April 20, 2009

Q&A with Gary Player

As Gary Player said, "You're never so tall as when you're standing on your knees."

As Gary Player said, "You're never so tall as when you're standing on your knees."

On Sunday, after his 52nd and final Masters, Gary Player flew down to La Paz -- the site of his first Mexico-based golf course design, scheduled to open next summer. Player has designed almost 300 courses in 30 countries.

I tracked down the self-proclaimed most-traveled man on the planet at the Costabaja Resort, on the coast of the Sea of Cortez. "This is an extraordinary place," Player said by phone. "How many places have desert right on the ocean?" We discussed his new project, his emotional week at the Masters, a round with Mother Teresa, three-foot putts for his life and calling kids fat.

What's your design philosophy?

Golf architects are making courses too tough and greens too undulating. I've been around professional golf for a long time, and believe me, there's nothing more irritating to professional golfers than playing on undulating greens. If it irritates professional golfers, can you imagine how it irritates the weekend golfer?

When a golf architect has to make undulating greens to make it a test, he's a poor architect. Anyone can make a 6,000-yard course tough if you put in undulating greens. But it takes a special architect to make a course where your greens are soft and friendly and yet it's still a good test. That's what we like to try to do. The world is running out of water rapidly. I mean, rapidly! California is on its way to being a desert. Arizona, Texas, all of these places has severe problems with water. I try to do golf courses that don't have high costs. That's why golf is in such a poor state at the moment. Golf courses are so long, and the costs have gone up according to oil, water, machinery, manpower, and we've priced ourselves out of the business.

We've got to start building courses that are more playable, not as long, more friendly, and also more beautiful, because the average man is full of stress. He comes out to play golf. If you can make it beautiful and enjoyable, it does something for his soul.

How many times have you been to Mexico so far, and how many times will you be back before you open this course?

This is my second visit here. I will continuously come back, and then I will be back for the opening. I'll come back six or seven times. I have my people here, visiting all the time. I'm involved in the plans, I'm involved in the opening, I'm involved with the PR, I like to be involved in everything. Of course, now I have more time to do it.

All we hear is that Mexico is a little unsettled right now. Why should travelers feel safe in La Paz?

It's a small village. The big crime, as I understand it, is in Mexico City and the border towns in the north. They don't have crime down here at all. It's like a sleepy, beautiful, friendly village. I've never had the slightest feeling of not being safe. And I'm quick to pick it up because I've been to a lot of dangerous places having traveled probably more than any human being who ever lived.

How would I get there?

There are many ways to get to La Paz. You can fly into Mexico City and then into La Paz. You can fly here through Los Angeles and San Diego. There are many different routes you can come. It just depends on what you want to do.

Give us some specifics and tell us about the property you're working with for this golf course?

It will probably be mainly a cart golf course, but you'll be able to walk it. It's high in the mountains. The variation of the levels of the soil is fantastic. One minute you're playing four holes along the ocean, the next minute you're in these massive mountains with big valleys leading down to the sides of the fairways. There's a variety of scenery, which to me is so exciting. The really good golf courses you play are the ones where you can remember the holes. I played a course in Naples this year, I played it four times -- I couldn't remember the holes because they all looked so similar. That's what a golf course architect has got to do, make each hole memorable, so when you finish the round you remember the holes.

It sounds like all 18 holes at La Paz are mapped out. At what point do you put a tag on a signature hole?

I like to wait. I'm never in a hurry to say, "This is my signature hole," because it can jump up and bite you. Fortunately I have a lot of time to decide that.

How long will this course play from the back tees?

It will play 7,200 yards. Obviously we'll have several tees for ladies and several tees for men, so they'll be able to take their choice. I'm being very conscientious about the water. We're doing a lot of desalination to the water for all the homes and hotels and everything. We're going to be very aware of water. I don't think you should be ever be allowed to have more than 85 acres of irrigation on any golf course you do.

And some of them are going way over that, right?

