It’s rare to encounter someone who can light up a room with laughter and smiles while offering blunt, brutal assessments and honesty. Gary Player is that guy. He’s also the only guy in the history of the world to win professional golf’s Grand Slam of majors on both the PGA Tour and Senior PGA Tour, (now called the Champions Tour).
He’s 82 years young, still has a vibrant zest for life and can’t understand how some people think lifting weights is bad for golfers.
Player lifted weights early Thursday before a candid yet very friendly interview at Buffalo Ridge Springs Golf Course, another in a collection of world-class golf facilities at Johnny Morris’ Big Cedar Lodge, nestled in the Ozark Mountains of Ridgedale, Missouri.
We’ll call this conversation an international friendly. Player is, after all, the most-decorated international golfer in history.
He’s in the Show Me State this weekend for the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf at Big Cedar Lodge. He’s been around the block and is well familiar with our state. In fact, Player won his only US Open in 1965 at St. Louis’ PGA cathedral, Bellerive Country Club.
That win gave Player the PGA Tour Grand Slam, at the young-buck age of 29. The victory took an extra round of 18 Monday-playoff holes to defeat Australian Kel Nagle and it aligned Player in history with Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan as the only golfers (at the time) to win golf’s Grand Slam. (Jack Nicklaus became the fourth when he won the ’66 British Open 13 months later. )
Done it. Seen it. And still brings it.
Spend several hours with Gary and you’ll learn a lot.
“My concept,” he says, “Golf is becoming too slow. Some guys are reading a book to read a green now. I don’t understand it.”
The vision for Player’s “concept” in this conversation is Mountain Top Golf Course, a 13-hole, par-3 short course designed to appeal to players and families of all skill levels.
When I say designed, I mean the Player Design company molded this course in cooperation with Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris. The Player Design company has artfully sculpted more than 300 golf courses across the globe.
With 13 short-course holes, Player eliminates what he feels is hurting golf on a general level: the time it takes to complete one 18-hole round.
If the game of golf is to grow across all ages and skill levels, surely a shorter course in distance and time spent can help appeal to our 12-second attention spans of 2018.
Instead of a six-hour day playing golf, a group (a family, perhaps) can grab breakfast, walk a course in the beauty of the Ozark Mountains and finish the round in half the time. It puts the emphasis back on having fun on the course.
On a professional level, Player sees one of golf’s flaws in the ball itself. Technology has made a golf ball go farther than ever. Technological advances on today’s clubs and shafts is another ingredient that plays a role.
And consider that golf courses are longer than ever.
“The leaders want the amateurs to play the same games as professionals. NO! We’re dreaming when we say it’s the same game!”
Player would like to see the money being spent lengthening golf courses reallocated to young people.
“The youth are the trustees of posterity,” he says.
It sounds fluffy but it doesn’t mean it’s not true, and Player has a more specific idea beyond the fluff: his practical solution would shift money being spent to lengthen golf courses into youth programs for golf, fitness & health and quality instructors & teachers to provide it.
His body of work is living proof that old-fashion ideas still work: be active, get outdoors, stay hungry, work hard, enjoy your family and friends.
“The family life now compared to when I came (to America) over 50 years ago has deteriorated. Some children now, I notice, tell their parents what to do. It was never like that.”
Player has 22 grandchildren and invokes a no-smartphone rule for his grandchildren at family dinners and gatherings, “If you come with your cell phone, stay home.”
Player is also a conservationist at heart. His late brother, Dr. Ian Player, saved the white rhino from extinction in their native South Africa. While golf’s powers-that-be are lengthening golf courses and using more resources, Gary points out we have a water crisis in our world.
It’s not that Gary Player is a crotchety, unhappy, doom-and-gloomer.
On the contrary, he’s just really honest. And unlike a lot of folks, he isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
And he still really LOVES the game of golf.
“The power of the putter.”
Player revels about Tiger Woods’ putting game when Tiger was ripping through leaderboards and winning tournament after tournament years ago.
“Tiger had the best mind,” says Player. “He was a genius with putting! He wasn’t winning all those tournaments because he was driving on the greens or driving the fairway, he was winning because he was putting!”
The short game is the key. When called upon, Player says he always tells aspiring golfers and their parents the key to winning and having a real golf career is the short game. “If he can take two (strokes) from 100 yards (to the hole), he can win.”
“If I knew what I know now, I would have won four of them”
Amazingly, Player acknowledges he didn’t have his best golf swing finely-tuned until the age of 70 years young.
He recalls finishing in second place in seven major tournaments. If he had the swing he learned at age 70 during his prime as a PGA Tour player, Player believes he would have won four of those seven.
Here’s this decorated champion, 70 years young, still humble and in command of a burning hunger to get the most out of his game. Twelve years later, he’s still one of golf’s greatest ambassadors.
“Golf’s a hell of a sport,” he says.
While golf on a professional level is robust and arguably chock-full of talent like no other time in history, there are a lot more solutions that need to be presented to grow the game, particularly on the amateur level and with youth. And he stresses that the technological advances hurting the pro game should stay with the general population. If it helps the average joe golfer have more fun, all the better.
Simplifying in the name of fun and camaraderie might be the simple elixir to grow the game. And promoting active, healthy lifestyles, of course.
It works wonders for South Africa’s 82-year-old Black Knight, anyway.
Pat Imig is on-site at the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf at Big Cedar Lodge. Follow @patimig (IG), @patrickimig (Twitter) for more coverage. Email: ImigCommunications@gmail.com
© 2018 KSDK-TV