Wednesday was Gary Player’ 77th birthday. He’s one of the most amazing golfers I’ve followed over the years. I thought I’d offer some of my most vivid memories based on encounters I’ve had with him.
First, and most memorably, I remember when Player took a strip off the producer of the TSN show Acura World of Golf. Dick Zokol and I co-hosted the show, and one sunny morning, I’d arranged an interview with Player. He’s been walking the walk and lifting the weights and doing the crunches since well before tour players cared much about fitness and proper nutrition. And Player isn’t exactly reserved when it comes to telling people they should watch what they eat and that they should work out.
Our producer was then in his early 30s, and he was already featuring a potbelly. I’ll call him Terry (not his real name). Terry introduced himself to Player, who immediately stuck a finger in his belly and prodded him.
“Young man, if there are five steps on the ladder to a heart attack, you’re already on the fourth step,” he admonished Terry. “I am sure I can tell you what you had for breakfast: bacon and eggs, sausages, buttered toast. You’re a young man. Get hold of yourself. You need to eat better and you need to work out.”
Terry was taken aback, and promised Player he’d look after himself. I haven’t seen Terry in some years, so I don’t know whether he’s fulfilled his promise to the nine-time major champion and Grand Slam winner (each of the four majors at least once). But I am sure that Player would say the same thing to anybody else in a similar situation today. He’s not changed, and, as I say, he does walk the walk. Zokol, who knows Player well, was telling me Wednesday that “He’s slowed down the aging process more than anybody.” High praise, that.
Meanwhile, I saw my own evidence of Player’s commitment to fitness and overall health when I requested an interview with him a while back. He invited me to chat over lunch in the boardroom of his business headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. It was quite the repast, and one of the healthiest meals I’d ever enjoyed — and it was enjoyable. Salads filled the long table, mostly centred around avocado for protein. I recall a delicious soup, butternut squash, I think it was. We chatted and feasted for a couple of hours.
I attended a Champions Tour event in Boca Raton, Fla. not long after our meeting. Somebody during his press conference asked Player what he thought of how far modern golfers were hitting the ball. That got him going. He leapt from his chair as if he were ejected from it, and planted himself on a table. Player proceeded to tell the media that golfers were getting taller and taller and stronger and stronger and fitter and fitter, and that they’d soon be driving the ball 400 yards. That’s happened occasionally. Drives of 350 yards are no longer unusual.
Finally, I remember watching Player in the first round of the 2009 Masters. He was 73 years old and playing his 52nd Masters, which would be his last one. Augusta National was nearly 7,500 yards long, and as I followed him, I figured he was playing a par-85 course for a man of his age. Player couldn’t drive over the many rising slopes. Many of his drives, as on the first hole, slammed into the slopes and stopped right there.
Player hit one fairway wood after another into the greens. He walked briskly and with his head held high. He chatted with his fellow players and acknowledged with warmth the ovations he received down every fairway and at every green. He played splendid golf, and shot 78, which by my estimation was seven-under-par, or equivalent to a 65 for golfers half his age and more.
Player shot 83 the next day, and that was it for his 52 appearances in the Masters. After his round he spoke to the media.
“I’d like to think that I’ve played with tenacity, never given up, never on a single shot, even to the last putt I hit,” Player said.
I believe that’s true, and that it’s still true. Happy 77th birthday, Gary Player. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to run a few miles. Sitting too long in front of a computer screen isn’t good for anybody. Besides, I don’t want Player tapping me in the stomach next time I see him.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein