Gary Player: Master of Life
“Eat less, drink lots of water and exercise like crazy. It’s the only chance we have for good health and longevity.”
On Thursday, April 11, 2019, an impressively compact and physical athlete, dressed in black from head-to-toe, launched his drive at the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club. The athlete teeing off was legendary golfer, Gary Player. At age 83, there is an inherent physical prowess about him, a prototypical picture of discipline and seriousness. I blinked twice to confirm that it was Player, rather than Jack LaLanne resurrected and transformed into a world-class golfer. As the ball rocketed down the center of the fairway, the only comment forthcoming from the television announcer was: “Remarkable.” The moment was the ceremonial opening of the 83rd Masters tournament, and he was followed on the tee by fellow legend, Jack Nicklaus. Since 2011, three of the greatest golfers of all time have been opening the revered tournament in this same manner. The third, Arnold Palmer, was lost to the world in September 2016.
Player, roundly considered the best international golfer in history, has donned the Green Jacket, meaning won the Masters, three times: 1961, 1974 and 1978. His contemporaries, Palmer and Nicklaus, also considered among the greatest, have won the Green Jacket four and six-times respectively.
The Making of the Man
Gary Player was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1935. He lost his mother to cancer at age eight, an all-encompassing void nearly impossible to fill. To make matters worse, his father’s gold-mining job often took him away from Gary and his two older brothers. Yet, the lasting impression Harry left on his sons was one of courage and hard work overcoming life’s challenges. But there was still the emptiness.
To help fill the space, he presciently gave his youngest son a set of golf clubs at age 14. Two years later, his youngest son brazenly declared he would be the #1 golfer in the world. A year later, he turned professional. The name, Gary Player, would soon be known around the world. He had an advantage over his peers little understood at the time. As detailed in a November 1, 2015 ESPN magazine article written by Bob Harig, at the age of eight, Gary told his brother, Ian, older by eight years, that he would be a professional athlete one day.
A year later, in 1942, when Ian was leaving home to join the Allies fighting in World War II, he recognized that his little brother was literally ‘little,’ meaning he was of small physical stature. He bequeathed Gary his set of weights after securing his promise to diligently work with them. “I promised Ian, and myself,” he told ESPN’s Harig, “that I’d treat my body like a holy temple and exercise for the rest of my life.”
Mr. Fitness, a Trendsetter
The sport of golf has never been considered a bastion of Greek or Roman god-like sculpted figures. There’s plenty of evidence throughout history that one could be both a Pillsbury Doughboy and a champion golfer. Think Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, Ray Floyd, John Daly, and even earlier versions of Phil Mickelson and Jack Nicklaus. There was a time when Nicklaus was nicknamed ‘Fat Jack,’ before transitioning to the more affectionate ‘Golden Bear.’
Casual observers of professional golf might believe that a focus on physical fitness was introduced to the tour with modern-day players such as Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnston, Ricky Fowler and Brooks Koepka, to name just five. But that would be incorrect.
There were certainly other examples of physically fit golfers in the past: Chi-Chi Rodriguez, Greg Norman and Bernhard Langer immediately come to mind. But the trendsetter without peer was Gary Player. He remains today preeminent among golfers who considered fitness and strength training a vitally important aspect of success on the long and rigorous trail of the international golf tour.
When first joining the tour in the mid-1950s, there was no access to training equipment, so Player would visit local YMCA’s to get in his workouts. Lifting weights was considered so out of sync with his sport, he was often ridiculed by his fellow golfers. To say Player had the last laugh would be an understatement.
“Training the way I did gave me an edge no one could top,” he told ESPN’s Harig, “because I knew I was in the best shape of anyone on tour. That was a big part of my mental game.” He went on to say, “My fitness and proper diet are the reasons I have been so successful. If I didn’t take care of my body with a strict regimen that I still practice today, as well as eating proper food, I might be dead.”
We’re happy to testify that Player is far from dead. In fact, when he turned 80, he reported feeling no older than 40.
His gym routine as described in the ESPN article would leave most teenagers with their jaws dropped and egos bruised. Tiger Woods watched him leg press 400 pounds at the 2015 Masters and told Harig: “It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen in the gym.”
Player described his daily workout by saying the following: “Working with heavy weights is okay, if you’re working the correct muscles. Your body needs rest, so you don’t push yourself toward an injury. You should be exercising your legs, hips, core, back and arms, the right way. Endurance is vital to our longevity.”
When it comes to the subject of health and fitness, this is a man with an uncommon standard of excellence. He is a leader in thought, word, and especially, by vibrant example.
Player’s unprecedented achievements on the course include winning 165 tournaments across the globe, including 9 majors each on the regular and senior tours. With his 1965 U.S. Open win, he became the youngest (at the time) to win the PGA’s ‘Career Grand Slam.’ This added to his previous victories in the British Open, Masters and PGA Championship.
He also won a record 7 Australian Opens and is the only player to win the senior tour’s (now called ‘Champions’) ‘Career Grand Slam.’ For 27 straight years, he was crowned a champion at least once – a record – and he is considered the most traveled athlete in history.
In acknowledgment of these unprecedented achievements, Gary Player was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974, and in 2000, he was named Sportsman of the Century in South Africa.
Black Knight International
Player has been a trendsetter in more than just his fanatical focus on health, but also in his attire. Besides ‘Mr. Fitness,’ he’s also been dubbed the ‘Black Knight.’ His penchant for wearing black on gameday turned into a global brand.
Joining just a handful of sports mega-celebrities, Player’s business career has been as monumentally impressive as his accomplishments on the links. His vast portfolio of family-run business holdings is owned and managed by his oldest son, Marc.
