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SMITH Column: Golf’s worldwide ambassador, Gary Player

Following the ceremonial tee shots on Thursday morning with Lee Elder, the newcomer to the show, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, the Black Knight of South Africa, reminisced about a number of topics.

It is particularly interesting to recall the career of Player, whose hair is without an abundance of gray and his physique without a paunch.  He has kept himself in peak physical condition — to better compete in golf around the world and to enhance longevity. 

Not many years ago, he said that he would not retire until he reached age 90. The way he looks today at 85, there will likely be an extension of that forecast.  He will probably be hitting golf balls on his 100th birthday.

When you consider the impact of travel, especially when you cross multiple time zones in a year, you marvel at his ability to compete as successfully as he did, winning nine major championships on the regular tour and nine senior titles.

For years, he booked two first class tickets when traveling and often slept on the floor of the cabin on international flights. When he was into his sixties, I had a conversation with him about being the most traveled athlete in the world. It is doubtful that any athlete has traveled more miles than Player.(Few business executives or secretaries of state, either). For sure, none of them stayed at it as long as Player. When he says he has traveled more than any athlete in history —16 million miles and counting —  who could dispute him?

In that previous conversation, he was happy to say that sleeping on airplanes came easy for him. 

“If I could putt like I sleep,” he said, “I’d still be winning major championships.”

When he won his first Masters in 1961, sixty-one years ago this week, he was the beneficiary of Arnold Palmer making double-bogey on the 18th hole but as he pointed out, he, too, made a double-bogey which was not exactly insignificant.  Player’s double came at the par five 13th in the final round.  He also bogeyed the par five 15th. 

I once visited him at his ranch in South Africa, less than an hour from Johannesburg. He was dressed in safari style work clothes and a wide-brimmed hat, speaking Afrikaans to his ranch workers. He had asked me to bring along several friends with whom we were traveling. He entertained us with lemonade within view of a nearby Baobab tree.

In a wide-ranging conversation, he talked about the beauty of his native country and the changing political scene. He spoke of his admiration for his older brother, Ian, a man with a conservation bent when it came to the continent’s animals. Ian is credited with saving the white rhino. Ian’s son, Amyas, is a graduate of the University of Georgia School of Forestry. 

With a Voortrekker’s spirit, Player, early on, was not intimidated by challenge and the hardscrabble days of the pro golf tour. Changes in lifestyle, landscapes and food never bothered or flummoxed him. While he stood 5-6 and weighed only 160 pounds, the size of his heart took the measure of many of the heavyweights he faced.  You might outdrive him, but his iron play and his short game often gave him the advantage he needed to win and win often.

As a member of the Big Three (with Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer), he learned to compete with the best. This trio won 53 regular and senior majors and they won over 350 tournaments.

He is the only player to have captured career grand slams on both the regular and senior tours. He has won 162 tournaments worldwide in his exalted career and stays active designing golf courses today.

When he became the Masters’ first international champion, his post tournament press conference lingered as the sportswriters were charmed by his accent, his enthusiasm and his penchant for hyperbole. He was convincing when he said he lifted weights and was given to excess pushups and sit-ups daily.

The $20,000 winner’s check — by far the biggest check of his career at that point — was in his back pocket, he said and added, “.…it is burning my arse.” Gary has always been a popular and colorful winner.

The following is a well-traveled story, but worthy of recycle. As he became established on the PGA tour, Player decided to call Ben Hogan, whose game he admired deeply, and talk golf.  He began by telling Hogan that he was the greatest “striker of the golf ball in history,” along with other gushing high praise.

Hogan was then still actively running his golf club manufacturing company.  When Player asked him a question about the game, Hogan tersely asked, “What clubs do you play?”

When player replied, “Dunlop.”  Hogan said, “Call Mr. Dunlop,” and hung up.