Gary Player has never been one to bodyswerve a challenge. On the contrary, this extraordinary man has spent an entire career addressing head-on the vicissitudes of life and never capitulating in the face of adversity.
So, at a time when golf is crying out for a standard bearer to lead the sport into the Olympic arena after an absence of 112 years this month, who better than a Black Knight in shining armour to ride to the rescue?
Now well into his 81st year, the South African has devoted more than six of those eight pioneering decades into helping to popularise the game of golf in even the remotest dot on the planet.
In a few days’ time, Player will also realise a life’s ambition by marching around the running track in Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic Stadium as the deeply proud Team Leader of his homeland, alongside the four South African golfers who will form part of golf’s return to the Olympic movement.
“Golf needs a shot in the arm right now,” insisted Player, “And this will be the platform on which to convince the International Olympic Committee that golf is not just a good sport, but that we behave well and that we will embrace the public in Rio and make a point of promoting not only golf and also the IOC.”
Player’s eyes gleam with dazzlzing intensity as he talks, in his inimitably passionate style, about the opportunity to march behind the South African flag with Jaco Van Zyl, Brandon Stone, Ashleigh Simon and Paula Reto. He believes that golf has an opportunity like never before to continue the missionary work started half a century earlier by the original ‘Big Three’ of Player, Palmer and Nicklaus.
The top three in the current World Rankings may be absent at Reserva de Marapendi Golf Course from August 11-14, but Player has no doubts how he and his legendary cohorts, Jack and Arnold, would not have missed a golden opportunity to tee up in Rio.
“It’s laughable to suggest otherwise,” he said. “When I see a professional saying he doesn’t care about the development of golf, I want to cry. I’ve spent 63 years with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus going arond the world – not getting a lot of appearence money – promoting the game of golf. Even today, at the age of 80, I keep thinking to myself: what can I do to promote the game that has done so much for me?
“I played golf all around the world in places with yellow fever, in war zones, with people wanting to kill me because of the apartheid system in South Africa. We faced all those difficulties, travelling around the world with no jet planes. It could take me 40 hours to get to America, stopping four times. I hear about (playing) schedules. Let (other players) see my schedule at the age of 80 and it’s well in excess of theirs.
“I grew up with Palmer and Nicklaus; Watson and Trevino. How differently we would have treated the whole situation. I do respect everyone’s reasons for not playing, but I would have given anything to hold, along with my 18 majors and 165 victories, an Olympic Gold Medal. It would have been a dream to get that.”
Growing up in Johannesburg, Player might have been smaller in stature than many of his contemporaries, but very few could ever match his dedication, application and almost superhuman fitness. To this day, the ‘Black Knight’ tackles fitness and diet with an almost religious zeal, revelling in a work schedule that would make a 25 year old shrink in horror. Retirement, he once reportedly said, is “a death sentence.”
Player clearly believes implicitly in the ethos of the Olympic Games as a heaven-sent vehicle to transport golf’s skills and values into uncharter territories.
“There are potentially 3.5 billion people out there watching. There is a reason why it is the biggest sporting event in the world and if ever golf needed a shot in the arm it’s right now. Henrik Stenson certainly provided that at Royal Troon a few weeks ago when he won The Open. What a boost that was, and to know we have The Open champion playing in Rio, and the Masters champion also. Let’s talk about that rather than who might be absent.”
Player continued: “The Olympics will undoubtedly grow the game worldwide, no matter who plays and who doesn’t. So many eyes will see golf on television, when they couldn’t before. Golf needs to be an Olympic sport because of its global allure and I would appeal to the IOC to treat us leniently in terms of golf’s future participation. As Winston Churchill said: ‘The youth of today are the trustees of prosperity’.”
Player nodded with quiet approval when one of his charges, Jaco Van Zyl, withdrew from The Open and the US PGA Championship in order to re-charge his batteries and focus all his mental and physical energies on reaching his peak in Rio
“I thought he came out with some powerful statements. He is the epitome of a professional golfer and I look forward to working with Jaco and the others in our South African team in Brazil. In my role, I hope to be able to help them in any way, either with their swing, or any problems which might arise, but basically to be there to encourage them as their captain to play well.”
Unlike many of the golfers competing in Rio, competing in Brazil is nothing new to Player. He has been there “many times’ and won the Brazilian Open twice in 1972 and 1974. He also, for good measure, broke 60 with a record score of 59 in the second round of the event at Gavea Golf and Country Club in Rio on November 29, 1974.
“I am the only man who has broken 60 in a national championship,” he said.
After hosting his annual Invitational event at Wentworth last month, Player flew to the city of his birth for a grand banquet and parade in Johannesburg. He took part in the street parade proudly wearing the green and gold colours of South Africa.
No-one would have radiated more pride than the golf Team Leader. If drive, determination and willpower alone could ensure that the Olympic golf competitions are successful, then Player would be in the vanguard. South Africa have their Black Knight. Now it is up to the golfers to deliver.