Player Spotlight: Gary Player

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Widely recognized as one of the greatest golfers who ever played, Gary Player is one of the sport’s well-known ambassadors.

Widely recognized as one of the greatest golfers who ever played, Gary Player is a philanthropist, designer of golf courses, and one of the sport’s well-known ambassadors. Throughout his career, he has been admired for his positive mindset and work ethic. He lived by the mantra, “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

Born on November 1, 1935, in Johannesburg, Player rose to prominence as one of golf’s Big Three alongside Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus from the 1960s onwards. 

Arguably, he is the first international golfer of the modern era and is regarded as the world’s most traveled athlete, having flown an estimated 15 million miles, thus living up to one of many monikers bestowed upon him, “The International Ambassador of Golf.”  He has played in different tournaments worldwide since the early days of his professional career and went on to win many titles, including several majors along the way. 

His career highlights and numerous awards are as follows:    

Career Highlights

Turned Professional1953
Professional Wins160
PGA Tour Wins 24
European Tour4
Sunshine Tour60
PGA Tour of Australasia2
PGA Tour of Champions22
European Senior Tour3
Other Tournaments50 (6 as a senior)

Achievements and Awards Including Major Championships

World Golf Hall of Fame1974
Masters Tournament1961, 1974, 1978
PGA Championship1962, 1972
U.S. Open 1965
Open Championship1959, 1968, 1974
PGA Tour Leading Money Winner1961
Southern Africa Tour Order of Merit Winner1976, 1977, 1979, 1980
PGA Tour Lifetime Achievement Award2012
Presidential Medal of Freedom 2021

Early Years

Gary Jim Player was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, the youngest of three children to Harry and Muriel Player. His mother passed away due to cancer when he was eight years old.

Although his father was frequently away from home working in the gold mines, he was able to obtain a loan to purchase a set of clubs for Gary to begin playing golf.

Player began playing the sport at the Virginia Park golf course in Johannesburg. At the age of 14, Player played his first round of golf and parred the first three holes. He declared that he would become world number one at age 16. The very next year, he decided to test his mettle in the pro ranks.

On January 19, 1957, four years after becoming a professional, Player married Vivienne Verwey (sister of professional golfer Bobby Verwey). They had six children: Jennifer, Marc, Wayne, Michele, Theresa, and Amanda. He also has 22 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

During the early stages of his career, Player would travel from one tournament to another with his wife, six children, a babysitter, and a tutor. Vivienne died of cancer in August 2021.

Gary’s brother, Ian, is a South African conservationist, activist, and environmental educator.  

Playing Career

 

Player made his professional debut in 1953 and joined the PGA Tour in 1957. He began competing on the PGA Tour in the late 1950s. In 1961, he led the Tour money list and won 24 Tour titles. His first major championship title came in the 1959 British Open, and he became the first non-American to win The Masters in 1961. The PGA Championship followed in 1962, and when Player won the U.S. Open in 1965, he became only the third player in history to bag a career grand slam.

Throughout the 1960s, Player was part of golf’s preeminent triumvirate, alongside Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. The three remained friendly rivals for the rest of their storied careers and continued to compete in the Masters Par-3 Contest until Palmer passed in 2010. 

Player’s ninth and last majors title came in 1978 at the Masters, where his final-round 64  catapulted him from a seven-shot deficit to win by a single stroke.

Player bagged the South African Open 13 times, the Australian Open seven times, and the World Match Play Championship five times. After joining the Champions Tour in 1985, he continued to win titles, including nine senior PGA Tour major championships. He won the PGA Senior Championship in 1986 and 1988,  British Senior Open in 1988, 1990, and 1997. 

Player showed no indications of slowing down despite his advancing age. He continued participating in golf tourneys, winning the Senior Skins Game in 2000 and 2001.

See Related Article: Getting to Know Phil Mickelson

Player Legacy

In 1966, Player received the Bob Jones Award. It’s the highest honor bestowed by the USGA in recognition of exemplary sportsmanship in golf. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974, and The Hall of Fame opened the “Gary Player – A Global Journey” exhibition in March 2006.

In 2000, Player was named South Africa’s “Sportsman of the Century.” He’s Golf Digest magazine’s sixth greatest golfer of all time.

In 2002, Player was adjudged the second greatest global golfer of all time by a panel of international media, golf periodicals, and fellow professionals convened by the top Golf Asia Magazine.

He played his final round in the Masters on April 10, 2009, a record 52nd time. Every year since 1957, he played in the tournament, except in 1973 when he was recovering from surgery. He was the last of the Big Three to retire from this competition, following Nicklaus and Palmer, a testament to his longevity.

On July 23, 2009, Player competed in the Senior British Open Championship at Sunningdale Golf Club. He was then 73 and it was 53 years after capturing his first-ever European Tour title at the Berkshire site.

