South Africa’s record at The Open is a superb one and the source of great pride for the country’s most famous and successful golfer, Gary Player.
In the 160-year history of golf’s original Championship, only the United States, Scotland and England can boast more victories than South Africa’s 10.
What is more, the USA is the sole country with more Open triumphs than South Africa since the Second World War, with Bobby Locke (4), Player (3), Ernie Els (2) and Louis Oosthuizen all having secured wins between 1949 and 2012.
Player, whose successes in The Open came in three different decades courtesy of his wins at Muirfield in 1959, Carnoustie in 1968 and Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1974, is understandably delighted by his nation’s wonderful record.
“Isn’t it remarkable, a small country like South Africa … to win that many Opens post-wartime,” said Player, in an exclusive interview with TheOpen.com ahead of his 85th birthday on November 1.
“I’m very proud of our South African players to have done that, it’s quite an accomplishment.”
Player’s own trio of Open victories came after Locke had lifted the Claret Jug in 1949, 1950, 1952 and 1957.
In the last 100 years, only Tom Watson and Peter Thomson can boast more Open wins than Locke, who unsurprisingly provided inspiration for a young Player.
“I think that Bobby Locke, he set the bar for us,” Player added.
“He was the man we wanted to try and beat, and I had many encounters with him and wonderful times.
“We know he was a wonderful golfer, but also – and this applies to Jack Nicklaus – Bobby Locke, his manners on the golf course, he was impeccable. And that means a lot.”
Player recalls with fondness an absorbing contest between himself and Locke in 1956, the year the younger man first qualified for The Open and finished fourth at Royal Liverpool.
“When I won the Ampol Tournament in 1956, I arrived back in South Africa and Bobby Locke challenged me to 108 holes, three 36-hole matches, the best of three,” Player explained.
“He beat me on the first one 2&1. We went to Germiston in Johannesburg and I played Locke again on a longer golf course, which suited me because I out-drove him by quite a lot, and I was one down with two to play, it looked like it was all over. And I birdied 17, and 18 is a par-3 and I hit a 5-iron a foot from the hole (to win).
“And then we went down to Royal Durban, which was a very long golf course, and I birdied the last hole, the 36th hole, to beat him one down. What a match we had!”
In recent years, Els and Oosthuizen have provided further joy for South Africa at The Open. Els prevailed at two of the venues where Player was also crowned Champion Golfer of the Year, emerging victorious at Muirfield in 2002 and Royal Lytham & St Annes in 2012, while Oosthuizen was a runaway winner at St Andrews in 2010.
Both men’s successes were warmly welcomed by Player, who has got to know and admire Els and Oosthuizen on a personal level as well as revelling in their golfing achievements.
“Ernie Els used to visit our house a lot and play all the time with my son Wayne, and I just love Ernie and I love his parents, they’re very dear people,” said Player. “To see him win The Open was very exciting for me.
“And then to see Louis Oosthuizen win. I’ll never forget, we were in China and Louis Oosthuizen was playing in one of the Gary Player Foundation days, and it was my birthday and he came up with a set of cufflinks. Such a nice gesture.
“He’s a very sweet, kind, gentle man and nobody has a better golf swing in the world than Louis Oosthuizen. He has really got a golf swing.”
TheOpen.com will be publishing further content throughout the week to mark Gary Player's 85th birthday on Sunday 1st November.