Gary talks about St Andrews, The Open, worldwide golf and the Olympic Games
Interview by Matt Hooper
The Open is a time when we celebrate the history of the game, and each year’s championship adds to it. This year we celebrate 60 years since Gary Player made his debut at the home of golf.
Golf has changed significantly in the last six decades. The prize fund for the 1957 Open was £3,750 ($10,500), when the world’s best came to St Andrews in July 2015 they they played for a share of £6.3million ($9.8million).
The balls, the equipment, the clothing and how players are treated have all improved beyond recognition in the sixty years since Gary Player made his Open Championship debut. Even the most modest of professional or amateur playing in The Open this year will have a cosy room in a hotel, guest house or rented accommodation, for Mr Player that wasn’t the case when he visited St Andrews for the first time. “I’ve never forgotten my first Open Championship at St Andrews in 1957.
My golf club in South Africa had to take up a collection to fund my ticket to Britain. I took the train from London to St Andrews, and I remember climbing off at Leuchars Station”, Player said.
“It was so surreal; I just stood there for a moment. The realization had finally dawned on me. I was here at the Home of Golf, finally realizing my dream of playing this great Major at the Old Course.
When I got to St Andrews I quickly found out that I did not have enough money to stay in a hotel, so I found a sand dune, put on my waterproofs and went to sleep. That along with those pot bunkers was an incredible learning experience and one that helped shape my career.
Imagine a professional golfer today sleeping outside on the ground in this day and age.”
Player went on to finish 24th in his first appearance on the Old Course, it was a modest start to a career which transformed golf worldwide and made an enormous impact upon the status of The Open. Despite his incredible achievements one thing Gary failed to do was win The Open at the home of golf.
“It was a disappointment (not winning in St Andrews) in the sense that I wanted to win every tournament I played. Winning The Open Championship at the Old Course would have been particularly satisfying because of the rich history associated with St Andrews”, said the 3-time Open Champion.
“It is the birthplace of golf and still to this day is one of the most special destinations in the world. When you step onto the grounds of St Andrews, you can feel the rich and timeless history that includes the origins of this great game. Golf really has been a true blessing in my life, which makes visiting St Andrews that much sweeter. Having said that, I am blessed to have won The Open Championship three times over three different decades.”
Despite not winning that first Open, Player has fond memories of it, even if the first shot wasn’t up to his very high standards!
“My first experience of links golf was the first time I went to The Open at St Andrews, I was a nervous wreck walking to the first tee. It was my first time playing a links course. I was so nervous I missed the fairway with a big duck hook, and I kept thinking, please don’t go out of bounds. Luckily, the ball hit the out-of-bounds stake and came back into the fairway”, Player said.
He very quickly adapted to and embraced the challenge of links golf “I have always loved links golf because of its distinct challenges. On links courses, wind will almost always play a factor in decision making, especially when playing on an Open Championship course.
This will make the player become creative and strategic at the same time. If it is windy, widen your stance and play the ball a little further back in your stance to hit at a lower trajectory. It’s also key to learn to play the ball along the ground, especially around the greens. Creative bump and run shots also are a must.”
Gary Player played in The Open 46 times, 10 of which were at the Old Course in St Andrews so what he doesn’t know about playing the Old Course isn’t worth knowing. “You need Patience, accuracy, a very strong mental game and a bit of luck with the weather and your draw”, said Player.
With 46 appearances, 3 wins and 12 top 10 finishes it would be easy for the South African to be accused of bias towards The Open as his favourite major, but he gives a convincing argument for it being the greatest championship of all. “Links golf is the way the game was meant to be played. The Open Championship has always been one of my favourites and yes, it does hold special memories. The Old Course is perhaps the greatest venue in golf. Having the opportunity to play on so many beautiful courses has been a dream come true.
The wonderful fans, unique weather and rich history is what makes The Open so special and is why I enjoy it so much. The tournament itself has not changed a lot. It has remained true to its roots and history.”
