Better With Age


Gary Player reaches the three-quarter century mark today (Monday), adding to a verbal resume of fact and figures that covers everything from his signature 15 million air miles flown to his 18 major championships.

That’s right, 18. Or at least that’s the number the Black Knight offers as he slips into a chair in the Golf Channel studios recently.

“It’s wonderful to have all these major championships. Eighteen on the (PGA) Tour and Champions Tour,” he smiles looking nothing like a man closing on octogenarian status.

Some get watches for a lifetime of service. For Player he rates nothing less than the benefit of the doubt. If the legendary South African is keen to combine his Grand Slam keepsakes from the regular and over-50 circuits, then 18 it is.

Besides, with Player it’s not boasting. If it were he’d rattle off his 110 international victories or, better yet, the names of his 20 grandchildren. No, for Player the only thing that even remotely approaches braggadocio is the here and now.

Gary Player at Augusta
Gary Player began his PGA Tour career in 1957. (Getty)
“Seventy-five (years old) and feel like 45,” he says, before adding his secret to longevity and energy, “One thousand sit ups, five days a week.” It’s a benchmark no modern Tour type would, or should, covet. 

It’s not bragging, for example, when Player announces completely unprovoked, “I never choked. I got nervous and keyed up, but I never choked.” The line is delivered as fact, as if the alternative is a plate full of animal proteins and a rocking chair.

To say Player’s is a life fully lived is to miss the moment. Sleep and pointless reflection is for the ever after, not the here and now.

As a formality. Player considers himself a “farmer” now, a part-time golfer at best and a tireless entrepreneur. Among the diversions from family and farm are Gary Player Real Estate, Gary Player Design, the Gary Player Golf Academy and his own Gary Player Stud Farm.

But, to be clear, “I prefer farming to golf. The last 70 days I spent on my ranch were the happiest of my life,” he says.

He’s also a doorway to the game’s past who defies decades. The 5-foot-7 ball of energy is a historical treasure, bridging eras with a clarity of thought that makes the Black Knight a must-read for all those who believe the game was invented in 1997.

When Player broke in to the PGA Tour in 1957 one of his most cherished encounters was with Ben Hogan.

“(Hogan) asked me, ‘You practice hard?’” Player recalls. “I said, ‘Yes sir.’ He said, ‘Double it.’”

Like Jack Nicklaus, who earlier this year lamented that he would have practiced harder had he known his all-time majors mark would have come under assault, Player has regrets.

“If I would have signed with Hogan (golf clubs) and played more in the U.S. I would have won more majors,” said Player, whose nine regular tour majors ties him with . . . you guessed it Hogan for fourth on the all-time list.

Not surprisingly Player also has a unique perspective on Tiger Woods, who not long ago seemed destined to surpass Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors but has been mired at 14 since his one-legged masterpiece at Torrey Pines in 2008.

“If Ben Hogan would have driven the ball for Tiger Woods (Woods) would have won 20 majors by now,” Player says.

That said Player is quick to point out that Woods is still the best player in the modern game. “He has won tournaments, never mind with his ‘C’ game, but with his ‘D’ game,” Player says.

Player is uniquely suited to speak on nearly all things golf and non-golf related. The problem with young people today? “Animal proteins,” he says without any further explanation. The problem with the modern game? An unsustainable economic structure he warns.

“Golf is in an unusual situation (financially),” he says. “Guys are going to have to work harder.”

But on this occasion, closing on his 75th birthday and a dozen years removed from his last Tour-sanctioned victory (1998 Long Island Classic), your correspondent was more interested in the man and his climb from a humble Johannesburg childhood to his a place among the game’s “Big Three.”

With that Player seems to lapse into an explanation of sorts, a genesis void of any second guessing or revisionism.

“I would not have played as well if I was 6-feet-2,” he says. “Being small gave me a special mind. Jack had a special mind.”

It is a mind that belies his 75 years – sharp, pointed and utterly uncluttered. It must be all those sit ups.