Back in 2009, just a matter of weeks after he played in his record 52nd - and final - Masters Tournament, nine-time major winner Gary Player picked up the phone to re-live some of his favourite memories from his career with us.
In a wide-ranging interview with our assistant editor Michael McEwan, he covered everything from his rivalry with Jack and Arnie, bacon rolls, Greenpeace, and, of course, his famous keep-fit ethic. Here's how their chat went...
Mr Player, many congratulations on playing your final Masters this year.
Why, thank you very much!
What was behind your decision to call it a day this year?
Well, I always said, if I can keep breaking 80 at Augusta, I’ll keep playing and I’ve managed that. But recently I was talking about things with my wife and children and they said, ‘Look, you’ve broken 80 – why not go out while you’re still capable?’ And they were right. I mean, it’s terrible when you see athletes struggling on when they are past their best, so it was just my time to call it a day and the last round is something I’ll never forget. I got a standing ovation on every tee, every fairway, every green and, on the 18th hole, well, that was the longest ovation I’ve ever seen in my life in sport. It was so touching.
The scenes at that last hole really were quite remarkable. Can you describe how you felt and what was going through your mind?
I felt great laddie! My grandfather Ferguson from Scotland would have been very proud, I tell you that! But, yes, seriously, I felt wonderful, it was an incredibly emotional moment.
Do you feel ready to call it a day?
Well, funnily enough, I was playing in the Par-3 Contest this year and, when I had a hole-in-one, my little seven-year-old grandson who was caddying for me turned to me and he said, “Gramps, you’ve still got it!”
You turned pro in 1953. Fifty-six years ago. Could you ever have imagined you’d have such a long and successful career?
Absolutely not! If somebody said to me when I was 20 that I’d be the only man to win the Grand Slam on the regular tour, and the Grand Slam on the senior tour but, to get it, I’d have had to die at 50 I’d have said, “You’ve got a deal.” I’ve had a blessed career and I’ve never taken it for granted because it can be taken away at any time. I mean, look at Seve Ballesteros, Ian Baker-Finch, David Duval and a host of other players who were great but, all of a sudden, couldn’t play any more. Duval wouldn’t even have been able to win on the ladies’ tour. You know, the ability to play golf is merely a loan, it’s not a permanent gift.
Is there any one win that stands out above all the others you’ve had?
I think the greatest achievement I had, funnily enough, was the Grand Slam on the senior tour. Not only was I was the only player to do it, it stands out because it’s so tough to win on that tour. I only had eight years to do it in, whereas with the regular Grand Slam I had 35 years.
What is it that you had that made you such a prolific winner?
Well, I always had the passion, the work ethic and the willingness to travel. I reckon I’ve probably hit more balls than anyone who has ever lived and I’ve certainly travelled more miles than any human being – not counting people who have gone to the Moon, of course.
What do all your friends make of your longevity and the fact you’ve managed
to keep going so long?
Funnily enough, I was waiting to tee off at one hole at the Masters this year and I turned and said to my caddie, “You know, I’m 73-years-old – most of my friends are dead and here I am playing in the Masters!” I tell you, it must have something to do with all the haggis I’ve eaten over the years!
What was your favourite event to play in?
The Open is my favourite tournament in the world and, with my Scottish ancestry, to have won twice in Scotland is something that I’m very proud of. The Open is more than a tournament – it’s the ultimate test of golf. And, of course, to go down the line with Nicklaus at Carnoustie, to go head-to-head with him, that’s something I’ll always cherish.
You’ve played in the same era as most of the game’s most celebrated players. Who is the finest golfer you’ve seen?
The best player I’ve ever seen in my life? Ben Hogan. I never saw anybody hit the ball like him. If you gave him today’s equipment, today’s courses and everything else that goes with the game these days, well, there’s no telling how good he would have been.
Do you think he would have beaten Tiger?
That’s hard to say. You can’t really compare eras with one another. It’s like comparing oranges with apples. All you can really say with any certainty is that somebody was the best player in their time. I think Hogan was the best in his time, Nicklaus was the best in his time, and Tiger is the best – by a long way – in his time. But, don’t forget, Ben Hogan went to war. He had six years where he didn’t play in majors. What would happen if Tiger had to go to war for six years now? What would have happened to Nicklaus if he’d gone to war? If Hogan never went to war, he might have won 20 majors.
Yourself, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were the men to beat in your era. What was your relationship like with them?
We were extremely good friends and we still are. I think we understood each other very well. We made it very clear that we all wanted to beat the living daylights out of one another on the course. We were competitive in every respect: who’d win the most events, who’d win the most majors, and so on. We had a very healthy rivalry and it was a rivalry that I think golf needed at the time.
In what way?
Well, the previous group of top players didn’t travel to the extent that Jack, Arnold and I did. We went into all corners of the globe. I mean, take a man like Henry Cotton, who was one of the finest golfers the game ever had. He didn’t go into places like China, India and Africa and so on. But we did. We went to some of the world’s most God-forsaken places just to play golf and promote it. It wasn’t like today where nobody goes anywhere unless you give them enormous appearance fees. We had a different outlook. We all loved the game and were happy to do whatever and go wherever to promote it.
