It is difficult to think of a competitor in any sport who epitomises the value of hard work more clearly than the great Gary Player.
The only man in the last century to have won The Open in three different decades, the Champion Golfer of the Year in 1959, 1968 and 1974 enjoyed a glorious professional career notable not only for its numerous successes but also its extraordinary longevity.
When Player first participated in golf’s original major as a 20-year-old, Henry Cotton and Gene Sarazen were among his fellow competitors. By the time he made his final appearance at The Open in 2001, aged 65, Tiger Woods was the biggest star in the sport.
Yet while there have been countless significant changes in golf since Player first emerged on the global scene in the mid-1950s, the South African’s relentless commitment to self-improvement and physical fitness has never wavered once.
That dedication understandably emerges as a recurring theme when the nine-time major-winner looks back on his glorious relationship with The Open, a Championship he has played in a record 46 times.
Long before he had achieved his childhood ambition of becoming a professional golfer, the tenacity and resilience that would come to define him was forged with the aid of his elder brother, Ian.
After being asked by Ian, who went on to become a leading conservationist, what he would like to do when he grew up, a young Gary replied: ‘I’d like to be a professional sportsman of some kind’. His sibling’s reply had a lasting impact.
“You’re very small in stature and you’ll have to get stronger,” Gary Player recalls his brother stating. “I’ve bought this second-hand set of weights for you. Promise me you’ll exercise until the day you do (get stronger).”
It is safe to say a man who counts ‘Mr Fitness’ among his many nicknames certainly followed the advice. Even into his 80s, Player has remained resolutely committed to keeping in superb shape, with the demanding nature of his daily workouts the stuff of legend.
“There were a lot of things that he said to me,” Player said of his brother as he continued to recall memories of his childhood in Johannesburg.
“(He would say), ‘Come on, if you can do so many push-ups, you’ve got to realise you’re going to have pain. You’ve got to be able to sit in front of the mirror in a Tai Chi position and learn to slap your face and associate it with playing under strain and coming down the line, when you’ve got to have the perfect mind and the strength and the courage to win. And so you’ve got to associate that pain that you’re getting (with a positive outcome)’.
“I remember hitting myself in the face at least 30 times until I was genuinely sore and I made the association with coming down the line. This is the type of thing that I did. I went into the Champions Tour at 50 almost as fit as when I was 25 and that stood me in good stead and that’s why I was able to win nine majors and the Grand Slam on the Senior Tour.”
Player’s zeal for fitness has reaped rich rewards, but it was not always clear to everyone that he was destined to achieve such sustained success.
As a 20-year-old making his way in the game, he encountered criticism of his methods and was grateful for some timely reassurance from a man already firmly established as a golfing colossus.
“I played in 1956 at Sunningdale and I won the Dunlop Tournament and I shot 64, 64, 68, 70, 72, which beat Bobby Jones’ record at the time. And I beat a man called Arthur Lees who nobody had ever beaten at his home club at Sunningdale,” explained Player. “I left after that to come to America and I was fortunate enough to play with Ben Hogan in a tournament.
“Hogan was a man of very few words and he said, ‘well done on your achievement in England’. I said, ‘thank you, Mr Hogan’. And I said, ‘I was a little despondent because, even after winning, a lot of the pros said Gary Player should go back to South Africa. His swing is so flat, he’ll never last’.
“He looked at me, right in the eyes, and he said, ‘you can’t be too flat’. And that was very encouraging to hear. (There were) people who knew a hell of a lot about nothing saying that my swing was too flat and here was the man who’d hit more balls than any man who had ever lived and was the best player that any man has seen from tee to green and knew more about the golf swing (than anyone). And he turned around and gave me this encouragement – you can’t be too flat, as long as your hands are under the club. So that was very encouraging for me.”
Hogan’s words were certainly far more complimentary than those Player had experienced on his first visit to St Andrews in 1955, a year before his Open debut.
Even for a man who would go on to demonstrate an iron will in the most exacting situations, a first taste of the Old Course proved a daunting experience.
“Teeing off at St Andrews, you can imagine the first time how nervous I was,” said Player.
