Gary Player
Photo by Alex de Brabant

Gary Player: “I have no intention of slowing down”

Short Profile

Name: Gary James Player
DOB: 1 November 1935
Place of birth: Johannesburg, South Africa
Occupation: Golfer

Mr. Player, you once said, “For all we take in life, we must pay.” What price did you pay to become one of the greatest golfers of all time?

Everybody has to have difficulties or adversity in life, it doesn't matter who you are. When I was young, my father worked in a gold mine, and we were very poor. My mother died when I was nine, and my brother went to war at 17 years of age. My school was about an hour and a half bus ride away from home, and then I’d get home at night — and nobody's there. I have to cook my own food, I had to wash my own clothes and get up in the morning. I remember every night crying, at the age of nine and 10, I struggled a lot. That was the reason I became a champion. A lot of people give up, a lot of people feel sorry for themselves. But I didn't.

Can you become a champion without that struggle through adversity?

Take my son, for example, he's a professional golfer. He had far more ability than me. But when he wanted a set of golf clubs, I gave him some. When he wanted to go overseas, I got him a ticket. And yet, he never became a player anywhere close to me, although he had more talent than me. So to struggle in life and to persevere is so important. It’s important to go through that pain barrier.

“I had patience, I believed in myself to beat the others. The most important thing was faith.”

It seems like people often underestimate how mentally and physically difficult the sport of golf actually is — it’s never really spoken about in the same terms as basketball or football because it’s less active.

People don't understand golf! It's the most difficult sport in the world. No one realizes what a challenge it is. I was a four-letter man at college with  sports; rugby, and cricket, and soccer, and swimming. I was a champion in school, but they are Mickey Mouse compared to golf. Golf is so tough. You speak to Michael Jordan, or any of these athletes and world champions in other sports, and they’ll all say it's the toughest game they've ever played.

What is it that set you apart from the rest to become a champion?

Well, I had patience, I believed in myself to beat the others. The most important thing was faith. I got a lot of things through perseverance, and also from the love in my heart. It's a rare thing to find a wife who will travel everywhere with me and help me to become a world champion. We were together for 72 years, and I told her every day I loved her; she told me every day she loved me. So I think I really have that unmeasured love in my heart, and that is important.

You went pro at just 17 years old. Did you always have that belief in yourself, even at that young age?

When I told my father I wanted to be a pro at 17, he nearly had a heart attack! (Laughs) He said, “You can't even win a club championship, nevermind be a pro!” I said, “Dad, you’ve got to understand, I will work harder than any athlete has ever worked in this world.” And I have. I've traveled more miles than any human being ever; 70 years of travel around the world — not more than any other athlete, more than any other human! There’s no businessman that travels for 35 years for his company, no pilot that works for Lufthansa for 40 years. I've been doing it for 70 years, travelling all around the world. Nobody else comes close! So it's been a wonderful journey for me, one that very few people are ever blessed to have.

Eventually though, your father got on board with your pro career, even encouraging you to create a trademark for yourself to help with your career.

Right, when I came to America, they had a television show here called Have Gun, Will Travel. There was a man called Jack Palance, and he dressed in black, he had two silver guns and holsters on his side. When he met people, he was so kind. He said, “If you have a problem in life, here's my card. Let me help you.” And of course, that resonated with me as someone who experienced extreme struggle as a young man… One day my dad said to me, “You’ve got to have a trademark, you’ve got to have something that people will recognize you with.” Arnold Palmer had the umbrella, Jack Nicklaus had the bear, so I decided, “Well, I'm going to follow this man, Jack Palance, and I'm also going to wear black.” And they started to call me The Black Knight. It was the best thing I ever did!

“I sleep nine hours a night, I laugh often, I’ve got love in my heart. I’m just warming up, and I have no intention of slowing down.”

Was your famous rivalry with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer also important to raising your game? Did it motivate you to be constantly pitted against these two talented players?

One must always be competitive! That’s one of the things that I've realized. Having Nicklaus and Palmer, I mean, we were great friends, but boy, did we want to beat each other. Oh, we were so determined to beat each other, it was unbelievable. And that was very healthy! We must have won over 300 tournaments between us, so we were dominating the game. We didn't get these big sums of money like they eventually offered Tiger Woods — we went for small sums of money because we love golf. We wanted to see it grow because we realized what it does for young people: it gives them a job later on in life. From a university standpoint, you can get scholarships. It is the passport to the world, it enables you to travel, to meet people, to get jobs, and to keep your body healthy all your life.

You are clearly speaking from experience — even at 86 years old, you show no signs of slowing down.

I feel like I'm just starting out! But most people are dead at my age! For me, I still run the treadmill, I can leg press 150 kilos, I’m working out three times a week and I'm playing golf the rest of the time. I’m still travelling around the world. You’ve got to keep your body moving. Once you stop your body moving, you stop to move. I'm 86 but I really probably am only 50. (Laughs) I sleep nine hours a night, I laugh, I've got love in my heart. I'm just warming up, I've got energy! I want to live to 100 or more! I have no intention of slowing down.