Sitting down with Mr Player – always Mr Player, never Gary – there’s barely time to finish saying hello before he launches into an impassioned, articulate rant on whatever is on his mind. You don’t so much interview Gary Player as try to keep up while he interviews himself.
“Rob, it just amazes me to see a young man like that, 50 pounds overweight,” he says, referring to the previous, generously proportioned interviewer, now thankfully just out of earshot, before I’ve even had a chance to sit down. “Why can’t he realise that he’s going to die?” I hope the question is rhetorical. “He’s such a nice man, obviously intelligent – he asked very good questions – but he’s going to die. He’s going to get diabetes, a heart attack or cancer, and within 10 years he’s going to die. The doctors, they’re bastards. Doctors should be saying to him, ‘Look, you’re going to die. You’ve got to stop eating.’ I find it fascinating.”
Fascinating is an ideal word to describe Player, whose achievements on the course need little introduction. His nine Majors rank him level with Ben Hogan, the pair of them trailing only Walter Hagen (11), Tiger Woods (14) and Jack Nicklaus (18). Debate has raged for two decades about whether Tiger would ever beat Jack’s total, but looking at Player, bouncing around in his chair with the energy of an eight-year-old at a birthday party, you wonder if he might be readying himself to bag another nine or 10.
“I’ve put on a few pounds,” he says, tapping his stomach, despite looking like he’s never had a bad meal in his life. “Because of that, I didn’t have breakfast this morning, just a tiny bit of fruit. You’ve just got to make an effort, man. I train like an animal. I did 1,300 sit-ups yesterday. The last 300 I did with a 100lb weight. I pushed 300lb with my legs. I ran on the treadmill, did my curls, worked my back – everything. I work out really hard.”
We’re in an age now where the world’s best golfers spend almost as much time in the gym as on the range, but Player was a fitness pioneer. “I’ve been doing it for 63 years,” says the 79-year-old from Johannesburg. “I do enjoy it, but it’s not easy. I’d much rather be sitting down studying the genetical side of my horse farm than go to the gym. It’s a tough thing to do, but I make myself do it.”
I ask whether it’s this willingness to do whatever it takes that helped Player achieve so much in his prime, and remain competitive on the Senior circuit well into his seventies. “There have only ever been a few superstars in the game, and they all had a little thing called ‘it’,” he says. “Nobody can describe it. Everybody likes to tell you why a man is a superstar, and they use the word ‘great’ and ‘superstar’ with everybody. I listen to the TV commentators talking about these very ordinary guys and saying, ‘he’s a great player’ – they’re talking crap.”
So who was the greatest? “Ben [Hogan] was the greatest of all-time, no question. No one ever played golf like Ben. No one in my time, all the guys today... he was far superior to anybody else at hitting a golf ball. Now, he didn’t have the short game of someone like Phil Mickelson, but then again he never played on greens like they do today. We wore steel spikes and there were spike marks all over the place. Phil Mickelson wore spikes at the Masters six years ago and he and Vijay Singh nearly came to blows over it. I played in that tournament and I saw five spike marks. I thought, ‘They’re having a fight because of five spike marks?!’ When we played there were 100 spike marks on every green.”
Having been a leading figure in the game for so long, Player occupies the rare position of having seen the game change from the inside, and he has concerns for its future. “I do worry about the future of golf,” says the man who insists he swings it “way better” today than he ever used to. “When you go to a tournament, do you enjoy watching Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and these guys hitting an iron off the tee? Not as much as you’d enjoy watching them hit a driver. The public come out because they want to see Tiger hit a driver. To see him hit an iron from every tee is so anti-climactic. It’s all because the ball is going too far. [Jack] Nicklaus believes it and all the top players believe it: they’ve got to cut the ball back 50 yards.”
As I anxiously calculate that this will probably bring my driver distance below 200 yards, Player is quick to offer reassurance. “The heart of the game is the average Mr Joe. Give weekend golfers all the technology in the world. I don’t see many amateurs hit it 300. There should be two different balls. The other day I played with a man who hit 10 drivers, and all 10 went over 400 yards. That means he stands on the 1st tee at St Andrews and drives over the green. And we haven’t had the big men come yet. We’re going to find guys that are 6ft 5in that are built like Tarzan, and they’re going to hit the ball 400 yards.”
Player, himself a designer with over 300 projects under his belt, knows only too well the implications of altering courses to deal with increased distances. “Golf architects are ruining courses because the ball goes too far,” he says. “The rest of the world is starving and we’re using water, fertiliser, machinery and labour to build golf courses or make existing ones more challenging. That’s what’s killing golf. The committees have to pass this cost on to the average golfer, and you say, ‘Hold on, these greens are too difficult for me to putt on; the course is too long for me; it’s too hard,’ and you quit playing. The golf rounds are down, and they’re down because of one thing: the ball.”
Even Augusta National, a course that saw Player win three Green Jackets and where he now stands alongside Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as honorary starter, doesn’t escape his wrath. “It changed to make the course play the same way it did when we played,” he says, referring to a course 755 yards longer today than the original layout. “That was a waste of fortunes. If they’d cut the ball back, they could have left the course exactly as it was. Golf clubs are spending hundreds of millions of dollars around the world, changing courses unnecessarily because a pro could hit a drive and a 7-iron to a par 5. They forget that they’re never going to have tournaments at their course. I think we’re going the wrong way.
“What is going to happen to the game of golf? Last year, a billion people saw Bubba Watson hit a gap wedge to a par 5 at Augusta, one of the longest courses in the world. Is there any point in having a par 5 anymore? Are we going to have to change the tradition of the game because of the golf ball? I don’t think we should do that. For the sake of a ball mould that costs 10, 20, maybe $40,000, we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars changing and extending golf courses.
“If you stop spending hundreds of millions of dollars needlessly changing golf courses, you can put money into a youth programme to develop the game. Nobody can deny that makes a lot of sense.”