It begins with having designed over 400 world-class golf courses, related real estate developments, authoring (or co-authoring) 36 books on golf, and managing related teaching academies. Then, there is Black Knight Enterprises, which controls licensing, event planning, publishing, apparel, wine and memorabilia. The organization also breeds thoroughbred race horses and runs the Player Foundation, which has raised over $60 million towards educating underprivileged children in South Africa and around the world.
In 2019, the Black Knight brand is experiencing the same longevity as its creator, and by every indication continues to thrive around the world.
The State of the Game
Player has identified a big problem with the current state of golf, its flagging popularity among younger generations, and his design company is working to improve the experience.
For example, he believes it takes much too long to play a round. One reason is the 18 holes, of course, and another is that many courses are being lengthened to account for technological improvements in equipment – the clubs and balls.
The game is vastly different for amateurs and professionals, he says, and the courses should reflect the changes. He further believes more money should be spent to attract youth and families back to the game.
In answer, they have designed Mountain Top, a 13-hole, par-3 short course meant to bring back family fun in half the time of a traditional round. It appears Player is still in the trendsetting business.
He believes these same two factors, the improvement in golf equipment and the far better condition of much longer courses, makes it difficult to compare golfers across time. Of course, Player favors one golfer from his era, whom he considers the greatest ever, by far.
“Let Nicklaus play with these raked bunkers and (manicured) greens,” he recently told Tom D’Angelo of the Palm Beach Post (4-12-19), “and with a driver and ball that goes 50 yards farther.”
It’s not to say he doesn’t have high regard for today’s greats, referring to Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and others when saying, “such unbelievable talent.”
But he also told D’Angelo, “We’ve got to slow the ball down. Soon, they’ll be driving the par 4s and hitting wedges to all the par 5s. We’ve got to stop this or it’s going to be a joke.”
On a brighter note, he believes the essence of championship golf will never change. “Golf is really a game of putting, of short game, it’s not long driving. And it’s of the mind.”
Family & Community First
Player’s family and personal achievements off the course have been equally meaningful and where he has experienced so much of his joy and contentment.
Married since 1957, he and Vivienne have six children, twenty-two grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Between sitting down to traditional dinners with their large family, no cell phones allowed, and the numerous humanitarian efforts they are engaged with, their lives outside of business are indeed abundant.
As told to Robert Earle Howells at Fore magazine (January 1, 2014), Player considers his foundation one of his greatest accomplishments. He wants his lasting impact to be over $100 million raised, and over 1 billion people in impoverished communities helped with both financial aid and wellness education, including diet, nutrition, exercise and lifelong learning.
He also grimaces at the staggering epidemic of obesity in Western cultures, saying, “One third of Americans, in the greatest country on earth, are obese. In another generation, there will be 100 million citizens suffering with diabetes.”
Calling it “a horrible and avoidable crisis,” he blames corporate misbehavior, advertisers who prey on our youth, and consumers who take the bait – the entire culture is at fault. He defiantly declares, “I want to serve as a role model for the benefits of healthy living.”
That’s another box he can check off. It’s clear he’s been doing just that for the entirety of his public life – a life he has undoubtedly mastered.
Life Lessons from the Master
Primarily from Golf Digest’s ‘The Wisdom of Gary Player’ by Alan Pittman (11-3-18) and Sports Illustrated’s ‘Gary Player’s 10 fitness tips’ by Michael J. Joyner (10-30-15), we’ve cobbled together a sampling of some pertinent life lessons from ‘the Master’ for your rumination. Here they are:
“Rest is rust. You must keep moving at a fast pace. When you slow down, that’s when the injuries start.”
“You’d better work out in the gym and eat properly, or you won’t have longevity. You can be healthy for a time, but you won’t last.”
He uses the late, great Arnold Palmer as an example. “He was a powerful man,” he says, “but he liked his drink and those cigarettes, and he ate like crap.” Palmer’s championship run lasted six years, whereas Player’s and Nicklaus’s lasted more than two decades each.
“Get winded for 10 or 20 minutes every day. Climb stairs, ride a bike, go swimming, jump rope, get on the treadmill. Whatever it takes. The key is to push yourself, do some sprints at the end. If you do this every day, you can’t help but stay in reasonably good shape.”
“Old-fashioned push-ups and sit-ups beat most other exercises.” This sentiment is reminiscent of Jack LaLanne, who would say, ‘if you have a floor, you don’t need a gym.’
“Develop your muscles thoughtfully, both sides of the body, so you keep your back and hips in balance. A strong torso, especially your abdomen, is how to avoid injury.” Player puts his stomach where his mouth is, regularly doing hundreds of crunches (of different varieties) divided into two or three sessions throughout the day.
“Stretching is critical, especially as we age.”
“Focus on your hands, wrists and fingers – they can never be too strong. Those with the best grip strength live the longest.”
“Eat ‘superfoods’ – raw fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, avocado, yogurt. Eliminate the white bread – all those dinner rolls. Bacon is the worst food you can eat, but I have a piece on occasion. I’m not a martyr.”
“Spend time with younger people as much as possible – the fitter, the better. Young, healthy people who are optimistic, curious, alert and energetic are contagious – you’ll rise to their level.”
It’s time to wrap up this round and head to the 19th hole – for a glass of carrot juice, of course. For some reason, I feel an urgency to get up from the keyboard and do something, anything, to stop my cursed aging process.
Spending time getting inspired by the extraordinary life story of the much younger, healthier and energetic Gary Player is a good start. Click here for our exclusive Q&A with Gary Player.