News & Opinion

Dinner with Player features extra helping of life advice

EVANS, Ga. – Gary Player likes to say memories are the cushions of life. Every April since 1957, he has returned to the Masters – a record 52 times as a competitor – to a place that he said "helped change my life."

He posted video on Twitter of his traditional walk down Magnolia Lane, an annual rite in which he stops to give thanks.

"This is my 60th year," Player said. "How many people even live that long?"

It all began for Player after he won the 1956 Ampol Tournament in Australia and used some of the 5,000 British pounds in prize money to marry the former Vivienne Verwey, the daughter and sister of professional golfers. Player’s father wrote a letter to Masters co-founder Clifford Roberts asking for a Masters invite for his son, who showed promise of being a world-beater. Roberts replied succinctly: "Tell him to pack his bags!"

It took 40 hours and four flights for Player to travel from South Africa to Georgia. In 1961, Player became the first international champion of the Masters. He won his second title in 1974, but to hear Player tell it, it is the third green jacket, in 1978, that meant the most to him.  

"They thought I was over the hill," Player, who was 42 at the time, told me. "I was paired in the final round with Seve Ballesteros and I said to him, 'Seve, these people don’t think I can win. You watch. I’ll show them I can.' "

Player did just that, shooting a final-round 64 to come from seven strokes behind.

"Seve came across the green to me on 18, hugged me and said, 'Gary, you teach me how to win the Masters today,' " Player recalled. Ballesteros won green jackets in 1980 and ’83.

So many stories came pouring out of Player over a dinner at his residence for the week at Champions Retreat, home to one of the countless golf courses he has designed. One year, during the height of the white-minority-rule apartheid in South Africa, Player had to have six armed police officers stay with him. But this marks the 28th year that Player has hosted friends, family and business associates from around the world during the Masters. Wednesday's dinner consists of a traditional South African braai, or barbecue. I had the pleasure of being one of a dozen guests on Monday, enjoying a simple curry as the main course and carrot cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream for dessert (no ice cream for Player, but he did enjoy the icing!). I gleaned the following bits of wisdom from the 81-year-old Player:

“People want success without effort, reward without work.”

“Every round of golf is an opportunity to start all over again.”

“My body is a holy temple. Tiredness is in the mind. Rest is rust.” 

“Frequent traveling is the single finest education a person can attain.”

Returning to the topic of Augusta, Player reminisced on his hole-in-one last year on the seventh hole during Wednesday's Par-3 Contest. 

"It was my 31st hole-in-one, but one of them has been lucky," he said with a chuckle. "My daughter was in Peru climbing Machu Picchu, another daughter was on the beach in Cape Town, and they both saw it. I got e-mails from China, India and other ports. It's unbelievable."

Player grew misty-eyed when he recalled Arnold Palmer's final appearance at the Masters last year with Jack Nicklaus and Player as the first-tee starters. Palmer was too frail to participate and was seated in a chair. When his name was announced and the patrons cheered, Palmer rose to the occasion. Player imitated how Palmer climbed from his chair ever-so-slightly. "My goodness. It choked me up," Player said. "Most would've waved, but he made the effort to stand up."

Player smiled as he said in jest that he had communicated with Palmer, who died Sept. 25 at age 87, just last week.

"I sent him a SMS and said, 'Make sure you have a good golf course up there, good condition and a good gym.' I said, 'Jack and I will be there. We're not in a hurry to tee off, so you be the head pro in the meantime,' " Player said.

Everyone at the table smiled at the thought. Leave it to Alastair Johnston, who once managed Player and Palmer and still heads Arnold Palmer Enterprises, to supply the kicker.

"I told Gary I heard from Arnold and he said he found a golf course and it's a Gary Player design. And by the way, Gary's been on two site visits already."

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak