Gary Player is still in motion, purposefully striding, consuming distance with each step. He has been moving, it seems, forever. He has traveled, he estimates, more than 15 million miles around the globe, living life with the exuberance and wonder of a teenager, always looking forward, sometimes glancing back, just to make sure nothing is overtaking him.
So far, nothing has. When we managed to get him on the phone at his ranch in Johannesburg late last week, the South African golf legend was ebullient. So charged up was he about hopping over to the Muirfield Golf Club in Scotland for The Open Championship this week that he sounded more like a rookie headed to his first Open than a grandfather going back to the place where he won his first major championship back in 1959.
“I’ve been working on my ranch every day while I’m here,” he said. “Working like a Trojan, picking up rocks, putting up fences, and, I’m telling you, I am looking forward to going to Muirfield for The Open Championship. It’s a wonderful Open venue.”
Player, once known as The Black Knight of the Fairways, sometimes called Mr. Fitness, won’t be playing at the Open. He is, after all, 77 years old. But he has remained relevant in golf by paying close attention to everything that goes on in the sport he has played professionally for 60 years.
He is not merely aware of who won and where. He interacts with them on social media, tweeting congrats to the winners every week, as he did to Phil Mickelson for his victory at the Scottish Open on the PGA European Tour and to 19-year-old Jordan Spieth, who made history as the youngest PGA TOUR winner in 82 years with his playoff victory at the John Deere Classic on Sunday.
Fitting that the teenager and the grandfather will cross paths somewhere at Muirfield, where in 1959 a 23-year-old Player became the youngest player in 91 years to win a British Open. Should they somehow miss each other, they can always exchange texts, maybe about how golf’s eras and traditions are tied together tighter than in any other sport.
Or they could always discuss another landmark for Player, who recently became the oldest athlete to be included in the annual Body Issue of ESPN The Magazine, currently on sale at newsstands. There’s a message in there that isn’t immediately visible – though almost everything else is – and that message is the reason Player agreed to participate.
First, about the nude photographs, wherein Player is posing – flexing! – amid a sleek collection of athletes with bodies hard as those sculpted by Rodin. On the cover is the chiseled quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, and inside are the likes of sinewy Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton, standout Motocross racer Tarah Gieger and Miesha Tate, a contender for the UFC women's bantamweight title.
And there is Gary Player, grandfather of 23, father of six, winner of nine major championships (not to mention nine more Champions Tour majors), 24 PGA TOUR events, 73 on South Africa’s Sunshine Tour, a total of 165 worldwide wins. For most of the other athletes in their primes, the Body Issue is an opportunity to strut their considerable stuff in a manner that is arguably more tasteful than tittillating.
There are obvious marketing advantages for the youngsters to accrue from the photo shoot. But a fair question for Player would be, why the striptease? I mean, the man has the body most 45-year-old men would kill for, but it’s not like Gary needs the exposure.
Player’s purpose is to simply to disseminate his main message, one he’s preached now for almost a half-century: put down the fork, push away from the table, turn off the TV, get off the couch and get some exercise. The only difference now is the added sense of urgency. And, of course, the nude pictures.
“When my son said ESPN were interested in doing this, I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know what kind of article this will be; It doesn’t sound right to me,’” Player says. “But he told me they do everything so discreetly, which they did. It’s really, really, really well done.
“I figured at this stage of my life, if I can get a message across to people how important exercise is, how it’s absolutely imperative it is, particularly for longevity, and then eating correctly as well goes along with it, well then I’ve done something.”
He has done something, all right. The sight of a man, pushing 78, holding the pose of Atlas with a giant golf ball replicating the earth balanced above his shoulders, is quite remarkable. The other photograph of the Black Knight, a driver and 3-wood in the finish position, is almost reminiscent of Da Vinci’s sketches of the human body in motion.
The reaction so far? “Fantastic,” Player said. “We’ve had nothing but high praise, wonderful articles, and wonderful emails. I got one from a man who wrote, “I’m almost 300 pounds. I saw the article. After seeing it I am going to change my life.”
Player acknowledges that most people will never reach his level of fitness, which includes a daily regimen of 1,200 situps, some with feet elevated, others with a 100-pound plate on his chest, treadmill work and squats with “well over 200 pounds.” But, he said, “My dream is to get young people thinking about a life of fitness. Otherwise, we are going to be in real trouble as a society. Almost 27 percent of the youth of America are obese.
“I keep my body moving all the time. You’ve got to keep it moving. I’ve always said that winning my nine major championships on the TOUR was gratifying, but winning nine majors on the Champions Tour is my proudest achievement, because I did it after the age of 50. The only way I was able to do it was by being in better shape than any other senior players.”
His tone turning somber, Player returned to the email from the obese man who said he was changing his life. If he could reach more people like him, Player said, it would make his own life more worthwhile.
“Too many people are dying at young ages, leaving their family with nothing but great sorrow, and they’re gone,” he said. “We’ve got a battle on our hands to keep fit, and if people start realizing it can be done, that they can do it and be more productive and happier, and what I’ve been able to do has something to do with it?
“That would be far more gratifying to me than winning nine majors on each Tour. Far more.”
Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.