Travelling must have been much different for you then compared with how it is in today’s era of private jets and so on.
Yes, well, I travelled by Greyhound bus on many occasions and the first time I went to America, I went with my wife, our six children, and it took 48 hours to get there. I’d like to see some of the guys today try and travel with six kids in tow, on a plane with no
first-class, no disposable diapers, no courtesy cars to meet you at the airport.
Was everything else as different as that back in your era?
Oh yes. I remember getting on the first tee at St Andrews and being told, “Here’s your ball for the week. If you make the cut, we’ll give you some more.” Now, they give you four dozen per week. Everything has changed over the course of my career: prize-money, jets, golf courses in five times better condition. Everything has got better.
Absolutely. At 73 years of age, I can hit the ball 260 yards. When I was a young man, though, hitting it 260 was considered to be pretty good. I mean, Jack Nicklaus, he was the leading driver in the world in our era, hitting it 285 yards at a time. Today, that wouldn’t even be good enough to get in the top 5,000! But give him this equipment, he’d have hit it 330 yards. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to play with today’s equipment when I was at my prime.
What about the courses you played on?
Oh, they were crap. I remember playing in The Open one time and, word of honour, there were daisies growing on some of the fairways. They didn’t even have rakes for the bunkers. No rakes in The Open! Now, because it’s my favourite event, and was even back then, I went to the secretary of the R&A, a man called Brigadier Brickman, and I said, “I’d like to donate 18 rakes to the golf course.” But he thought I was being facetious and he shouted, “Get out my office you insolent little bastard!” It was crazy.
Let’s talk about fitness. You’re famously dedicated to keeping in shape and have been all your life. How many sit-ups do you do these days?
Between 1,000 and 1,500 sit-ups four times a week.
That’s incredible for a man of 73. How do you manage it?
I’ve just built it up to that over time, ever since I was a young boy. My brother went to the last world war to fight alongside Britain and America aged 17, and before he left, he said to me ‘What would you like to become one day?’ I said that I’d like to be a professional sportsman. And he said to me, ‘But you’re so small!’ He said ‘Look, I’m not sure if I’m coming back’ and so he went and bought me a set of weights. I started with them when I was nine and, in the 63 years since then, I have exercised like a Trojan. I firmly believe that’s why I’ve won the most golf tournaments of all the modern day players in the world.
What did your fellow professional golfers make of your dedication to fitness?
I was ridiculed. Everybody said, ‘You can’t do weight-training and play golf.’ One famous golf architect even said, ‘Gary Player will be finished when he’s 35, he’s squatting with 300 pounds’. But I lasted longer than any of them. Everyone thought I was a kook. But I’ll be known as a kook again because I’m going to make a prediction right now: the next big thing in golf is going to be what you eat.
Do you think so?
Yes, most people take more care of their car than they do their own bodies. But I predict that in 50 years time no-one will eat animal fats, they won’t drink milk, they won’t eat bacon. I know bacon is a staple diet in Britain but I wouldn’t feed it to my dog.
Diet is something you’re very passionate about, then?
I am. I’m reading a book just now called “Diet For A New America.” Everybody should read that book because it’ll change their lives. All these people getting cancer, diabetes, heart attacks – it’ll change them, trust me.
You’ve designed over 300 golf courses around the world but none in Scotland.
Yes, and that’s one of the great sadnesses of my life. You know, our courses are so highly rated and it’s so sad not to have built one in Scotland because it has a special place in my heart. But that’s how things go.
Can you see that changing in the future?
Well, we at Gary Player Design can’t change it, people have got to request it. But that’s okay, I accept those things.
How big a part of what you do these days is golf course design?
It’s my main business now. Being a farmer, I have a great passion for golf course architecture and I’m one of the few designers who understands that the world has a water problem. We’re rapidly running out of it. That’s why I’ve become a dedicated environmentalist. You know, as I come to the end of my golfing career, I want to teach 100 million young people how to eat properly, look after their bodies and look after the world. Churchill said, “The youth of a nation are the trustees of posterity.” We have to get young people interested in these things. Thank God for Greenpeace! We should be collecting money for them.
You’re also passionate about ensuring that all children get access to a decent education. Why is that?
I was very poor as a young kid. I lost my mother when I was eight, my brother was killed in the war, my father worked 12,000 feet underground. I suffered like a dog and I’ve never forgotten that. That’s why I established the Gary Player Foundation and, to date, we have collected $25m for under-privileged children around the world to get an education.
Let’s go back to golf just to finish up. Do you have a particular favourite memory of playing in Scotland?
There are so many. If I had to choose one, though, I’d say winning the Open at Muirfield. My daughter, who was newly-born, was there and it was a magical moment. After leaving the course, we went back to the Marine Hotel where a piper piped us in. I love the bagpipes, they’re deep in my veins.
Do you have a message for your all of your fans in Scotland?
Yes, I say thank you for your support all these 56 years. I am so grateful for the talent that has been loaned to me and the fact I can still play golf and break my age almost every day. I go on my hands and knees every day of my life and give thanks for that, and a man never stands taller than when he’s on his knees.
• Gary Player in bunkered
This interview with Gary Player first appeared in issue 91 of bunkered (Published: April 2009)