Gary Player, 79? The course architect, whose designs include the stunning Saadiyat Beach Golf Club down the road in Abu Dhabi, is more like one of the energetic thoroughbred race horses he breeds on his stud farm in South Africa. ‘Mr. Fitness’, or the ‘Black Knight’ as he is fondly nicknamed by golf fans the world over, shows no signs of slowing down, continuing to raise over Dhs220m for underprivileged school children through his charitable foundation and becoming the oldest athlete to pose in ESPN’s annual body issue.
As 50 years have passed since he claimed that maiden US Open in Missouri, Gary reminisces about the monumental day in 1965 when he became the third golfer in history to complete a career Grand Slam, his intensely fierce rivalry with beloved friends Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, and how he thinks Rory McIlroy is shaping up today.
Take us back to the day you won the US Open – what memories come back to you?
That week in Missouri was sweltering. It had long been on my mind to win the US Open, and I came to Bellerive Country Club with three Major wins. Jack Nicklaus invited me to practise with him the entire week before. I told him I couldn’t because I needed the money from another tournament the week before in Greensboro, North Carolina, but he persisted and played a part in my winning the Grand Slam before he did.
Like always, I did my homework. The great Ben Hogan was a master of preparation and always arrived a week early to get used to the local conditions. That played a big role because Bellerive was a massive course, more than 7,000 yards, which in those days was considered very long. I believe it was the longest US Open venue to date at that time.
I remember going to the local YMCA to work out each day. I was in the best physical shape of my life, but everyone thought I was a nut. Fitness was seen as a way to destroy one’s swing, not improve it. My, how things have changed since then. I also wore the same black shirt every day, and washed it myself every night and hung it over the shower rail to dry. A silly superstition perhaps, but it gave me a certain level of mental karma.
Really, my favourite part of the week was when I made that final putt to win the US Open and become a Grand Slam champion. When Joe Dey, president of the USGA, handed me the winner’s cheque, I was able to fulfil a promise I made a few years before. I had told him that if I ever won the US Open, I would donate my prize money to two causes: the development of junior golf and cancer research.
Why is sporting rivalry more intense among players who are also close friends? The opposite seems to be true for athletes such as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
Well, there is no sport more individual than golf. While you are alone in an automobile, the F1 race team is a different animal entirely. Even though Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and I were friends off the course, we wanted to beat each other’s brains out on it. Our legacies depended on it, as did our pocketbooks!
Was Nicklaus back in his day better than McIlroy now?
I love Rory and his game, but he would be the first to tell you that he has a way to go to compare to Jack Nicklaus. Jack’s mind was so strong, and he was so hard to beat when he was ahead. Rory certainly has the game, and time will tell if his record will compare to Jack’s.
How does life unfold day-to-day on your stud farm in South Africa?
I am up before the sun, and I’m doing physical activity all day, from working with my horses to building my own golf course there. You might be surprised at what a 79-year-old can do! There’s no place I’d rather be.
Your roll call of sporting achievements is dizzying – what are you most proud of?
You may find it odd, but I am more proud of my Grand Slam on the Senior Tour than the Regular Tour. When I was younger, I didn’t even know that I would have a ‘second career’, and to be so successful at an older age made all the fitness, diet and hard work feel worth it. Plus, you have a shorter period of time to achieve something like that.
Your commandments are enlightening. ‘Change is the price of survival’ and ‘Accept the advice of the man who loves you, though you like it not at present’ – are these quotes relevant to you?
The ‘change’ quote probably applies more to my business career. Major CEOs will tell you that if you are not flexible, you will get left in the dust. I’m proud that our companies have been able to survive the ups and downs. In terms of the second quote, I would have to go back to my older brother Ian; he went off to the Second World War when I was a very young boy, and he made me promise that I would exercise and stay fit for the rest of my life. It may not have seemed important at the time, but I’m so thankful I took his advice.
Saadiyat Beach Golf Club is offering a special package to honour the course’s designer, in the form of Gary Player’s Grand Slam 50 for 50 Rewind. Best available rates from Dhs250, including Dhs50 F&B voucher and Dhs50 golf shop credit. www.sbgolfclub.ae to book.