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My Shot: Gary Player

By Guy Yocom Photos by Ben van Hook
August 12, 2010

Gary Player, May 31, 2002, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

__ Age 66,

Johannesburg, South Africa __

I've studied golf for almost 50 years now and know a hell of a lot about nothing. Why did Jack Nicklaus, the greatest player in history, change his swing every other week? We're always chopping and changing. Golf is a puzzle without an answer.

I was practicing in a bunker down in Texas and this good old boy with a big hat stopped to watch. The first shot he saw me hit went in the hole. He said, "You got 50 bucks if you knock the next one in." I holed the next one. Then he says, "You got $100 if you hole the next one." In it went for three in a row. As he peeled off the bills he said, "Boy, I've never seen anyone so lucky in my life." And I shot back, "Well, the harder I practice, the luckier I get." That's where the quote originated.

You can tell a good bunker shot by the sound. From powdery sand, you want a "poof." From coarser sand, it should sound like you're tearing a linen sheet in half. Strive to make the right sound, and you'll be surprised at how fast you improve.

The worst single food in the world is bacon, because it is pure animal fat. But I have a piece on occasion. I'm not a martyr.

It's true: You are what you eat.

They say Arnold Palmer gave me the 1961 Masters by double bogeying the 72nd hole. In fact, Arnold wouldn't have had a chance had I not double bogeyed the 13th hole and bogeyed the 15th. Writers and historians place too much emphasis on the last hole.

The U.S. Amateur is a major championship — for amateurs. I'll leave it at that.

__A golfer chokes because he fears being exposed__for something less than he really is.

I've flown more than 12 million miles, certainly more than any other golfer, and I think that's more than any human being in history, including pilots. I've spent four years of my life sitting on airplanes.

First I recline the seat. Then I stuff two large pillows where my lower back goes. I place my briefcase under the seat in front of me and put my feet on it. My body describes almost a straight line, like I'm reclining on an ironing board. I drink a bottle of mineral water, put in my ear plugs, and in a minute I'm gone. I go to sleep at takeoff and don't wake up until it's time to land.

When you're flying, it helps to be 5-feet-7 and 150 pounds.

My dad went to work in the gold mines when he was 13. They toiled 12,000 feet below the surface. It was backbreaking, dangerous work. I went to visit him one day, and when he came off the "skip" — the elevator that lowered them into the mine — he immediately sat down. He took off his boot and poured water out of it onto the ground. I asked him where the water came from, and he said, "Son, that's perspiration. It's hot as hell down there." He told me how men died like flies in those mines. He said a miner's best friend was the rat, because when the rats took off running, it meant a cave-in was imminent. Every day the workers gave the rats bits of their sandwiches as tribute. All this makes me look at my gold Rolex watch differently than most people.

When I was small my mother would take me to tea with her in Johannesburg. "Pull out the chair for Mrs. Wilson," she'd say. "Remember to remove your hat indoors. ... Don't reach for the sugar, ask someone to pass it." She was very big on manners.

My mother died of cancer when I was 8 years old. The deprivation was hard on me. Many years later, long after I'd reached adulthood, I would wake up in the middle of the night sobbing, dreaming of her and missing her so much. Deep inside, we all want and need our mothers.

I have one barometer to gauge advances in equipment. There's a sprinkler head near the bottom of the 10th fairway at Augusta National that is 182 yards from the center of the green. For years, a really good drive would put me 10 yards past the sprinkler head, from where I could avoid a downhill lie. This year, at age 66, playing a tee that is farther back than the old one, and hitting to a fairway that has been soaked with rain, I hit it 15 yards past the sprinkler head. Between the modern ball and titanium drivers, we're hitting the ball 50 yards farther than we did 40 years ago.

Tiger or Jack, one six-foot putt, for my life? I'll take Bobby Locke. I've seen them all, and there was never a putter like him. In the 100 or so competitive rounds I played with him, I saw him three-putt just once. He was equally good on Bermuda, bent or bare dirt, and the length of the putt was almost irrelevant. You had to see it to believe it.

