April 04, 2016: I will be honest. As I walked past the clubhouse at the Augusta National Golf Club, the delightful sight of Gary Player brought me to a standstill. As a writer, you learn not to be overcome by a sense of awe, irrespective of the stature of a player. But then this wasn’t any player, it was Gary Player, one of the three men who defined excellence in a game they nurtured into a global sport.
The nine time major winner was a contemporary of legendary golfers Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. The unparalleled success of these three men tore down the boundaries of golf. Player is now working as hard as ever to bring down socio-economic boundaries through The Player Foundation.
As I waited my turn to speak with Gary, it took an internal admonishment to get over a sense of excitement that was making its way out from the pores on my palms.
At eighty, Player is as fit as a fiddle, thanks to his abiding sense of discipline and a willingness to embrace hard work. A conversation with Player has long seized to be just about golf, as he travels the globe in his role as an elder statesman addressing issues related to education and poverty.
“I have won the title here three times, came second three other times, eight top five finishes…….,” as he spoke, Player reeled off numbers with the enthusiasm of a greenhorn, underlining his alacrity and sharpness despite advancing years.
“I consider The Open to be the best major, but The Masters is a close second,” added Player. The course is spectacular as always and the fact that they play here year after year helps enhance the stature of this tournament.”
I asked him why it was such a difficult thing to defend a major championship. “It should be the converse,” said Gary, with a glint in his eyes. “It is not just how well you play, but also a matter of belief. You have to believe that you can win, prepare well and stay focused. If you can do it once, you can surely do it again.”
Our conversation transitioned into a larger philosophical frame, soon as I we spoke about his transition from a golfer to a global icon for the development of youth. Player is a big global voice for the transformation of education and eradication of poverty.
“I lost my father at eight and really had nothing in my life. But the pursuit of golf and my success on the course showered me with a blessed life,” said a visibly grateful Player.
“I do not believe in a legacy, having plaques and courses in my name do not excite me. I want a place in the hearts of people,” said an emotional Player. “The legacy is now, it is the work I do today. It is all that matters.”
Player worships Dwight Eisenhower and laments that fact that the world is in strife owing to a lack of leadership. “The youth of today are the custodians of posterity,” said Player. “We need to find ways to engage with them and offer necessary guidance to help them embrace pain and hard work. There is really no other formula for success and change.”
India excites Player, having traveled to the country several times. “You have a rich culture,” he assured me. “And the success of Anirban Lahiri is symbolic of the increasing global presence of golf. I have spoken to him and wish him all success.”
Our tête-à-tête ended with a quick discussion on the prospective favourites this week. “Jason Day is hungry for this tournament and is in great form. He is a top contender,” opined Gary. “Rory McIlroy wants it badly too, to join the five of us that won the grand slam of golf. I would not count him out.”
“Jordan Spieth can putt really well and any man that can do that can win, so he is in contention too. Henrik Stenson, I think, is ready to win here this week. Adam Scott seems to have rediscovered his touch too. So there are a lot of them that can contend this week.”
At the end of a warm hearted conversation with the great South African, the thing that remained deeply imprinted on my soul was his humility, a deep passion for life and an enormous amount of energy. No wonder Player is such an inspiration to millions of people around the globe.