NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. — Surely, Gary Player could have long ago gotten away from being one of golf’s globe-trotting mascots.
He is 86 now, with 160 victories — including nine major championships — and millions of dollars to his name. But Player, who secured the career Grand Slam when he was 29, has never seemed able to stop, never eager to surrender to age or outrage or the siren songs of privacy or retirement.
So there he was one spring day, clad, as ever, almost entirely in black, cheerfully bobbing around Aronimink Golf Club near Philadelphia as he opined on whatever and signed autographs and played the game that made a young man from South Africa mightily famous.
But one of his preferred stretches of any year will come with this week’s British Open, which he played a record 46 consecutive times. The 150th edition of the Open will begin Thursday on the Old Course at St. Andrews, which Player first visited in 1955 when he failed to qualify for the tournament.
In an interview in May at Aronimink, where he won the 1962 P.G.A. Championship and still plays when he is in the area to visit his daughter, Player reflected on the state of the Open and the sport, and, of course, the physical regimen that has kept him on courses well into his ninth decade.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve called the British Open your favorite major. Why?
The British Open is the greatest championship in the world. I think the U.S. Open is second, the P.G.A. is third and the Masters fourth.
That’s where it all started, and this is the game that we all love and adore and what it’s done for us in our lives, irrespective of whether you’re a professional or amateur.
But the Open Championship is the challenge of the mind like no other tournament. Remember there, because of the field, you tee off sometimes at 6:30 in the morning and the last starting time is 4 o’clock.
So you play in the morning and you play in perfect weather and you shoot an average round of 72. In the afternoon, the wind comes up and a little bit of rain and you shoot 74 and it’s your highlight of the year you’ve played so well. So what it does is test you more — far more — than any other tournament at not feeling sorry for yourself, at getting in there and loving adversity and realizing if I can overcome this, I really am the champion of the world.
I’ll never forget going to St. Andrews my first year and thinking, “What a crap golf course.” But it was immaturity, my lack of knowledge of the game.
You slept on the dunes during your first St. Andrews trip, right?
I leave South Africa with 200 pounds in my pocket. That’s my total asset in the world, and now I’ve got to play the Tour and if I don’t play well, go back home — not like today when you’ve got a sponsor and the guys are making millions and millions.
I arrive at St. Andrews. I don’t have a booking for a hotel. So I go to these hotels — 80 pounds, 90 pounds, 100 pounds. I said, I’ll sleep on the beach. It was a great evening, right where they did “Chariots of Fire.” I went and lay there on the beach with my waterproofs on. I wake up the next day and I find a room for 10 shillings and sixpence, and that’s where I slept.
It was right opposite the 18th green. Now I get on the first tee, and I’m very nervous and the starter says, “Play away, laddie.”
Ray Charles can’t miss that fairway, it’s so wide, OK? So I get up, hook the ball, it’s going out of bounds, it hits the stake, comes back.
As I’m walking away, he says, “What’s your name?” I said, “My name is Gary Player, sir.” He says, “What is your handicap?” I said, “No, I’m a pro.” He says, “You’re a pro? Laddie, you must be a hell of a chipper and putter.”
Time goes by, I come back and I’m now the youngest man to win the Open. And he sees me, “It’s a bloody miracle! Actually, laddie, it’s a mirage. I can’t believe it’s you. You won the Open!”
You never finished better than seventh in an Open at St. Andrews. To your mind, what makes St. Andrews as challenging as it is?
The wind or the rain or whatever the conditions are, and staying out of the bunkers, which are fatal. When you get in those bunkers, you just get out. You don’t take a 4-iron and knock it out like you can in South Africa or America.
And then you’ve got the greens, which are so big that they’re double greens.
My goodness me, is it hard to judge second shots.
Given how long people are hitting, do you think the Old Course is irrelevant or headed toward irrelevancy?
It is. That’s the tragedy, but that’s not the fault of the golf course; that’s the fault of our leaders. Our leaders have allowed the ball to go too far.
You’ve got to have some vision in life. In 30 to 40 years, they’re going to hit the ball 500 yards.
You know, on the second hole at Augusta, they’re hitting an 8-iron to the green. Jack Nicklaus, if you gave him this equipment and let him tee off in his prime, he’d hit it as far or farther as most guys. The best he ever did was 5-iron.
So, it’s making a mockery of it.
Now, can you afford to do what Augusta does? Keep going backward and buying land? No. And is it necessary? No, and it’s a waste of money. Young people should be getting the money to improve golf and conditions and giving African Americans a chance in the inner cities. They should be teaching kids about getting an opportunity to play golf.
But no, that money’s being wasted because you now have the tees longer, it’s more irrigation, it’s more fertilization, it’s more machinery, it’s more labor.
It sounds like it infuriates you.
