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How do you describe a living legend like Gary Player? Words like determined, superfit and courageous come to mind. As do phrases like "one of the all time golfing greats", or "the best bunker player in the world", or "the man in black", or occasionally "the toughest of competitors".
All these reflect some facets of the man, and they have been applied to him over the years by a great many of his peers and most commentators. But do they entirely sum up Gary Player?
It's true that his record of Championship wins is more than impressive. He is one of only four golfers to have won the modern Grand Slam (the others being Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen and Jack Nicklaus). He won three British Opens in three decades over three of the most formidable courses: Royal Lytham, Carnoustie and Muirfield. He also won three Masters, two US PGAs and a US Open.
Then, joining the Seniors circuit in 1985, he completed what he calls a Senior Slam: the British Senior Open, and US Senior Players Championship, the US PGA Seniors and US Seniors Open. While winning these tournaments, and many others around the globe, his game has been almost as good as ever. In 1988, for example, his average score in the US was 70.41 per round and Gary later confessed that these were the happiest and most enjoyable days of his life.
It is just as well, because the continuing success (and the pleasure of traveling the world with his wife Vivienne) has kept him from his other great interest: breeding race horses. He has chosen to stay at home in South Africa rather than base himself in the US, and there he has successfully bred and raced horses, his ambition being to lead in a Derby winner. But forthe Seniors, golf would have been the loser.
That Gary became the greatest bunker player in the world is not open to question. Time after time, under pressure in the closing holes of a tournament, often under the beady eye of the TV camera, he has splashed out from the sand for a tap in. Golfers around the globe remember those shots, as do his fellow competitors, usually ruefully.
This expertise was developed from unremitting practice. No golfer (except possibly Ben Hogan) has ever worked harder on his game and there are many apocryphal stories of the young Player spending hours in a practice bunker before being carried into the clubhouse, seized up, complaining that he still had to sink that third sand shot.
Gary's determination to stay superfit is also legendary. He always believed that a golfer is an athlete and should train his body accordingly. At 5 feet 7 inches, weighing 145 pounds, he had to be strong, with the stamina to match any of the power players. So he has long practiced a rigorous regime of running, weight lifting, gym workouts and even finger push ups that would daunt a modern Olympian. His diet too has been Spartan. Plenty of fruit, vegetables, nuts, wheat germ and water, unappealing to the average golfer, but it seems to keep Gary incredibly fit.
This stamina allied to the most competitive spirit in the game is what makes him a winner. Gary just never gives up. Whatever his position, he concentrates his utmost on his next shot until the very last hole. No other golfer has won more Championships coming from behind on the final holes than he has. His sheer determination to win is acknowledged, almost with awe, by all his peers.
Two examples underline his fighting qualities, in head-to-head match play and stroke play. In the final of the 1965 World Match Play Championship at Wentworth, Gary was six down after the morning round to "Champagne Tony" Lema. The stylish American, who was tragically killed in an air crash a year later, had won seven holes in a row "throwing super golf" at Gary, who could "only hang on for dear life".
Then Lema won the first hole of the afternoon round to go seven up--and it seemed all over. But this was a situation tailor-made for Gary's never-say-die attitude. He won three out of the next four with birdies and put the X pressure on. Three down with six to play at the 13th hole, he then holed a crucial ten-foot putt for a win (after Lema had bottled in a 25-footer) and squared the match on the final hole. He then won the first extra hole with two clinical putts, after Lema had exploded from a deep greenside bunker way past the hole. The match was a thriller: a head-to-head never to be forgotten, the greatest match play contest to date.
Then, thirteen years later, Gary won a major in one of the greatest claw backs in history. In the 1978 Masters, starting the final round seven shots behind Hubert Green and Tom Watson, he shot seven birdies over the last ten holes (around the notorious Amen corner) to win his third green jacket. Seve Ballesteros who played with him on that historic final round, said later he believed that Gary had "willed himself to victory". It was a triumph of concentration and courage.
Those qualities are very evident in Gary Player. But there is also a third virtue that's a very important part of his personality, as I found out, namely "courtesy".
I had an appointment to meet Gary for the first time during the 1995 British Open at St. Andrews and arrived to see him lunching with family and friends in a hotel restaurant. He was tucking into a mixed salad and sipping mineral water (what else?). I was about to introduce myself when a gray-haired lady, clutching a large book, approached his table timorously, asking for an autograph. Now Gary must have been a little weary as he'd just finished the second round and there was a keen wind blowing across the course. But he got up from the table, greeted the lady warmly and stood talking to her for several minutes before she left, smiling. It was a kind gesture, typical of the man...and it has been a pleasure for me to work with him on this book.
As a postscript, if Gary had not qualified for the next two rounds we would have started to collaborate on the book the next day. Typically, of course, he made the cut...