Gary Player says he has the secret of golf. I know that “the secret” has been claimed many times before but never proven. But this is Gary Player. I kind of believe him.
At the Olympics in Rio earlier this year, where Player was the South African team captain, he was on the range hitting balls, an 80-year-old marvel showing off. He took out his driver and changed the weight and face settings as much as possible to favor a hook, the miss that could bedevil Player in his prime. “Now watch,” he said. “Because what I’ve learned about the swing, there is still no way this ball will hook. All I’ll hit will be perfect draws.”
Sure enough, with a swing still full of turn and torque, Player smashed six drives in a row. Each was a carbon copy of tightly penetrating right-to-left flight, traveling at least 250 yards.
As Player finished his demonstration, he turned solemn. “I’m sorry this idea came to me so late in life,” he said. “If I had found out what I know now, I would have won many more majors.”
Tellingly, Player, who is usually happy to part with his knowledge, is keeping the secret close. “I’m not ready to part with it yet,” he said. The earth has seven natural wonders. If golf had such a designation, Gary Player would be one of them, in an exclusive club whose only other undisputed member might be Sam Snead, or possibly, if he can step up his pace a bit, Bernhard Langer (whose idol happens to be Player).
Or we could just present the now 81-year-old South African’s package of energy, skill, longevity and mental acuity and nominate him as the eighth natural wonder of the world.
Player, in all honesty, wouldn’t disagree. He would cite 167 professional tournaments won, in 15 different countries, making him if not the greatest golfer in the world (he gives that to Nicklaus), the “greatest world golfer.” He’d include nine majors on the regular tour and nine majors on what is now the PGA Tour Champions, the only player to complete the career Grand Slam on both tours (although Player counts three Senior Open Championships from 2000 through 2002, though the tournament was not officially considered a major). Basically, his case would be airtight, but his disinclination toward self-deprecation keeps others from sufficiently singing his praises. As a result, he’s underrated and underappreciated.
So it bugs me a little when there’s not enough of a big deal made when Player does something like make a hole-in-one (the 31st of his life) during the Masters Par-3 Tournament last year. Or get some attention for hitting the ceremonial first drive at the 30th anniversary of last week’s Chubb Classic in Naples, Fla., where Player was the inaugural winner in 1988. Just like his similar role at the Masters, where he now delights in outdriving Nicklaus, Player gave the shot in Naples the full treatment, nailing, yes, another machine-like draw that he followed with narrowed, satisfied eyes.
Now his latest book, “Gary Player’s Black Book,” has got my attention.
Sure, I recognized some of the material, understandable when a renown athlete has put out 18 previous books. But this isn’t rehash. There’s plenty of fresh stuff in the 201 pages. As Player’s eldest son, Marc, says, “My father sees life new all the time. Most people are bored. He never is.”
Consider the Black Book the latest distillation of Player’s most evolved and battle-tested ideas about the game he has never stopped trying to figure out, an authoritative and privileged window into what championship golf takes. As Lee Trevino says in in the foreword: “A person like Gary Player does not come around very often…If ever there were a man people should take advice from, it’s Gary.”
The book is structured by some 60 questions. For example, it asks on page 127, “What is the best advice you could give anyone who wants to turn professional?” To which Player answers: “You need to enjoy suffering, to make it your friend and to feed off it…I’d accept adversity and move on through it. I played with so many golfers who were way better than me and way more skillful, but I won Majors and they didn’t. Jack Nicklaus wasn’t the best striker of a golf ball I ever saw, but he won more majors than anybody. The swing is not the thing. The mind gets you out of a bind.”
In a follow-up phone call, which Player -- who remains sure he has traveled more miles on a plane than any human being, took from Abu Dhabi, he traces his ability to handle and even invite suffering to the death of his mother when he was 8 years old.
“You see, something also broke in me that day my mother died,” he said. “I can remember lying in bed as a boy crying, wishing I was dead. It’s something that I have spent the rest of my life trying to fix. There were times in later years during tournaments that the stress and the loneliness from losing her were so powerful that I could barely make it to the golf course. But I look back, and it was the greatest gift ever bestowed upon me, because it forced me to cope by developing a positive attitude, which leads to success.”
At his press conference in Naples, Player was typically enthusiastic -- his recounting of Ben Hogan getting within a few inches of his face in the locker room after the 1958 U.S. Open and telling him he would be a great player is always moving. On the phone, he made sure I knew that “on my vacation this year, I averaged 69 -- I can still play really well. I still go to the gym and do more than a thousand sit-ups and crunches. I still push more than 350 pounds with my legs. I still go to the treadmill and max out the resistance.”
But it turns out the eternal optimist is also a fatalist. The man who is always talking about his record doesn’t believe in legacies. He accepts that whatever recognition he receives -- a lot or a little, enough or not -- will soon enough be dust in the wind.
“If you followed Winston Churchill’s life, none of us would be in this room today if it wasn’t for him,” Player said in Naples. “He was my greatest hero. As a young man I would try to improve my mind by listening to his tapes. But if you did a survey around the world, I doubt 25 percent of the college students today would know who Winston Churchill was. People forget.”
I would urge all golfers to pay attention to Gary Player. Even he won’t be here forever. And, yes, he might just have the secret.
Editors' Note: This story first appeared in the Feb. 20, 2017 issue of Golf World.