My local caddie at the Masters was Eddie McCoy. When I arrived there in 1978, Eddie was upset. "You got to win this tournament, man. I'm in trouble, and I need a new house." I don't know what kind of trouble Eddie was in, but when I came from seven shots behind to win on Sunday, you've never seen a man as happy as Eddie was. There's a picture taken just after I holed a 15-footer on 18. In it, you see Eddie flying toward me like Batman, with an expression on his face as though he'd just won the lottery.

One of my heroes is Lee Kwan Yu, the former prime minister of Singapore. He took a nation that was in dire straits and turned it into a vibrant society with a thriving economy. People do not lock their cars or their houses in Singapore. There is no possibility of children being exposed to drugs. Your daughter can walk down the darkest alley without a care in the world. No security guards anywhere, no burglar bars on anything. Now, the penalty for drug trafficking is death. I'm fine with that. The punishment for defacing a $30 million building, or a beautiful bridge, with spray paint, is caning. Some people think caning is severe, but I'm for it. It all comes down to what you're willing to pay to live in freedom and peace, without fear.

I've raised thoroughbred horses for 35 years. There was one stallion we named Wagga Wagga after a town in Australia. Not all horses are nice, and this one was one mean hombre. A TV film crew asked me to pose with Wagga Wagga. I grabbed his bridle and gave it a sharp jerk to show him who was boss. That's what you do. The camera guy asked me to take a step forward and smile, and like a fool I did. Big mistake. Just like that, the horse lifted his foreleg and brought it down across my back. His hoof just brushed the nape of my neck. One inch closer, and I would have been paralyzed or maybe killed. That was a close call.

I took my caddie, Alfred (Rabbit) Dyer, with me to the 1974 British Open. It was the first time a black man had ever caddied in the Championship. I told him, "Make sure you wear your badge here, Rabbit. They're very strict, just like at Augusta or the U.S. Open." Rabbit looked around at the sea of white faces around him and shrugged. "Don't worry about me, boss," he said. "I stick out here like a fly in buttermilk."

There was a weather warning at the Masters one year. Lots of lightning. I was standing on the 11th tee when they sent vans out on the course to evacuate the players. As I got in, I thought, "My, that's considerate of them." My next thought was, "Yeah, but what about the 40,000 spectators?"

You don't spend as much time outdoors as I have without having a lightning scare. A bolt hit a tree 25 feet away from me once. Knocked me four feet in the air. The bark from this big gum tree was blown 80 yards away and was stuck into a fence. It left a three-foot hole in the ground at the base of the tree. When I hear thunder, I'm gone.

Good vision is underrated. Your eyes influence everything in golf. I wish my eyes were in as good a shape as the rest of my body; it's my only sign of aging. In my business, three yards might as well be a mile.

The best way to break out of a slump is to pretend you're a player whose swing is rhythmic and beautiful. I fell into a terrible slump in 1973, and I recovered just that way. I watched Christy O'Connor at the British Open and stamped his sing-song swing on my mind. For the next few months I actually pretended I was him. The following April I won the Masters, then took the British Open in July.

Protesters of South Africa's apartheid policy gave me grief for a couple of years. I didn't believe in apartheid and I surely wasn't responsible for it, but I was a ripe target. They threw crushed ice in my eyes. Hit me with telephone books at the top of my backswing. Threw balls on the green while I was putting. Burned awful statements into the greens where we were playing. I got death threats at my hotel every day. At the 1969 PGA Championship, a guy screamed just as I stroked a 10-inch putt, and I missed and lost by one.

At Merion, during the 1971 U.S. Open, we kept guns in the house where I was staying. I struggled through it, and you know something? It's easier to fight than to run away.

__It was a tough two years.__But Nelson Mandela, who spent over 20 years in prison, had it a whole lot worse.

I used the same blade putter almost exclusively for more than 35 years. Won over 100 tournaments and the Grand Slam with it. Arnold Palmer and I were walking through a Ginza store in Japan, and I bought it for $5. I had it reshafted, regripped and spray painted black many times, and it almost never failed me. Then one day, a tiny little piece of lead tape I'd placed on the rear of the putter at the outset fell off. I stuck on a new piece of tape, but the putter was never the same. So I put it in a display case for my museum.

Given a choice of being stranded on a desert island with Wagga Wagga or a negative, miserable person, I'll choose the horse.