It burns. It destroys me. A guy like Bryson DeChambeau, he could drive the first green. He’ll definitely drive the third. He will drive seven to eight greens in the tournament.
Seven? On the most famous golf course on the planet?
All I pray is that during the Open they have wind and a little bit of rain. Otherwise, they’re going to annihilate the golf course.
So if the course is becoming a mockery, should the R&A keep holding Opens at St. Andrews every so often?
Yes, because you don’t want to lose something that is so famous — the greatest championship in the world — by stupidity.
You faced protests in the 1960s over your views on apartheid, which you later distanced yourself from.
When you lived in apartheid like I did — you have no idea, young people have no idea. It was like living in Germany. If you said something when I was a young man about the government, you could get what they called a 90-day policy of jail.
You were scared.
But people did protest.
In 1969, I was playing at the P.G.A. at Dayton, Ohio, and they threw telephone books at the top of my backswing, they threw ice in my eyes, they threw balls between my legs, they screamed on my backswing. They were all doing it to me to get at the South African government because I was the world champion.
Do you think Phil Mickelson will face the same kind of blowback for embracing Saudi Arabia’s moves in golf?
He could never face it to the degree that I had. I had it most places in the world, and had I not had all that, I could have won more majors.
At Augusta this year, you go into the press facility after we opened the golf course. They asked a question about Phil Mickelson. Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus said nothing. But, no, I’m not going to be like that. Silence in the face of evil is evil.
So there’s now Phil Mickelson, the greatest P.R. that golf ever had. He’s been ostracized because he said something in confidence to a man who’s doing a book. Incorrectly, he said something, which we all do.
We all deserve a second strike. We say in our prayers, “Forgive us of our trespasses as we forgive them.” Are we adhering to that? No!
With that public attitude in mind, do you think there is a path for public redemption for Mickelson?
The American nation is a nation, more so than any other nation, that forgives. They will cheer him to the hilt, a guarantee. If he doesn’t, I’ll be shocked because he deserves it.
Rory McIlroy didn’t get to play at St. Andrews in 2015 because of an injury. Is this his time?
Rory McIlroy is the most talented golfer in the world today. Whether you use the talent and do it effectively, that’s up to him. To the standard of his ability, he has not delivered. Now, he’s won four majors, but with his ability, he should have won six by now. He should be doing way better.
But Ben Hogan — the best player to ever play the game — only won his first major championship at 34, so Rory is in his infancy. But everyone, as we live in the world now, wants instant delivery, and it doesn’t happen like that in life.
I’m a big Rory fan as far as his future is concerned. I don’t know if he’s nervous. I can only pass comment on the golf course.
He’s so strong, and he’s so fit, and he’s a nice man.
Collin Morikawa obviously had a tremendous Open last year. Do you see him as one of the dominant faces of the game years from now?
I can’t tell you who the best player in the world is now. Nobody is warranting to say he is the best player in the world; he can say he’s one of the best players.
Why do you still play? Is it for fun? For physical experience? To compete with yourself?
I love people, and I learn something from everyone I play with.
I had been trying for years to beat my age by 18 shots. I’ve done 17 shots six times. One time, I had it in my hand — there was no way I could not do it — and I quite honestly choked. It was the first time I really had adrenaline on a golf course since winning a British Open or the Masters.
But I’m playing with Donald Trump with friends of mine, and I shoot 19 under my age. I go out the next day and shoot 18 under my age, and yet, for years, I’ve been trying to achieve it. [Asked whether Player had joined Trump for a round and scored a 67, a spokesman for Trump, Taylor Budowich, replied: “He did, and President Trump was equally impressed.”]
My dream is to repay America for what it’s done for me.
I want people, when I die, to say, “Gary Player, crikey, man, did he teach me to look after my body.” It’s a holy temple. People in America don’t worry about health. Two percent, maybe — I’m being kind — under-eat, exercise, laugh and have unmeasured love in their hearts.
And yet what’s the most important thing in your life? Your health. People are just eating themselves into the grave. I had no breakfast today.
What did you have today?
I had a hamburger with no bun. I don’t eat the bun. The bun is crap. You might as well eat green grass.
I don’t eat bacon. I don’t drink milk. I don’t eat ice cream. I love ice cream, I love bacon, but I took an oath to God I would never have it because if I want to live a long time, it takes effort, it takes work, it takes dedication.
Given all of that, what did you shoot today?
74. If I have a bad day, it’s 75.
I’ve beaten my age 2,400 times, plus, in a row.
Do you fear the day you won’t be able to do that, or do you think that day will never come?
Age takes care of everything. If you’re reasonably well read and intelligent, you’ve got to accept those things.
What goes through your head when you visit St. Andrews now?
My mind’s going to go back to 1955. Sixty-seven years! A lot of people don’t live to 67.
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