still feel there is more I can give. I don’t believe in the word retirement, I think that word is a death warrant.
How many hours do you sleep a night?
I try to sleep 9 hours a night. I try to eat well, and I work out very hard still.
How is your game now?
I can still play pretty well. I average around 72 for a round - which means I beat my age by 10 shots!
Who was the greatest rival?
I had the honour of playing against Palmer and Nicklaus, who are two of the greatest of all time. We were great friends, but we wanted to beat the hell out of each other. We travelled the world, we pushed each other and we raised a lot of money for charities.
What did you learn from them?
I honestly believe that you learn something from everybody around you. You have to be observant and watch people, to pick up things both good and bad. I’ve been fortunate to meet Presidents and Sheikhs, but you can learn just as much from people who have nothing. Even now, life continuously teaches you things.
In your career you won nine Major championships. Which one sticks out most in your mind?
Probably my last one [the 1978 US Masters] because I won it when I was 42. It is very hard to do competing against people half your age. In fact, I am the only person to have ever won the Grand Slam on both the regular and senior Tour.
That is something I take a lot of pride in, especially to do it on the Senior Tour, because staying in shape after the age of 50 is tough. It was an interesting period, because when I was on the Senior Tour, because it was the first time that that generation of golfers had the opportunity to actually win some good money!
How do you see the difference between your generation and today’s golfers?
It is a different world. The equipment and the infrastructure makes it so much easier for them today. The clubs alone allow you to hit the ball 50-yards further. The ball is a different texture so you can’t slice or hook it as much, and most importantly, the money in the sport is incomparable.
Today the guys play for a million dollars every week! It’s a vastly different world, when I used to travel Tourist Class with my family, and not in my own private jet like today’s top players. You can’t really talk in comparisons, because if you gave Nicklaus, Palmer and me the equipment that the players have today, we would have done some scores you wouldn’t believe!
If you could choose your legacy, what would it be?
Of a man who tried to contribute to society, and had the respect and love of people.
Gary Player spoke to Esquire ahead of the Gary Player Invitational in Abu Dhabi. January 28 and 29 at the Saadiyat Island Golf Club. For more visit: garyplayer.com/invitational