Given the level of success Gary Player had in The Open it is unsurprising he has many fantastic memories of playing in the championship, but the one which stands out for the 9-time major champion is from the venerable links in Lancashire. “The 1974 Open at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s is where I won my third and final Open Championship. There are two memories that still stand out the most after all these years. First, on the 17th I hooked my approach into the treacherous rough on the left of the green. I had to search on my hands and knees for that ball and it had gone into the rough right under the noses of the spectators. We found the ball with less than a minute to spare and I managed to scramble a bogey 5 from an impossible lie.
Then on 18, my approach overshot the green and ran hard up against the clubhouse wall. I had to hit a left-handed chip with my blade putter and got it to within 15 feet, and was able to seal the victory.”
Part of the joy of The Open is the variety of locations it visits, from the old links in the home of golf such as Carnoustie, Muirfield, Troon and Turnberry to the fun tracks of Birkdale, Hoylake and Lytham and the brutal test of Royal St George’s. But there can be no question that The Open is at its biggest and best when staged here in St Andrews.
Over the years many players have said that they think The Open should be played on the Old Course each year.
“I have many favourite courses in the UK. All of the places where I have won both The Open and Senior Open Championships hold a special place in my heart. St Andrews is the home of golf. It’s a special place for all who love the game. There is so much history. I don’t think it would be a bad thing if the tournament was played there every year, but luckily that is not for me to decide.
I especially appreciate all the venues that host The Open that are public golf courses, and always enjoy watching folks walk across the course immediately after the tournament. As soon as the ropes come down, the course becomes “a walk in the park.”
Gary Player won The Open three times, including 1968 at Carnoustie and 1974 at Royal Lytham and St Anne’s but the one he believes is his greatest was his first.
“The Open was at Muirfield in 1959 and I remember getting there extra early to prepare. By the time we got to the last day, I was eight shots back of the leader. In those days we had to play 36 holes a day. But I refused to give up and even told one of my sponsors that tomorrow they would see a small miracle: I was going to win The Open.
After an opening round 70 I was feeling very confident, and it seemed like everything began to click. I went out in 33, made a few birdies, but then I double bogeyed the last from the greenside bunker. The next two hours were agonizing as I waited in the club house with a small lead. I thought I blown the tournament. But, as we know, I won by two shots and became the youngest winner of The Open since the event became a 72-hole tournament”, said Player.
Player’s final Open Championship appearance came in 2001 at Royal Lytham and St Anne’s.
The Open Championship has been broadcast across the world for over 60 years, beginning with news coverage and then moving into live coverage in the late 50’s and 60’s.
“I remember being a young boy growing up in South Africa who saw The Open as the ultimate test in golf. I wanted to become a champion, and told my family that I would. Besides Bobby Locke, there weren’t many great South African golfers. We are a fairly small country. Winning The Open was a dream that motivated my teenage self, and I finally achieved this dream in 1959 with my first Major Championship win at Murifeld.
As one of the four Majors in golf, The Open helps signify that one has to play golf on an international scale in order to succeed in this sport. The style of play is much different than with courses in America and many other countries. Golf was invented on links-style courses, so The Open is the truest test of a player’s skill.
The sheer history and prestige of this event beckons to golfers in South Africa, to sportsmen across the world, and stands as a challenge to players who want to be the greatest in the game.”
Since 2013 The Open Qualifying Series has included tour events around the world, giving players from across the globe the opportunity to compete for spots in The Open in their home region. The Joburg Open has been an OQS event since 2014.
“I think it is absolutely fantastic to see the Joburg Open as an Open Qualifying Series event. I love to see the growth of golf in my home country, and by providing golfers with the opportunity to compete on the European Tour, this tournament helps push South Africans forward to competing on a more global scale”, said Player.
“There are so many talented golfers for whom this tournament may be a springboard into competing across the world, so I’m excited to see the talent the Joburg Open has to offer each year.
Even more, I hope it will inspire more youth in this country to take up this excellent sport and follow their dreams of competing on an international level. Of course, not every young golfer will become a champion, but golf is a sport that rewards you, both physically and mentally, for the rest of your life.”