“The fairway is so wide. And I hit this little shot and I hooked it and it was going out of bounds and it hit the stake, that little pole on the road, and it bounced back on the fairway. I was so relieved.”
The inauspicious opening shot prompted an enquiry from the local starter regarding Player’s name and handicap.
When Player told his interrogator he was a professional, he recalls hearing the reply: “You must be a great chipper and putter, because you cannae hit the ball very well, laddie!”
Picking up the story, a beaming Player said: “And wouldn’t you believe, (by 1959) I’m the youngest man to win The Open (in the 20th century) and I come back a few years later and he sees me and he says, ‘It’s a mirage, it’s nae possible, in fact it’s a bloody miracle!’”
If some people were not convinced of Player’s potential in the early years of his career, it was not long before his tremendous work ethic led to consistent success and removed any doubt over his ability to flourish at the highest level.
After securing an impressive fourth-place finish on his first appearance in The Open, at Royal Liverpool in 1956, he claimed the Claret Jug just three years later at Muirfield, finishing two strokes clear of Fred Bullock and Flory van Donck.
Player feared he had blown his chance when he double-bogeyed the 72nd hole in strong winds, but a final-round 68 was ultimately enough to secure victory for a man who had long since dreamed of winning golf’s original Championship.
“It came from my father. It came from the massive publicity that The Open Championship had in South Africa,” said Player when detailing his passion for the tournament.
“There was such a large section of our population that came from Britain so it had a very big influence, particularly in the golfing circles. And Bobby Locke, who won The Open four times, you know I can always see him standing there with a trophy, immaculately dressed.”
It had taken Player a mere nine appearances to emulate Locke by becoming the second South African to win a major. Yet he was only just getting started.
Over the next 19 years, he would claim a further eight victories in golf’s premier strokeplay events, including further Open Championship successes at Carnoustie in 1968 and Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1974.
Only three men – Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Walter Hagen – have recorded more major wins than Player, while he is also among the elite band of five players to have completed the career Grand Slam by winning The Open, U.S. Open, US PGA Championship and the Masters.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given his passion for hard work and conquering the toughest challenges, the ‘Black Knight’ is in no doubt as to which event he values most.
“If you said to me, pick one tournament in the world that you would like to win, I would take The Open first,” said Player. “It’s still, for me, the best tournament in the world. The Open Championship is, without a question, the greatest challenge of any tournament on this planet."
“The weather in The Open Championship is always more effective than other championships because usually you have the rough that is longer, you have bunkers that have straight faces, where sometimes you go against the face and you cannot play forward, you’ve got to play it sideways or backwards. The greens are not always soft like they are in the United States, where the green receives the ball in a different manner.
“It’s a different game, weather conditions in The Open are always tougher, and it’s not as though it’s consistent, it can be blowing in the morning or raining and perfect in the afternoon, or vice versa. Four seasons in one day. You get an early morning time and you play in the sunshine and your fellow pro tees off at 12 o’clock and he’s playing in a strong wind. And if you feel sorry for yourself, you might as well pack your bags and leave.
“So it takes a very special person to win The Open Championship compared to the other tournaments. It’s steeped in tradition. If you look at The R&A, having been there all those years and what they’ve done for the game of golf, it’s quite remarkable. I have such admiration for The R&A and the USGA and the PGA and all the golf associations, because you get people there that dedicate a certain time of their lives for the betterment of golf.
“And golf is this most incredible sport that helps you realise that great shots (can) end up in sheer disaster. You have got to have extraordinary patience, you have got to have courage.
“I have no hesitation in saying it is the truest test of the four major championships. Having won nine, I should be able to have an idea. The Open Championship is the truest test.”
Although Player’s love for The Open dates back to his childhood, the modern-day Championship is clearly a much different event to the competition he first experienced in 1956.
Golf’s development and growth in the intervening years is a source of great delight for Player, who takes pride from seeing the dedication of today’s players rewarded with much greater prizes.
Highlighting the progress that has been made since he first competed on tour, Player said: “A young man came along from Slazenger and said ‘here are your three balls for the week’. Now they give you three or four dozen! They give you a free driver, they give you free phone calls anywhere in the world, free food, a courtesy car driver that meets you, massages, gymnasium, travelling gymnasium, etc.
