By Doug Milne, PGA TOUR
He tells the story as eloquently as one of the flawless bunker shots for which he’s known. He tells the story as if it was just five minutes old, not five decades.
Through three rounds of the 1958 U.S. Open at Southern Hills, 22 year-old Gary Player was one of just four players to have managed a round in the 60s. At 6-over and in third place, he would begin the final round a challenging five strokes off Tommy Bolt’s lead. Aware of Bolt’s propensity to lose his cool on the golf course, however, Player had a theory.
“I was certain I’d win the tournament that day, because I knew Tommy would lose his temper,” Player recalled with a laugh. “But, a preacher pulled him aside Sunday morning and gave him a long message about tranquility, told him that the Lord was with him and that he must remain peaceful.”
As fate would have it, Bolt remained peaceful enough to win by four. Player finished second.
“I looked for that preacher for a week after the tournament,” he snapped. “I wanted to give him a lecture on why he shouldn’t have given Tommy that lesson when I was in the hunt.”
What Player remembers about that week more than anything, however, were 10 simple words which not only launched, but sustained his career. Early that week, Player was paired Ben Hogan, a quiet and deliberate man whose silence defined him. “At one point, Hogan said to me, ‘Son, you’re going to be a great player one day’,” Player said. “That was the greatest compliment I ever received.”
With 2013 now upon him, that great player reflects on 60 years since turning professional in 1953. More than a great career, Player’s continues to be a remarkable life, one built on integrity, hard work, gratitude and an unbridled compassion for his fellow man. After losing his mother to cancer when he was just eight years old, Player’s father took out a loan to buy his youngest of three children his first set of clubs. He didn’t take up the game until the age of 14. Player’s initial foray into golf as a profession had him giving lessons as a teenager for 50 cents each.
“My first tournament as a professional was the 1953 Santa Clara Transvaal Open in Johannesburg, South Africa,” Player recalled. “It was quite unnerving as I was just 17 years old and competing against Bobby Locke, British Open champion and someone I greatly admired.”
Locke proved, well, a lock for the title, but Player finished runner-up in his first-ever professional event. With his earnings, he was able to buy his first car, “a second-hand car,” as he remembered.
“Golf has given me so much more than I could ever return to it,” he said. “Initially, golf for a living made it possible for me to get married,” he said, referring to the 1956 Ampol Tournament in Australia.
Before he left to compete that week, he made a promise to his bride-to-be, Vivienne. If he won, they would marry right away. They married right away.
“Since then, my career has provided my family financial security, it has allowed me to travel and has allowed me to give back,” Player said.
Over the past 60 years, the World Golf Hall of Fame member’s successes have been virtually too many to count. Nine major championships, 24 PGA TOUR victories, 19 Champions Tour wins and over 115 international titles speak to his on-course achievements. Of those, the claim to which he is most proud; winning the Grand Slam on both Tours (Masters, U.S. Open, U.S. Senior Open, PGA Championship; Senior PGA Championship, British Open and Senior British Open).
“I am the only person in the world to have each of those titles,” he said. “What makes it most special is that the Senior Slam titles came over the age of 50.”
As proud of those feats as he is, the Black Knight challenges that his off-course work bears equal significance.
Through the Gary Player Foundation, countless millions of dollars have been raised and distributed to under-privileged children in every corner of the globe, corners Player has seen first-hand. It was during these 15 million-plus of miles traveled where he gained perspective of the problems facing children.
“Traveling is the best education in the world,” he said. “It’s better than any degree. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience different cultures, points of views and religions. Traveling has taught me to have a lot of patience, understanding and the mother of all attributes – gratitude.”
A favorite story of Player’s to share is that of a man who approaches a policeman in New York City and asks him, “Excuse me, officer, can you tell me how to get to Broadway?” After a moment of thought, the officer responds; “Practice, man. Practice.”
Practice, to Player, is imperative to getting there, but more so is moving beyond the dream of something to actually doing something.
“There are dreamers and there are doers in life,” he explained. “Dreams are a great thing, but most people dream without the doing. They don’t apply enough hard work, passion and suffering. You’ve got to be a doer.”
As a youngster in the mid-40s, Player watched as his brother Ian left to fight for America in World War II. Before departing, Ian advised Gary that if he ever stood a chance of making it in the arena of professional sports, he’d have to commit to exercise and weight training to compensate for his smaller stature. At the time, Player was nine. At the age of 77 today, he remains as devoted to physical fitness as he was the day he started.
That, and a simple quote by the late Ben Hogan, have made – and continue to make, his journey a well-rounded success. Just last summer, he competed in the PGA Seniors Open in Switzerland, where he bettered his age all three days by a combined 15 strokes.
“I never take credit for my success,” Player said. “I’ve always believed that success is a gift loaned to you by the man above. I have taken this loan and used it to the best of my ability. Golf is a friend-making machine. I hope I have used this loan to be as good to people as I could always be.”
In so many ways, Ben Hogan was right.