On July 5, 2011, the Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters announced that Player had been invited to join Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as an honorary starter. Beginning with the 2012 tournament, the Big Three were reunited in this capacity.

In July 2013, Gary Player became the oldest athlete to pose naked in ESPN The Magazine’s annual Body Issue to encourage people to take care of themselves regardless of age. 

Off the Course

Player worked behind the scenes to change the social situation in his home country of South Africa, which had been under the shroud of apartheid for most of his life. He established The Player Foundation to support education among his country’s underprivileged children. Through the foundation, the Blair Atholl Schools in Johannesburg were built, serving over 500 students to date.

Player is also a racehorse breeder and known golf course designer, having designed over 300 courses worldwide. He even has his own wine and clothing labels. Throughout his life,  Player has always been a fitness enthusiast, advocating health and fitness initiatives both on and off the course. 

Black Knight International exclusively represents Gary Player’s business interests. These include The Player Foundation, Gary Player Design, Player Real Estate, Gary Player Academies, and Black Knight Enterprises, which comprise licensing, events, publishing, wine, apparel, and memorabilia.

The Player Group, which runs The Player Foundation, is owned and operated by Gary’s oldest son, Marc. 

The Player Foundation

Marc Player founded the Player Foundation in 1983 in an effort to provide education, medical care, nutrition, and sports activities for a small group of underprivileged youngsters living on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa.

The Player Foundation has subsequently grown into an organization that travels the world to bring aid to destitute communities and children in need. Since its inception, the foundation has donated over $65 million to children’s charities, community development, and the promotion of educational opportunities worldwide.

The Foundation is getting its funding primarily from donations, grants, and the four Gary Player Invitational events held each year in the United States, China, Europe, and South Africa through Black Knight International.

The Gary Player Invitational is a pro-am tournament that partners celebrities and professional players from the PGA and Champions Tours with entrepreneurs and other local participants.

The earnings from these tournaments and other special events benefit a growing number of institutions around the world, such as the Blair Atholl Schools and the Masizame Children’s Shelter in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa, and the Pleasant City Elementary School in Palm Beach.

Golf Course Design

In the 1980s, Player began designing courses while competing. He has three design brands at present: GaryPlayer Design, Player Design, and Black Knight International. These firms have designed over 400 projects in 41 countries to date. Some of their most notable creations include: 

The Links at Fancourt in South Africa

The Links at Fancourt emerged from a derelict airfield into a brilliantly created dune-like landscape after countless hours of studying the renowned Scottish links courses. It’s no surprise that The Links has become South Africa’s number one golf course, with the Outeniqua Mountains surrounding the 18-holes. It has hosted several notable events, including the South Africa Open, Presidents Cup, and Volvo Golf Champions European Tour.

Thracian Cliffs in Bulgaria

The Thracian Cliffs golf course takes advantage of the natural terrain, with spectacular cliffs on one side and lively verdant greenery on the other. Views of the Bulgarian Black Sea may be seen from practically every hole, making it one of the world’s most breathtaking courses.

The Cliffs at Mountain Park in South Carolina

Golfers passing through The Cliffs at Mountain Park golf course are surrounded by the natural splendor of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The course is perfectly designed to embrace the elements, with waves of native grasses, rolling mountains, and a flowing river running through it.

The Cliffs at Mountain Park was named one of GOLF Magazine’s Top 100 Modern Golf Courses in America in 2015.

Gary Player Trivia 

  • Gary Player is the winningest player in the South  African Open with 13 titles and the Australian Open with seven titles throughout his career. 
  • He held the record for the most victories in the World Match Play Championship with five wins until 1991 when Seve Ballesteros matched his feat. Ernie Els would eventually hold the distinction when he won the event for the sixth time in 2004. 
  • In 2021, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, in recognition of his “meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural, or other significant public or private endeavors.”  
  • Gary became known in the golfing world as the Black Knight for his trademark all-black outfits while on the course. Later on, he would reveal that the original influence of his get-up is the TV series Palladin where the hero wore all black, and the color is mysterious, sophisticated, strong, and elegant.
  • As of 2022, Gary has a net worth of $250 million and owns a course design company and real estate firm, apart from his foundation that promotes underprivileged education worldwide. 

Gary Player: What’s in the Bag

In April 2019, Player competed in the Masters Par 3 contest and even hit the ceremonial opening tee shot. Prior to the tourney, he signed with golf equipment company PXG. 

The following are the clubs Player had in his bag during the festivities: 

  • Driver – PXG 0811X Gen2 
  • Fairway Woods – PXG 0341X Gen2
  • Hybrids – PXG 0317X Gen2 
  • Irons – PXG 0311XF Xtreme Dark
  • Wedges – PXG 0311T Xtreme Dark
  • Putter – PXG Gen2 Brandon

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