Dressed head-to-toe in black like the Milk Tray man, the softly spoken, slight South African Gary Player is one of the most tenacious golfers the game has ever known.
Before his 30th birthday he completed the career Grand Slam, becoming only the third ever to do so – after Gene Sarazen and his idol Ben Hogan – and the first from outside America.
But life’s not always been a bowl of cherries for The Black Knight.
Born in Johannesburg in November 1935, Player experienced a tough upbringing, but developed the mental toughness that would turn him into a three-time Champion Golfer of the Year.
His mother, Muriel, died when he was eight and, with his brother fighting in the Second World War, his sister at boarding school and his father, Harry, working tirelessly as a miner, Player would effectively bring himself up.
“I lay in bed every night wishing I was dead,” he told The Guardian, in an interview published in 2017.
“It’s the reason I became a champion, because I knew what it was to suffer.” Gary Player
“It’s the reason I became a champion, because I knew what it was to suffer.”
Aged 16 he declared his ambition to become the world’s best golfer and a year later he turned pro.
The Big Three
Golf boomed in popularity in America from the 1950s due to the emergence of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, but the pair had a rival – South Africa’s Player.
In 1959 he won the first of three Claret Jugs and in 1978 he won the last of nine Majors – fewer than Nicklaus’s 15, but he surpassed the seven titles won by Palmer. The opportunity to topple the American duo was not Player’s motivation however.
He refused to limit himself to playing on the US PGA Tour, instead making it his mission to be an ambassador for golf throughout the world. He is not shy about claiming to have clocked up more airmiles than any other athlete in history.Three-time Open champion
In July 1959 at Muirfield, Player struck a four-under 284 to win his maiden major title by two strokes from Englishman Fred Bullock and Flory van Donck of Belgium.
Not troubling the leaders in the first half of the week, he ended round three four strokes off the pace and was even afforded a wobble at the 18th.
Three-putting, he still made a 68 to secure the £1,000 prize money. His crowning glory came, arguably in 1968 at Carnoustie, where a brave brand of golf helped him overcome Nicklaus and New Zealander Bob Charles by two.
Fresh from winning the Masters, Player affirmed his love of links golf with a third Open title at a third different course – Royal Lytham & St Annes on the north-west English coast. This was a comprehensive wire-to-wire victory, following up rounds of 69 and 68 to win by four shots from England’s Peter Oosterhuis with Nicklaus a shot further back in third.
An eye for it
It’s fair to say Player knows his way around a golf course – which is no surprise when you consider he has helped design more than 300 around the world.
Wentworth Club’s Edinburgh Course is among his list, though he missed out on being part of the time to create the inaugural Olympic golf course in Rio in 2016.