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From the archives

Nelson Mandela on Gary Player

The 50 greatest golfers of all time... and what they taught us

July 2000

Editor's Note: Nelson Mandela never learned to play golf. His growing up in apartheid South Africa -- and spending 27 years of his adult life in prison -- may have had something to do with that. But later, as president of South Africa, he became a fan, particularly of Gary Player. Even later, he expressed his admiration of the young Tiger Woods. President Mandela watched a great deal of golf on TV, and when he met with Player, Woods, Ernie Els or another top player, Mandela seemed as smitten as the golfer.

In 2000, to mark Golf Digest's 50th anniversary, we devoted our July issue to the 50 Greatest Golfers of All Time. A panel of hall-of-fame players, administrators and commentators was convened with voting taking place over two months. We sought essays from prominent people in and out of golf. President George H.W. Bush wrote that month, as did Great Britain's Prince Andrew, writer Alistair Cooke, Texas governor Ann Richards, baseball greats Ted Williams and Hank Aaron.

And Nelson Mandela. We asked President Mandela, via fax, if he could give us 500 words on Gary Player, ranked No. 8 all-time on the list. Someone on his staff replied that the President was a bit too busy, but thanks for asking. A week later, unprompted, an essay on Gary Player, beautifully written and hand-signed by Nelson Mandela, arrived.

CBS Sports followed with an hour-long special on the ranking, and staged a gala premier screening in New York. Of the author essays read against the backdrop of the slow-motion swings of golf's greats, President Mandela's was displayed most prominently. Gary Player, who was in the U.S. at the time, phoned our offices the day after the CBS program, to thank us. "I cried like a baby," he said.

Herewith, President Mandela's tribute to Gary Player, which, in retrospect, really was a tribute to the game and its manner of touching even the most unlikely people. -- Guy Yocom

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Because he was a professional golfer who spent much of his career performing outside South Africa, Gary Player was always perceived as being one step removed from the world of politics. Yet, few men in our country's history did as much to enact political changes for the better that eventually improved the lives of millions of his countrymen. Through his tremendous influence as a great athlete Mr. Player accomplished what many politicians could not. And he did it with courage, perseverance, patience, pride, understanding and dignity that would have been extraordinary even for a world leader.

During my many years spent in prison, I was frequently made aware of the harsh treatment Mr. Player endured as a representative of our nation. In 1969, at a very important tournament in America (the PGA Championship) a group of militant demonstrators who opposed apartheid yelled in the middle of his swing in an attempt to disrupt him. They threw ice at him. Once they even tried to rush him, but Jack Nicklaus, who is the greatest golfer of all, brandished his golf club and helped restrain them. Amid this, Mr. Player finished in second place, perhaps his finest performance ever.

On another occasion, in Australia, protesters ventured onto one of the putting greens in the middle of the night and etched, with white lime, the slogan, "Go Home, You Racist Pig" on the green. Mr. Player frequently received threats against his life. There were people who thought he was partly to blame for apartheid in South Africa, when in truth he was no more responsible for that policy than Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer were for racial conflict in the United States. Mr. Player was in danger many times, and the American FBI stayed in his company for months on end to protect him. That must have been terribly distracting, yet he endured and stood his ground.

Gary Player

The man in black stayed true to his roots.

And he always remained loyal to South Africa. Many athletes, you know, have fled their countries for the U.S., but Mr. Player remained true to his South African heritage. He did his best to explain the complex nature of trying to invoke change in our country, and always set a tremendous example for all South Africans. For example, he successfully lobbied our government to allow golfer Lee Elder and tennis player Arthur Ashe to compete in South Africa. He established the Gary Player Foundation, which has done a great deal to further education among young black people in our country. I am proud to serve as a trustee for the foundation. Upon my release from prison, I met with Mr. Player and told him, "You have not received the recogntion you deserve." I was very sincere in saying that.

Mr. Player was voted the top athlete in the history of South Africa. His accomplishments as a golfer are extraordinary. He won 163 tournaments worldwide and compared very favorably against the greatest golfers of all time. He won tournaments in five different decades — including the Grand Slam—all four professional majors in his career.

That is impressive, but it is important to note that Mr. Player also was voted one of the top five influential people in our nation's history. His accomplishments as a humanitarian and statesman are equal to, and may even surpass, his accomplishments as an athlete. That is a legacy that will last forever.

Gary Player

Illustration: Keith Witner

WHAT HE TAUGHT US
THE BURIED LIE FROM THE SAND

When the ball is buried in the sand, I follow the same procedure as with a normal sand shot, with three exceptions. First, my clubface is square to, or facing, the target at address, rather than slightly open. This helps the clubhead cut deeper and under the buried ball.

Second, I swing more upright than normal so my club enters the sand with more of a downward blow. My weight is on my left foot.

Third, I allow for the ball to roll a greater distance on the green than it would from a level lie. Because my club cuts deeper into the sand, it imparts less backspin on the ball. I bring the club through the sand with a full follow-through.

Player won 163 tournaments worldwide, including 21 on the PGA Tour. He won nine major championships, including three Masters (1961, '74, '78), three British Opens (1959, '68, '74), two PGA Championships (1962,'72) and the U.S. Open (1965)

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