The Open and many of the other great tournaments around the world are broadcast on South African television, helping to inspire a new generation of South African golfers. However, there is no substitute for seeing their heroes in person. In 2013 the International Federation of PGA Tours were set to stage a World Golf Championships event in South Africa, however the Tournament of Hope did not go ahead due to a lack of sponsorship.
As you would expect, the icon of South African sport has a view on how South African tournament golf can attract the best in the game.
“Even though there is so much talent in South Africa, too many of our best players are taking their golf game outside of the country. It’s hard to blame them because there is so much more money on the PGA and European Tours”, said Player.
“This impacts how professional golf is played in our country. As a professional golfer, I made an effort to play at least four tournaments a year in South Africa.
I think more South African golfers need to start playing more tournaments in their home country, and not just the same ones, to really bring golf around. We have the talent to put South African golf up against most any country in the world. By supporting our Tour, the media, the sponsors, and our fans, golf could gain more traction and attract the best golfers from around the world.”
South Africa’s biggest event is unquestionably the Nedbank Golf Challenge, played each December on the Gary Player Country Club course at Sun City. The title has been won by many of the world’s greatest players in the last 40 years including Johnny Miller, Raymond Floyd, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam, Nick Price, Nick Faldo, Corey Pavin, Colin Montgomerie, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Retief Goosen, Jim Furyk, Trevor Immelman, Lee Westwood, Henrik Stenson and Martin Kaymer.
Most of these players returned year after year and the event went from strength to strength, attracting the most vibrant and largest galleries of any tournament on the African continent.
But the world’s greatest and most popular player, Tiger Woods, has only played in the tournament once. In 1998 he lost a dramatic playoff with Nick Price, and the event inspired him to create his own charity event, the World Challenge.
Invariably the tournament has clashed with the Nedbank Golf Challenge, and Tiger Woods has never returned, his only other appearance in South Africa was at the 2003 Presidents Cup.
Given the population split in South Africa it must surely be a source of frustration that he has not played at least once every couple of years in the Rainbow Nation.
“Tiger is absolutely fantastic for the game. He has helped spread the popularity of the game to people from all backgrounds. I would love to see him play more in South Africa. If he did so, I think he would help bolster golf in the country and among our youth”, Player said.
Right now, though, he needs to focus on getting his game back. He needs to regain his swing from the confusion of too many coaches.
For a generation of South Africans though, it was the exploits of Gary Player on the global stage which inspired them to take up the game. Since the start of the 1990’s Ernie Els (4), Retief Goosen (2), Trevor Immelman, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel (1 each) have combined to win 9 major championships.
Something which fills Player with pride.
“I am very proud of our South African golfers. They are gentlemen of the game. These men have so much talent, and so much hunger to win. For the size of our country, it’s remarkable to have the amount of Major winners we do” said Player.
“South Africa has been a land of great adversity for many years, and I truly think that this adversity has helped shaped driven, resilient sportsmen and woman. I’m honoured to call golfers such as Els, Goosen, Immelman, Schwartzel, and Oosthuizen my fellow countrymen, as they have done a large amount to help advance golf in South Africa.”
These are the star names of South African golf, and while the colour of a golfer or sportsman is largely irrelevant, it is remarkable that a country which is nearly 80% black has never produced an outstanding black golfer.
“I think this could change very soon”, said Player.
“Sport has the ability to bring people together from all walks of life. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”
“And think of Tiger Woods. I remember how much of an inspiration he was to black children in South Africa when he was winning all those tournaments. They witnessed a black golfer become the most popular athlete in the world.
That was so inspirational. Those kids watched first hand an incredible example of why race should never matter in sports, or in life for that matter. I hope Tiger has a comeback in him, because he is so important to the game.
I foresee an athletic big man revolutionizing golf in the future. Imagine a LeBron James type of player dedicating his life to golf. A player that has raw power and coordination.
Golf has never seen this before. We have had phenomenal athletes, from Sam Sneed and Ben Hogan to this younger generation that works hard in the gym.”
Mr Fitness, the Black Knight and the Most Travelled Athlete are just some of the nicknames attributed to Gary Player. Whatever he may be known as there is no question that his passion for this great game is still burning bright. His contribution to the growth of the game across the world and to The Open Championship is almost without parallel.