“I tell you one thing, it’s a different world than when Ben Hogan and Sam Snead and Bobby Jones played, a very, very different world. Now imagine those three players with jets and a million dollar prize every week, no spike marks on the green, raking the bunkers with a machine instead of your feet. When I first went to Muirfield in 1959, there were daisies on the fairway every year. Every year there were daisies on the fairway. They didn’t have machines that could cut it that short. So it’s a different world and thank goodness we’re making progress.
“We were playing at The Open a few years ago and I was playing on a golf course adjacent to the Championship venue and the players came in from overseas in their private jets and then after that the caddies came in and then the small planes. And I just looked at this in utter amazement and thought, ‘Gee, how the game has changed for the better’, which is wonderful. I thought to myself, what a difference to when I first went to The Open, a travelling tourist with my King Edward’s honours tie on in the aeroplane, sitting there looking out of the window, taking 20 hours to get to Britain in a Constellation – no jets, no business class.”
Player, of course, has seen his own life change considerably from those times when a trip from South Africa to the United Kingdom took the best part of a full day.
In addition to becoming one of the biggest sporting stars on the planet, he has travelled the world extensively and continues to do so to this day, while The Player Foundation – established in 1983 by his son, Marc - has raised over $64million for impoverished children.
“I’ve had a very fascinating life, from one extreme to the other, from struggling to all the fame, to a reasonable amount of wealth, to great happiness, to farming, which is my great love,” he stated.
“Whether it’s picking up manure in the stable or putting up a fence or working on my own private golf course, whatever it may be, it’s been a life that I have been very blessed with and I think the word that comes to mind every day of my life is gratitude.
“I wanted to try to achieve more than just being a golfer. I wanted to contribute to society. I’ve been fortunate to have travelled more miles than any man that has ever lived, over 60 years of continuous flying, raising money for underprivileged children around the world, meeting leaders and playing golf or visiting the White House or dinners with the presidents, the Emirs in the Middle East, the Royal Family, prime ministers, and also the villages of Africa where I’m dining with people that have very little. I learned so much from them.
“So I’ve had a greater desire than just being a professional golfer and I think I’m achieving (that) as time goes by.”
When it comes to matters on the course, Player takes particular pride from the fact he was able to win The Open in the 1950s, 60s and 70s - a statistic that typifies his enduring success at the highest level.
The Champion Golfer at Muirfield in 1959 held off competition from a stellar field to triumph again at Carnoustie in 1968. An eagle at the 14th in the final round proved key to Player’s success on that occasion, as he finished two strokes clear of Nicklaus and Bob Charles with an aggregate score of one over.
Six years later, he produced a majestic performance at Royal Lytham & St Annes to move six shots clear of the field through 70 holes. Although he subsequently got into trouble at the 17th and 18th, it mattered little as he won by four to reclaim the Claret Jug and accomplish an outstanding feat.
“I was in a great frame of mind. I realised I had the chance to be the first man to win The Open over three different decades (in the 20th century), which was quite an achievement,” he said.
“That means you have longevity and when they judge golfers in the future I hope people who are wise will say that longevity meant an awful lot in selecting the best players that ever lived. It’s like a car, the car that lives the longest, those are the good engines.”
While he insists he “doesn’t know how you choose one above the other” when it comes to ranking his major wins, Player acknowledges he was probably at his peak in 1974, the year that featured his third Open win and a second Masters triumph.
He was 38 at the time, but would remain a formidable force for many years to come, again winning at Augusta in 1978 and also tying for second in the 1984 US PGA Championship shortly before he began a hugely impressive stint on the Champions Tour.
Reflecting on the key factors to his sustained success, Player again returned to the lessons of his childhood and the importance of hard work.
“You’ve got to be happy … and you’ve got to be blessed,” he said.
“You have got to have a faith and you’ve got to have fitness, and you’ve got to be able to sleep and you’ve got to have energy. And you get energy by putting energy in the bank – by exercising.”
Player certainly knows more than most about how rewarding long-lasting commitment can be.