Oh my goodness. It's all coming to an end. You can believe me, it's coming to an end. We're going to see so many golf courses close up. I just did a golf course on my ranch in South Africa. My brother, who's the world's leading conservationist, he's built a golf course that's 70 percent water-free, oil-free, machine-free, labor-free and costs. And that's what's going to happen in the world, they're going to that kind of golf course in the future. They have to.

How much would it cost to hire you to design me a course?

That depends on what kind of golf course you want. Do you want a Gary Player Signature Course? Do you want a Black Knight Golf Course? Do you want a public golf course? Do you want a championship golf course? It's like saying, "What does a house cost?"

So like Nicklaus, you also have various levels of commitment?

Yes. We don't do any signature course for under $2 million because we have to spend a lot of time there. You could have a Black Knight course, or a public golf course, where you'd have very few bunkers, you'd have a lot lower maintenance costs, you'd have a lot less irrigation. It would be a lot quicker and easier to build. They're all different prices. It depends on how much soil you have to move.

So this is a Gary Player signature course in Mexico?

Yes, it is.

You're coming off an amazing week at the Masters. Does part of you take a little pride in the fact that you were able to play competitively at Augusta longer than Jack and Arnie?

Well, I do. But that was going to happen automatically because I've watched what I ate more than they did. And I exercised extremely hard. It was really an automatic, wasn't it? If you look at the time I put into exercise, and watching my diet, compared to what they did, it's not even close. You also have to be lucky to be healthy. And quite honestly, I retired too early from the Masters, because I broke 80 again. Yes, quite honestly, I think I retired too early. But be that as it may, that's my decision, and that's it.

Didn't you go through Amen Corner one day at one under?

Yes. And the first day I went out in one over. The last day, quite honestly, I would've broken 80 if it were a normal day [Player shot 83], but I was getting a standing ovation on every single tee, and every single fairway, and every single green. The love that I was given -- and here's a great emphasis on love -- the love I was given is something I will never forget until the day I die. And I say, thank you, America, and thank you to the international galleries who were there. I say thank you for their love. Obviously it was hard to concentrate. It was impossible.

But is there part of you to be relieved to be done with that monstrosity of that golf course that it's become now?

[Laughs.] No. Not really. It was always a privilege and an honor to be there. One thing that gives me great pleasure is that I've always tried to be a great ambassador for Augusta National. When I won in '61 and '74, we never had television in South Africa. We got television in South Africa in 1975. I used to take the Masters film, and I'd hire somebody, and he'd go around the country to all the golf clubs, and show the Masters film. Not many people know that.

Considering how big your world used to be, and how hard it was for you to get from one place to another, are you amazed at current technology and how small the world is now?

I'm flabbergasted. If my father were alive, he wouldn't believe it. After I had the hole-in-one [after dunking a ball in the par-3 contest], we got an SMS from my two daughters in South Africa saying how excited they were to see it. I hadn't even gone from the green to the clubhouse.

There was no need to fly down a tape of this Masters.

Isn't that remarkable? We were getting e-mails from every corner of the globe. "So excited to go to your knees at the 18th hole." I went to my knees at the 18th green because you're never so tall as when you're standing on your knees. I'm just thankful. Can you imagine: to play 52 times, to have won it three times, second three times, I finished in the top 10 at least 15 times. I made the most cuts in a row, and I hit the most shots in the tournament, played in the most. Really, it's a dream.

To answer your question, I could not imagine that. Were you watching on Sunday when it looked like it was shaping up to be one of the best Masters ever?

I was traveling all day Sunday to come here, but when I arrived at the airport I had a look, and when I arrived at La Paz I went to a bar, and I was able to watch the finish.

At what point in the round did you join the coverage?

When they were on 18. What happened to [Angel] Cabrera was amazing. When he drove it into the trees in the playoff I said, "He's gone." And then he hit the tree, and he didn't know where it went. If it goes to the right you're still in the trees or you're in the other fairway. Now the other guys are up near the green. And then he gets a par. Golf is a remarkable game.

Let's end with a few travel questions. Do you ever get challenged on claiming the title of the most traveled man on the planet?

