Gary Player at the Masters.
(The Armchair Golfer)
While a generation of American golfers idolized Jack Nicklaus, South African golfers such as Nick Price, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and new Masters champion Trevor Immelman looked up to their hero, Gary Player.
A week ago when I attended the Masters with author John Coyne, we watched Player on 15, 16 and 17. We took a few photos, and then John told me about the afternoon he spent with Gary Player nearly 40 years ago. There’s some story material, I thought. Later I was delighted to find out John wrote it down.
It’s 1969. You’re traveling through South Africa and decide to pick up the phone book and find the listing for Gary Player. There it is. You call and Player invites you over for tea. No kidding, that’s how it happened.
Here’s the story in John’s words:
“I interviewed Gary years ago at his home in South Africa when I was visiting all the countries I hadn't seen when I was with the Peace Corps. Gary invited me to his farm for tea one Sunday afternoon.
“His father was there, a retired mine worker, as well as his step-mother. Gary's wife was playing in a golf tournament. She, too, was a fine player, a South African women's champ.
“Gary had designed his ranch home so that each room was a collection of items he had picked up from around the world. For example, he had a 'Western Room' full of saddles, horse gear, and wild west paintings from America. There was a Spanish Room, as well as an Asia Room.
“In the doorways of his kids' rooms he had a bar installed so that his boys (Vivienne and Gary have six children) could do one or two chin-ups entering and leaving their bedrooms. It is not for nothing that Gary is nicknamed Mr. Fitness. (He is also called the Black Knight for his history of always wearing black when playing tournaments.)
“Gary was a poor kid who lost his mother when he was 8 or so, and started to play golf at 14 when his father took out a loan to buy him a set of golf clubs that he could play with. His father worked in the gold mines of South Africa. Gary had a brother who is a famous environmentalist.
“Gary only finished secondary school and then turned pro. His father would write a letter to Bobby Jones 51 years ago asking him to invite young Gary to the Masters, saying how great his son was, and it worked!
“When I visited Gary back in 1969, he kept talking about the ‘winds of change’ coming to South Africa as he led me around the farm and introduced me to his African workers, all of whom he knew by name. I was there, of course, during the apartheid years. It took over 20 years before apartheid finally ended in South Africa.”
Gary Player made a record-setting 51st appearance at the Masters this year. And Trevor Immelman’s victorious walk up Augusta's 18th fairway came exactly 30 years after his idol’s final Masters title.
−The Armchair Golfer