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An enduring love affair


Gary Player at The Open

Gary Player in front of the clubhouse at St Andrews

When Gary Player is invited to reflect on the fact he is now the oldest living Champion Golfer, he instantly raises a smile.

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing,” he asks, before bursting into laughter.

In the course of a lengthy interview with Player to mark his 85th birthday on November 1, it soon becomes clear the statistic is one that understandably provokes feelings of great pride for the three-time Open winner.

“I think the word that comes to mind is gratitude,” says Player. “A lot of my golfing friends have passed away, so every day I’m aware of this and fortunately I’m very fit at the moment.

“It’s an honour to be the oldest living Champion of The Open, because The Open to me is the most important Championship in the world. It stands alone.

“Even now, every time I go back there as a spectator, I can’t wait.”

Player’s extraordinary commitment to a healthy and active lifestyle is well-known, and he remains remarkably fit as he enters his 86th year. Such is his enduring energy, it is hard to believe 65 years have passed since he first travelled to The Open.

While a young Player failed to qualify for the main event at St Andrews in 1955, success was not long in coming. He finished fourth at Royal Liverpool the following year and ended the decade by claiming his first Claret Jug at Muirfield in 1959.

Gary Player celebrates winning The Open at Muirfield in 1959

Gary Player revels in his first triumph at The Open

Remarkably, the South African would go on to remain an ever-present at golf’s original major for the rest of the 20th century.

The only man in the last 100 years to win The Open in three different decades, courtesy of additional triumphs at Carnoustie in 1968 and Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1974, Player ultimately racked up 46 consecutive appearances in the Championship, a record streak that came to an end in 2001.

“The Open has changed considerably (since my debut),” acknowledges Player.

“It was such an honour to participate in my first Open and particularly to try and qualify at St Andrews, the home of golf, which means so much to me.

“The Open has changed in that it has now become this enormous event with all the marquees and so many spectators and world television. You always had television, but not to the extent there is now. It’s become enormous. And the prize money now is just beyond one’s imagination, and this is great, to see things improve.”

While much may have changed since Player first competed in The Open, his love for the Championship has endured.

“The Open is so different,” he explains. “It’s not like a normal tournament where you say to your caddie, ‘what’s the yardage’ and he says, ‘it’s 160 yards’, and if you hit a 9-iron 160 yards then you know it’s a 9-iron.

“At The Open, you can hit a 9-iron 190 yards or you can hit a 9-iron 20 yards!

“You’ve got to use that inner ability, that instinct, and when it comes to judging second shots in and knowing when to play the right shot, there’s nothing that compares to The Open.

“You put a ball in one of those pot-hole bunkers, and you’ve got to play out backwards. Well, most people are not accustomed to doing that. But that is the examination that’s put in front of you and it can either torture you or you can accept it with grace.

“And what’s fascinating is it’s played on a different links golf course every single year, and the ultimate test is links. Everybody is always excited to go back and play.”

Although Player’s days of contending for the Claret Jug have passed, it is no surprise that the winner of nine major championships, and a further nine on the senior tour, remains just as competitive as ever on the course.

Gary Player in the Champion Golfers' Challenge at The Open in 2015

Player during the Champion Golfers' Challenge at St Andrews in 2015

The South African cannot recall the last time he completed 18 holes in a score higher than his age, and he continues to set new golfing goals for the years to come.

“The highest score I can think that I’ve shot in the last I don’t know how many years, I’m taking a guess, maybe 10 years, is 77,” he states emphatically. “On a normal golf course I average 72. I smash my age. I don’t beat it, I smash it.

“I’d like to beat it 3,000 times in a row. I don’t think anyone’s ever done that. And my other dream is to beat my age by 18 shots, a shot a hole.

“So the older I get, the easier it is, as long as I stay well. I work out hard, I rest well, I laugh a lot and I try to do the things to lead to longevity, but we cannot take health for granted.”

Player’s current fitness regime includes the “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of sit-ups” he has sworn by for decades, and he insists he feels much younger than his actual age.

“I try and exercise four times a week,” he says. “The things that I’m doing are showing that it’s right and leading to longevity.

“I still run the treadmill at max (speed) and I can run, I can swim, I can ride a horse. All these things at 85.

“Today it’s astounding when you hear that and it shouldn’t be. Because actually at 85 I feel like a young man.”

Some 61 years on from his maiden Open victory, it is clear Player retains the mindset and work ethic of a Champion.