I think my son was challenged once, but the way we answer that: First of all, Arnold Palmer says there's no question that I'm the most traveled man. He understands all the trips I do around the world. But here's the thing: If a pilot travels for 30 years, or a businessman travels for 30 years, it's extraordinary. If a pilot travels for 40 years, it's unbelievable. If he travels for 50 years, it's a freak. I've been doing it for 56 years. And I'm going to keep doing it for at least another ten years. And no human being has done that.

When's the last time you flew coach?

I flew coach most of my life. Remember, I had to travel with six children. I couldn't afford to fly first class. It took us 40 hours to get to America. Forty hours! Now I do it in 17 hours. And all these guys have their own jets now. And then you stand at the tournament and you see the small planes come in. And it's the caddies.

You don't have your own jet?

I did for a while, but it was too expensive, and I sold it. Now I rent hours. I think anyone who has their own jet today is crazy. The cost is just so high. Remember, I went by Greyhound bus to some golf tournaments. A young guy now can't comprehend.

You should tell Trevor Immelman to take a bus to a tournament just to try it out.

[Laughs.]

Do you have Gary Player's packing tips for a four-day golf trip?

People travel with far too much baggage. What I do is I take two pairs of underpants. And when I've worn the one that day, I wash it at night, hang them over the shower and wear the clean pair the next day. Same with my undershirt. I really make a point of not over-packing. When you travel you don't need a whole damn shaving kit. You can take a razor, underarm perfume, your toothbrush and some dental floss or something. People just pack too much.

What's your secret for dealing with jet lag?

Lay off all animal fat. Don't have any meat, chicken, fish, bread and alcohol. Stick to vegetables and fruit and drink lots of water. I think the secret to longevity is being a vegetarian. I know it is.

If you could play one course for the rest of your life, which one would it be?

Cypress Point.

One movie for a long flight?

I'm a great lover of Westerns. I'd probably say "The Magnificent Seven" or "Gone With The Wind" or "Dr. Zhivago."

How do you kill time on a plane?

I prepare speeches, I read, I study the genetics of the horses on my farm -- which is a lifetime study. I'm never bored sitting in an airport, I'm never bored on a plane. I've always got a briefcase full of stuff.

Your ideal foursome, alive or dead?

Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill and Mother Teresa.

And you go play golf with them?

That's right. [Laughs.]

That could be one long round, which gives you plenty of time to pick their brains.

And I'd give them a lot of strokes.

My Index is a 7. If you and I teed it up from the championship tees at Augusta, would you give me strokes?

Of course I would give you strokes because if you're a 7-handicap and we played off the back tees, in a practice round without any of the pressure, I'd probably shoot 76. And as a 7-handicap, you couldn't break 90. Not even a chance.

So you'd give me about five a side?

Yes. And I'd tell you what, I'd let you hit it and you could have a throw as well. [Laughs.]

And what would we play for? Would you be OK playing for $5?

Well, with me giving you five strokes a side, you could pick a number and double it. [Laughs.]

A three-foot putt for your life: Would you putt it, or would you have someone putt it for you?

Well, when I was a young man I'd pick myself. If I had to pick someone now, I would pick Tiger Woods, Bobby Locke or Jack Nicklaus.

I have to clear something up. I once heard a story that you went up to a kid in a gallery and told him he was fat. Is that true?

No. I never go up to a kid and call them fat. I love children. My great ambition is to educate children around the world that their body is a holy temple. Did you know that 8,000 people a day in America die from obesity-related diseases? More people die of obesity than all of the wars of the world put together. I don't judge a kid and tell him he's fat. Every story gets exaggerated. I go to a kid and say, "Son, how are you?" And he says, "Fine." And I say, "You know, I love young people. And can I say something to you? And I'm only telling you this because I love you. Not because I'm trying to be rude. I want to help you. My daughter was very heavy. And she got rid of her weight and today she's a healthy person. Now you must try to lose some weight. You must exercise. And you must try to eat properly." It's nice if you can try to help save lives.

I look forward to seeing this course in Mexico. And if I'm there the same time you are, I'll take the five a side, and a throw, and we'll play for $5 -- doubled makes it $10.

All right. [Laughs.]