To a young boy who excelled in soccer, track, cricket and rugby, this sport was sissy. Oh, Gary Player had piddled around with golf as a youngster. He swatted at balls with a stick festooned with bent wire on the end. He had fished in the lakes of the local golf course with his toes, fished for golf balls, and he and his friends actually found quite a few on weekends.
But play? No, of course not. Young Gary was too intent on playing his macho sports.
He was almost 15 years of age, in 1949, when his father leaned upon Gary to come join him for a day at the nearby Virginia Park golf course. Harry Player was going to the course with the other members of his regular foursome ' Marcus Levy, Fred Becket and Ralph de la Briever ' and he figured it was time his son was exposed to the game.
Son, I think youre ready now to go out and play on a real course, said Harry. He wasnt asking - he was demanding, in his own fatherly way. Young Gary knew when his father meant business. Now was one of those times, so Gary dutifully tagged along.
That was the day destined to change the worldwide face of golf forever. Poppa Player, a 2-handicapper, only had this small bit of advice: Keep your head still and make sure you follow through. And Gary listened - he parred the first hole he played ' a par-3. Then he parred the second. And the third.
From then on his card was covered with 6s, 7s, 8s and an occasional 9, but he was hooked. He was a hopeless addict to golf, an exercise that would take him on a journey that would go on and on for 14 million miles, around the world countless times, through all the major tours of the globe, through victories in nine major championships.
Young Gary was born in 1935 in the community of Lyndhurst, the third child of Harry and Muriel Player. Harry toiled in the gold mines around Johannesburg, never making more than $200 a month. Muriel, a loving mother, died when Gary was only 8. The fact that she never saw Gary hit a golf ball is something that troubles him to this day. Most are his features ' his 5-foot-7 frame in particular ' are owed to the dimunitive frame of his mother.
Garys older brother, Ian, left home at the age of 16 for World War II. His sister, Wilma, left home for boarding school. It became lonely for young Gary, who occupied himself with all kinds of sports ' except golf. That is, until he was in the latter stages of his 14th year. Once he experienced golf, however, no other sport seemed to matter.
I think I found out very quickly how difficult it is, he says now. I was a four-letter man in school and I can tell you that golf is more difficult that all four put together.
Within 16 months of that first golfing experience, Gary had his handicap down to a zero. I dont know if theres any such thing as a natural, but there is such a thing as ball sense, he says. I had ball sense and reflexes. And I was always very supple.
Virginia Park golf course became his second home. Player took his first lessons from the professional there, Jock Verwey. He met Verweys son, Bobby, and the two played golf every weekend. Oh ' there was a third person that played with them. Bobbys sister, Vivienne. She was only 13 then and Player 14, but she would one day become Garys wife.
I had gone into her fathers pro shop for some tees, Player remembered their first meeting. She had a pink sweater on and was working behind the counter, helping her father. In a matter of days Viv, Bobby and Gary played their first round together. The three put up two shillings each ' about a quarter ' to see who would be the first to break 50 for nine holes.
Player finally captured the shillings when he broke the 50 mark at 15, shooting a 48. I remember they had giggled when I first teed off and bungled the ball a few feet over their heads, he said. And the thrill of breaking 50 for the first time was really every bit as great a feeling for me as winning the Masters or the U.S. Open.
A touching moment in his life occurred at the age of 16, when his father surprised him with a new set of Wilson Turfrider clubs. Harry didnt much of a big deal about it ' I had a bit of money, he said. But eight years later Gary found out the truth from the back manager where the family did their business ' his father had taken out a loan for the clubs.
Gary began spending all his spare time at the golf course. There is no way anyone could have worked any harder than I did, he explained. I played truant (hooky) from school. I would go out with my clubs in the morning and hit balls all day long until 6 in the evening ' with only an hour for lunch and maybe a half-hour nap on days when it was very warm. The whole day was golf.
And he exercised religiously since he always was small in stature. He ran the nearby hills with brother Ian as a drill sergeant. He did 70 finger-tip push-ups. Finally came the day that he announced his plans to his father ' he wanted to turn pro.
Father Harry didnt take kindly to Garys dreams of becoming a professional golfer. Harry dreamed of his son completing his education. But Gary had a good point ' there wasnt money for university studies.
His father resisted the idea. Player remembers him saying, Gee, what are the chances of you being a champion? You should really continue your education. Gary couldnt argue with that reasoning, but the circumstances were in his favor ' there was very little money to be spent on further school, so father finally consented.
Player won quickly upon turning pro in 1955 at the East Rand Open in South Africa, then decided to make the first giant step ' a trip out of the country to play in Egypt at the Egyptian Match Play. Accompanying him was another man who would gain much fame, Harold Henning, and Trevor Wilkes.
Players father once again went to the bank for a loan to finance the trip ' for 600 rand, about $250. He also lent Gary a nice pair of slacks ' Harrys own. The tournament was in the middle of summer in Cairo, but Gary was obliged to wear a heavy pullover. The pants, you see, were too big. Player wore the sweater to conceal the fact he wore the pants up under his armpits, the excess flannel tucked under his belt.
Oh ' the $250? It was repaid quickly. Gary won the tournament and with it a check for the equivalent of $1,200, big trousers and all. He was 19 years old, he was a professional tournament winner, and he won the South African Sportsman of the Year Award from the Rand Sportswriters Society.
The floodgates had been opened. Player quickly followed with wins in 1956 at the South African Open ' his countrys national championship , repeated at the East Rand Open and won for the first time in England. When he was invited to Australia, he became a world traveler. He won the Ampol Open in Australia, then placed a call back home to the girl who had become his sweetheart ' Vivienne Verwey. Calling from a pay phone, Player told her to get ready for a wedding. And on Jan. 19, 1957, at the age of 21, he and Viv were married.
It was about that time that Player made his way to the course at St. Andrews, Scotland, for his first tournament there. Arriving late in the evening, he discovered that all the hotels were full.
So-o-o, he said, I walked out onto the course, put on my rainsuit, and slept down in a bunker. It certainly wasnt comfortable, but I didnt have much of a choice.
Player would never again have to sleep in a St. Andrews bunker. He would win more than 175 victories worldwide, including a number of them at St. Andrews. The boy had grown into a young man, and he was about to become a world icon.