Player Finally Gets His Chance


Gary Player never got a chance to compete in a Ryder Cup match, and that's a shame. He's been an eternal optimist, voracious competitor, and gregarious ambassador of the game for more than 48 years. He would have been an ideal golfer on that international stage. He embodies the qualities that Samuel Ryder sought to honor when he offered the Cup in the 1920s: tenacity between the ropes and dignity outside of the arena. Player could only watch, as others played biennially for a cause greater than their own bank accounts.
To understand Gary Player's essence, you need to look at his origins. Born in South Africa, possessing great skill and determination, Player's idol early on was Bobby Locke. Locke is considered by some to be the greatest pressure putter in history, but his eccentricities and disdain for the American tour seems to have limited his stature in the game, at least in this country. The distance between his homeland and the riches of the PGA Tour was so extreme, the odds were against him ever making an impact on the U.S. golf scene.
Player was certainly the best South African golfer of his generation and has inspired the likes of major championship winners Ernie Els and Retief Goosen. To reach his potential, Player knew early on that he needed to compete against the best golfers in the world, week in and week out. Since the world's best rarely made their way to South Africa, Player needed to take his show on the road.
People who travel to remote locations these days do so with huge airliners, business class, hot towels for your face, little booties for your feet, a couple of pieces of luggage and a carry-on bag. The Players traveled in the days before in-flight movies, and they traveled en masse. Golf wives like Winnie Palmer and Barbara Nicklaus have always been commended for the jobs they did running their families and supporting their husbands, and each was vital to her husband's success. But Vivienne Player had a tall order.
When the Player clan hit town, it was a scene like no other. Six children of varying ages, more than 30 pieces of luggage including steamer trunks, suitcases and satchels, cribs, clubs and helpers. The luggage alone took three taxicabs to transport. Gary was physically fit, but he was 5'7' 145 pounds soaking wet and didn't look even that big. He wore black to soak up all available solar energy, ate a clove of garlic each day and practiced religiously while Vivienne took care of the domestic situation. It looked like the Players were actually moving their entire life and resettling every week.
They would settle in to their new temporary home early in the week, and then Gary would go big-game hunting. Arnold Palmer was the dashing crowd favorite with great physical strength and daring style. Later, Jack Nicklaus burst on the scene with a physique and single-mindedness that made his nickname fit to a tee - 'the Golden Bear.' Player was the diminutive man with the funny accent, strange dress, doing push-ups and eating only healthy food, but he got the better of his famous rivals on more than one occasion.
When Player completed his career Grand Slam at Bellerive in 1965, only Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan had accomplished the task. He may not admit it, but Player is proud that he reached that milestone before Nicklaus. His rivalry with Palmer was intense as well. The two were always respectful and complimentary, but the competition was more heated and the desire to beat the other was more deeply rooted than they ever let on.
Gary Player was well in to his Senior career when the Presidents Cup was created and Ernie Els got a run at the Americans in an international competition. I can only imagine what Player must have been feeling - probably pride, perhaps a little envy, but certainly rooting for his team.
2001 Warburg CupThis week he captains the internationals at the UBS Warburg Cup. It is a long awaited assignment. The same resolve that enabled him to overcome tall odds, move his entire family on a weekly basis and take on the game's giants over and over again will be present at Kiawah Island. He will say all the right things, sign all the autographs, and smile for all the cameras. He will also look across the table at his old adversary and do whatever he needs to lead his team to victory.