Still Finding the Green

UPDATED: May 12, 2011
PUBLISHED: May 12, 2011

A magical moment at his last Masters tournament in 2009 captures the essence of Gary Player. As much as any of the countless clutch shots he made during an illustrious golfing career, it helps explain his continued post-PGA Tour success.

Player was a three-time Masters champion, and had 15 top-10 finishes at Augusta National. Immediately after finishing his 52nd and final appearance in his sport’s most prestigious event, the then 73-year-old black-clad “Black Knight” dropped reverently to one knee, bowed his head and solemnly doffed his cap to the course he has compared to heaven.

What many observers marked as a gesture of respect was that and much more, Player tells SUCCESS.

“I wanted to express my gratitude,” says Player, now 75, from his 13,000-acre South African ranch. “We must never take anything for granted. People talk about my professional success, but I never take the credit. I was fortunate to realize my career was a gift that was loaned to me. You have to be grateful and humble. I walk around my ranch and say thank you five times a day.”

Don’t let the humbleness belie the grit and determination of the man, however. With 165 tournament wins worldwide over six decades, including 18 major championships, nine on the regular tour and nine on the seniors, Player has earned every hard-fought win he captured, both on the course and off.

And with all of his business concerns, he doesn’t have as much time to say thank you on the ranch as he would like. Among his activities, he designs golf courses (300 of them); participates in various Black Knight International entities founded by his son, Marc Player; and operates the Gary Player Stud Farm, which has received acclaim for breeding more than 2,000 top thoroughbred racehorses, including 1994 English Derby winner Broadway Flyer. In addition, he runs the Gary Player Foundation, which built the Blair Atholl Schools in Johannesburg, and has since expanded efforts worldwide, raising funds for impoverished children. He’s also waging a personal quest to promote fitness in a world getting hammered by obesity.

“The traits of becoming a championship golfer are very similar to those of a successful businessman,” Player says. “Patience is a very big thing. Working hard. Dressing well. Learning to speak well. Taking an interest in other people rather than just yourself. Being humble.”

A Difficult Youth

Player was the third child born to Harry and Muriel Player in Johannesburg. His father, a captain in a gold mine, spent most of his working life 12,000 feet underground. His mother was well educated and insisted her son get a good education. Player was just 8 when she died of cancer.

“I had a very difficult youth,” he recalls. “My mother and grandparents, who lived nearby and whom I was very close to, died. My brother went off to war at 17 to fi ght alongside the Americans and the British. My sister was at boarding school.”

At 5 a.m., Player would sit at a cold bench eating a simple breakfast. He rode a streetcar into town and had to walk across town to catch a bus to school. The daily trip took an hour and a half each way. He would return to a dark, empty house.

“There was nobody there,” he says. “Grits and spinach every night. I had a loneliness living in that damn house on my own.”

Player showed a great interest in sports, receiving honors in rugby, cricket, football and swimming. He got a late start at golf, however, because his school didn’t have a program.

The man who would win at least 20 golf tournaments in his career coming from at least seven strokes back took up the game at 14, playing on Sundays at the Virginia Park Golf Club in Johannesburg. Soon he was playing hooky to get in extra practice. His father took out a loan for Player’s first set of golf clubs, and he turned professional in 1953 at age 18.

He quickly won in Africa, Europe and Australia. In 1957, the 5-7, 145-pound Player came to the United States. Once he saw how far the game’s best drove the ball, he increased his exercise regimen, determined to hit the ball farther.

Refusing to Choke

Player gained an edge against star golfers (and soon-to-be friends) Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer with well-honed bunker skills, pure determination and a trim body, the result of his fitness routine and a high-fiber diet decades ahead of its time.

“I think I was always fitter than they were. They were physically stronger, but I was fitter. And I’m 10 times fitter today,” he says with a laugh. “I remember the first time I played Arnold, and there were 50,000 people cheering him on. The only ones pulling for me were my wife and my dog. I just loved the challenge. I just kept telling myself that I was going to beat him—and I did. I came into professional golf ready.”

That attitude, a load of wins, and his trademark all-black outfits set him apart from his competitors. (His color choice was inspired by his love of westerns, particularly the 1960s TV series Have Gun, Will Travel whose lead character dressed all in black.)

“It doesn’t apply to everybody, but I think if you look at people who have struggled in life, they seem to excel to a great degree once they are in the position to do well,” he says. “For example, I never choked in golf tournaments because I had such a tough time growing up that I said, ‘My goodness me, am I going to choke in a golf tournament? This is nothing compared to what I had as a youngster.’ So psychologically, I just refused to choke. I got keyed up. In my opinion, God takes certain things away from you, but he gives you a bounty of things in another way.”

That Thing That Champions Have

Nicklaus testified to Player’s inner strength in the 1974 inductee’s Hall of Fame biography. “I don’t think Gary was a great driver of the golf ball,” Nicklaus says. “I don’t think he was a great iron player. He was a good putter, not a great putter. But when he really needed to be, he was a great driver and a great iron player, and he made the putt when he needed to make it. Gary, as much as anyone I ever saw, has that thing inside him that champions have.”

In writing his recent book, Don’t Choke: A Champion’s Guide to Winning Under Pressure, Player, a father of six children, said his goal was to “help people—from businessmen to mothers or to the child about to give his or her first speech at school—to keep things in perspective and realize that the mind controls everything.”

The perfectionist in Player approaches designing courses with the same focus he used to escape from bad lies on the PGA Tour. “When your name is on a brand, you are very conscientious of what you do,” he says. “You have to build golf courses that are going to be enjoyable to millions of people. We’ve designed 300 golf courses. When you first start, you don’t know as much as you think you do. I’ve studied genetics almost every day of my life, and the conclusion is that I know a hell of lot about nothing. It’s the same with golf. It is the most difficult sport. That’s what makes golf so great is that it keeps you humble. And in business, you should keep your humility. Once you lose your humility, you fall on your ass.”

Player’s challenging beginnings also have helped keep his success in perspective and have made the work of the Gary Player Foundation all the more important to him. “When you are poor as a youngster and you struggle, you know what it is like,” he says. “I always said when—not if, but when—I was a world champion some day, I was going to help people because I’d been given a lot of help by individuals and companies. It’s just payback time.”

‘I Love to Have Goals’

The golfer named South African Sportsman of the Century in 2000 is proud of the hunger and the passion he brought to the game, and continues to bring to his work today.

“I always told my dad I was going to be the best player in the world,” he recalls. “My dad tried to temper my goals, but there is a determination and passion inbred in me, I suppose. I woke up this morning at 5 and was in the gym working out—I did 1,100 sit-ups—before spending the whole day working on my ranch. I’ve never been so happy as I am working these 13,000 acres. There’s 130 species of birds here, a big river that is incredible. It’s a paradise. And even at 75, I work like a Trojan.”

Player isn’t content with his own fitness; he’s intent on driving the point about the dangers of obesity.

“I love America; it has given the world so much,” says Player, who has 15 American grandchildren. “But America is going to have to change to survive. More people are dying of obesity than all the wars put together. I’d like to reach out to the 200 million young people in the world about eating and exercising properly, and on the importance of getting an education. I think the biggest problem facing America today is obesity—30 percent of the youth and 55 percent of the population are obese. At 75, I bet I could beat 80 percent of the world’s 20-year-olds, taken at random off the streets, in a fitness contest.”

In his 1991 autobiography, Player wrote “there is never enough success for me.” Nineteen years later, that still rings true. I’ve got all kinds of challenges in my life, and I just love it,” he says. “I love to have goals.”