Indulge me while I reminisce a little. This column is about Player ' not me. But an anecdote or two will reveal his character which has been so badly misjudged by so many.
Because he is from South Africa, many assume he is racist. Nothing could be further from the truth. Player is as enlightened as anyone I know, even though thats admittedly unusual for a man raised under the ugly ruse of apartheid.
I first met him at a time when a monetary gift he was presenting to a university in Michigan was rejected. Player had attempted to start a program that would teach various segments of golf course management. But three or four members of the universitys board took one look at Players place of birth and dug in their heels.
There would be no Gary Player gift while they were sitting on the board. No sir! This was in the late 1980s, racial ignorance was still in full bloom, and as a result, the small group was able to kill the program. They had no inkling that Player was perhaps the most racially enlightened white man South Africa has ever produced. The fact that he was from South Africa itself was enough for them to nix the favor.
I wrote a column decrying the incident, then forgot about it. But Player didnt. I met him for the first time at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando shortly thereafter.
Oh, Ive been hoping someday I would meet you! said Player. Thank you very much for the article! How can I ever repay you? I appreciate it so much!
I was taken aback, quite frankly. I dont think an athlete has ever said thanks for a story Ive done. Here was Player, a great friend and supporter of Nelson Mandela, himself a benefactor of a school for black children on his South African ranch, going out of his way to thank me. I was partially aware of some of the positive things he has done to bring about racial equality, but Ive learned of many more since.
I have spoken to Player many times since that first meeting. Once at the PGA Seniors Championship in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., he taught me a lesson about what it means to be famous. It was about the downside, something I am sure few people have stopped to consider.
It was after the final round on a Sunday, and I was chatting to Player while he meandered along the ropes signing autographs. He had been signing for about 10 minutes when he turned and looked down the long line of people desperately wanting his signature.
Look at all these people, he said quietly. Ive got catch a plane in less than an hour. Ive still got to get back inside, take a shower, clean out my locker and tip the attendants. Im going to have to decide when to quit signing in a few minutes. And when I do, the people who have been waiting for me will say what I jerk I am.
And sure enough, Player finally had to put down his pen and hurry inside. And sure enough, there was a loud grumbling from the people left holding slips of paper.
There always will be those people who think you are a great guy because you had the time to sign for them, he said. And there will always be those who think you are worse than a dog because you simply, physically, do not have the time for them. To them, you are just too good to take the time. I wish there were some other way.
Player was born the poor son of a gold miner in Johannesburg. His mother had died when Player was a small child. He played for the first time when he was 14, turned professional not long thereafter, and left the country for the first time at 19.
That first trip was to play the Cairo Open in Egypt, and he was very conspicuous in a heavy sweater while everyone else wore short-sleeved shirts. The reason? Player had to borrow slacks from his father, who was several sizes larger than him. He hiked them up to his armpits, wrapped a belt around them, sweated profusely and wore the sweater to keep the gallery from seeing him do a Charlie Chaplin imitation.
And, oh yes ' he won.
On his first trip to Britain, he slept at St. Andrews - in a sand trap! He had arrived in town late and could not find a hotel room.
So-o-o, I walked out onto the course, put on my rain suit to keep the sand off me, and laid down in a bunker, he said. It certainly wasnt comfortable, but I didnt have much of a choice.
Its not surprising that Player abhors the attitude of some professionals who constantly complain about the trappings surrounding a golf tournament. Nowadays, youre playing for a winners check of six figures, well over $100,000, he says. You walk into your locker and find it stocked with balls and gloves, and there is free food in the locker room. A chauffeur meets you at the airport and then someone else gives you the key to your Cadillac. And then we have the right to complain?
Player, though, is a different breed. He wasnt raised rich. Conserving was a way of life for him. Now he has access to riches, and he cant believe what he sees. Maybe its because of his upbringing in a house where luxuries were just not available.
I have such a great love for my mother and father, he says. My mother died when I was 8 years of age of cancer. She never saw me hit a golf ball, which is very sad for me because I remember my mother very well.
And my dad did everything to help me get started in the game. When Id win a tournament, hed be like a little puppy. You can imagine being in a gold mine and having a son that turns out to be one of the world champions. He never believed that a gold miner making $100 a month would ever have that happen to him.
I must say that I appreciate what he did for me, and I try to repay it with love ' the love of a son.
Knowing Gary Player makes me a rich man.