Gary Player is the embodiment of why the game of golf should be part of the Olympic Games. He is the ultimate rags to riches story, he embraces the world and all that it has to offer, he lives his life as an athlete and he promotes the ideals of sportsmanship, integrity and respect. This August he will lead the golfers of his homeland into the Olympic arena for the very first time. Born in Johannesburg in 1935, Gary experienced a hard childhood with his mother dying from cancer when he was just 8 years old and his father working away from home in the gold mines.
He picked up the game of golf at the age of 14, turned professional when he was 17 and played in his first Open Championship at the age of 20 in the 1956 Open, tying for fourth place. His first professional victory came at the East Rand Open in 1955, and he would go on to break almost every record in Southern African golf. He won 13 South African Opens, 11 South African Masters and 4 South African PGA Championships, part of over 70 wins in his homeland.
To be a great champion Gary always knew he would have to win abroad, and around the world. He won the Australian Open a record 7 times, part of 18 tournament victories in Australia; he won titles in Chile, France, Japan, Canada, Spain, England, Egypt and Ivory Coast; and of course he won 24 times on the PGA Tour including 9 Major titles.
His achievement of winning the 1959 Open, 1961 Masters and 1962 US Open helped elevate him to the very top of the game, and he became part of the Big Three alongside Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
The trio travelled the world playing in exhibition matches, the Australian Open and the World Match Play Championship, helping to grow the game. And he did it in much more modest transport than today’s pampered stars. “We did not travel around in private jets back when I first turned professional. Imagine traveling from South Africa to America like I did. Tiny airplanes, four stops, six children, no disposable diapers. Players today truly travel in style. It was necessary for me to play all over the world because I had to make a living by playing in as many tournaments as possible even after I won several Majors,” says Gary.
“Today, guys can win one tournament on the PGA Tour, become a millionaire and be set for a long career. But that makes me so happy. It is incredible how far we have come.”
Because Gary and his peers were prepared to make the arduous journeys across the world the game has grown and it is now at a stage where it can go to Rio and hold its head high among other global sports.
“In my mind golf has and always will be a global game” says Gary.
“The fact that we went 100 years without one of the world’s most popular and important sports in the Olympics was a crying shame. I am so thrilled the appropriate governing bodies took action to really push golf to be included beginning in 2016, 2020 and hopefully beyond.”
Many of the world’s top golfers have turned down the chance to compete in Rio, some due to the worry over the Zika Virus but many also due to prioritising the Majors over the Olympics. It is fair to say that golfers have never dreamed of an Olympic medal, and that the Majors are golf’s Holy Grail. I asked Gary if he thought the Olympics should be treated like a Major Championship.
“No. It should never happen. The career Grand Slam only consists of the four Majors: The Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. Because the Olympics only occurs every four years, it just would not fit in correctly.
And this is fine for me personally because as we know, golf was not included in the Olympics for more than 100 years so I never had the opportunity. No living golfer has ever played in the games.”
Bearing this in mind I asked him where winning an Olympic Gold would have ranked in his career, had he had the chance to compete in an Olympic Games.
“Perhaps it would be up there with my finest achievements in golf, which I consider to be winning the career Grand Slam on the Regular Tour as well as on the Senior Tour. Winning it on the Senior Tour actually is tougher because I am the only man ever to do it,” beams Gary.
“I wouldn’t see it as important as our four Majors but what a thrill to have a gold medal. I am always proud to represent my country. That would be my biggest reason. To represent and compete for South Africa on the biggest stage in sports.”
So given that he doesn’t view the Olympics as important as a Major and many of the players agree, I asked Gary what he thought the governing bodies could do to ensure Olympic Golf was important to the players.
“They should not have to do anything special. Players need to take pride in their country, and not think about it as an individual achievement. You are representing your homeland. What an honour this should be for every person, men and women.
It is different with golf coming back to the games for the first time in 100 years. The spotlight is on us. Maybe it will just take time for players to be fighting for a spot within the professional ranks. It has been welcomed by the top tennis professionals and I think participation will help make our top golf pros feel the same way.
But it is important for golf to have a good showing with lots of public interest and high ratings to keep golf as an annual Olympic sport. We need to make sure golf will be an Olympic sport for the next 100 years. The game will grow in many smaller countries because of our participation in the Olympic Games.”
Given that much of professional golf worldwide is based on 72-hole strokeplay I asked him whether the format for Olympic Golf is correct
“This is currently a big debate,” says Gary
“Perhaps not but the best in the world should be invited to play while involving as many countries as possible. The strokeplay format is good to start with for golf first appearance back in the Olympics. I have always felt it is tougher to win a tournament competing against the whole field, rather than match-play style where you only play a few others during the week.
No doubt the Olympics brings the best in the world to compete, so I anticipate a very entertaining tournament.”
Once it was announced golf would return to the Olympics it was clear a golf course would have to be built for the competition, and to leave a legacy in Rio. From the outset it looked perfect for Mr Player to enter the competition to design and build the course, as a designer of over 300 courses on five continents, but he lost out to the American Gil Hanse. I asked Gary how disappointed was he to miss out and what would he have brought to the table that was different.
“Traveling all over the world as a professional, I’ve been to many countries that take part in the Olympic Games. No doubt we wanted to design the course. We had some great ideas. With nearly 400 courses all over the world, Gary Player Design would have brought decades of experience to the fold. I have not yet seen the course, but looking at the photos the designers did a world-class job.”
Aside from golf’s return to the Olympic Games, I asked Gary how he thought golf could grow around the world and how the World Golf Championships could improve.
“It is interesting they are called World Gold Championships. Three out of four this year are played in the United States. Identical to how the four Majors are set. In my opinion, three of the four WGCs need to be played around the world.
Why not rotate them to different countries each year? Australia, Europe, Africa, South America, there are so many other places to grow the game. Bring a prestigious match-play event to a place like Abu Dhabi and golf will reap the benefits of the global exposure.”
As of August 2016 we now have World Golf Championships in Mexico and China, and a few years ago the PGA of America talked openly about taking the PGA Championship on tour around the world.
“I have always encouraged the PGA of America to host the PGA Championship outside of the United States. It seems unfair to not involve the rest of the world. The US hosts three Majors annually. Why not bring this as an extra element while golf continues to grow in popularity around the world?” Gary asks.
“A Major in Africa, Asia, South America or Australia would be tremendous for golf. Each continent can take turns hosting the PGA Championship. This needs to happen. I guarantee it will increase the game’s popularity and increase the importance of the championship as well.”
For the vast majority of the competing athletes at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, this will be their first visit to Rio and maybe even Brazil. But for South Africa’s golf captain it is a welcome return to somewhere he enjoyed record-breaking success in over 40 years ago.
“No South African had ever won the Brazilian Open so I saw fit to put my name next to previous winners like Sam Snead and Billy Casper. From the beginning of my career, I wanted to win on every corner of the globe. I had my eye on South America. It would have been easy to move my family and life to America, and only play on the PGA Tour. But I love my home country and wanted to be golf’s global ambassador. Looking back on my career, I say with certainty that I did my part.”
Player not only went to Brazil with a mission he left with the trophy, twice in three years.
“During my prime this was a very popular tournament to play in. I had never won in South America, so this was one I wanted to add to my worldwide wins. When I won in 1972, I told my wife we would come back so I could win it again, Plus, Brazil is a beautiful country,”
In 1972 the tournament was played at the stunning Gavea Golf Club, located some 13 miles east of the Olympic Golf Course, with breathtaking Atlantic views. Five birdies on the back nine on Sunday saw him surge to a whopping 10-stroke victory over former U.S. Amateur champion, Steve Melnyk.
“I played my best round ever as a professional in 1974 when I shot a 59. Not only my best round, but no man had ever broken 60 in a professional national tournament. I had shot sub 60 before in practice rounds, but not under that kind of pressure.” It is testament to the outlook and passion Gary Player has that he treated the Brazilian Open with such respect.
The tournament has never had a large prize fund and never attracted a truly deep, world class field, but he wanted to showcase his talent to the world. Not just through television, but to people on the ground and outside the ropes.