This week’s Open Championship marks 60 years since Gary Player claimed the Claret Jug and his first major title at Muirfield. The 83-year-old sat down recently to reminisce on that life changing week, and discuss this week’s staging of the event.
“I have great memories of that week. My wife arrived from South Africa with our first born. I didn't have the money to go back to South Africa to be with her for the birth, which I felt very uncomfortable about,” Player said when discussing his 1959 win.
“We got up to Muirfield but I didn't realise how prim and proper they were. I walked in the clubhouse and Colonel Evans-Lombe, I'll never forget his name, the secretary, said: ‘What do you want here?’. I said, ‘I've come to practice for The Open.’ He said: ‘You're not practicing here my boy. This is Muirfield.’
“So, I quickly thought, and I said: ‘I'm poor. I've got a wife with a baby. I need the money and I'm going to win The Open.’ He said: ‘Not only are you not going to practice here but you're an arrogant young man as well.’ But I became great friends with him and over a cup of tea he told me not to hit a driver off number 15 every day in the practice round because the wind would change, so we would need to hit a 3-iron off the tee and a longer iron in. Well, what happened? I hit a 3-iron in the morning and afternoon (in those days it was a 36-hole final day) and a long iron onto the green and birdied it both times. At the prize giving he stood with his hands tucked into his braces like he'd won The Open himself, which was great. I had a wonderful time at Muirfield and always enjoy going there. It's a very special club.”
As he displayed his crystal clear memory for past Open Championships and unsurprising fondness for the venue on the rota that delivered his first major win, Player also touched on this week’s venue Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, which hosts the oldest major for the first time since 1951.
And despite never playing the tournament there, it is also unsurprising to learn the man that is perhaps the most widely travelled golfer in history has familiarised himself with the Harry Colt design.
“I was a Royal Portrush three weeks ago,” Player said. “I don't know if there's a finer links golf course in the world. It's hard to say. I think the two best links courses are Turnberry, where the redesign has done a marvellous job of bringing back the Scottish tradition and then also Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.
“You cannot get a better golf course in the world. I never thought I would ever live to see The Open played at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland again with all the difficulties that they were having. It is marvellous to see it's going back there. Northern Ireland is a great place to have The Open and the whole of Ireland will benefit because you're going to have hundreds of thousands of people going there from all parts of the world and the media will explain to the world what a wonderful course, country and people they have there.”
And like so many others, the World Golf Hall of Fame member has identified a clear favourite to lift the Claret Jug this week.
“I’ve got a feeling Rory McIlroy is going to win and boy that would bring the house down. That would be a wonderful thing for golf in Northern Ireland. It would give Ireland such a boost in the world. That would be the most appropriate when you think that The Open hasn’t been there since 1951.”
As a nine-time major winner himself, Player’s suggestion that McIlroy is the man to beat at Royal Portrush is worth paying attention to.
When asked to assess the chances of Rory’s own idol as a child growing up in nearby Holywood, Player again like so many refused to discount the chances of Tiger Woods winning a second major in 2019 ... Even if the South African remains steadfast in his belief that Woods won’t surpass his own long-time rival and great friend Jack Nicklaus on the all-time major winners’ list.
RIGHT: Player holds the Claret Jug aloft in 1959. PHOTO: The Berenberg Gary Player Invitational.
“Well Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods. He’s one of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever seen. His judgement with his second shots to greens is probably the best I’ve ever seen. He’s as good as a putter as I’ve ever seen, and secondly, he picks the right club. He’s not a good driver of the ball and the rough is quite heavy there, so I’m sure he will use an iron off the tee or a 3-wood a lot.
“The odds are stacked against him doing that (passing Nicklaus) at his age, but we are talking about Tiger Woods. I'm such a Tiger Woods fan. His comeback I think it's the greatest comeback ever in any sport. What he did after what he went through, my hat is off to him.
“So, do I think he will pass Jack? I don't think so. Would it be good if he did? Yes. All records are there to be broken. I'm forever hoping that Tiger will do well. I think Nicklaus will go down as the greatest golfer that ever lived. Because you've got to go by the record. The record is what counts. But it wouldn't surprise me if Tiger Woods won The Open.”
Immediately following The Open, Player will host his own event at Wentworth in Surrey, with some players from the major championship field, fellow major champions and even Australia’s own Sarah Kemp and Victoria Fricot amongst the professionals teeing it up in the pro-am format on Monday July 22.
The Berenberg Gary Player Invitational is far more however, than just a get together of top golfers giving average golfers the chance to play alongside them.
The event is part of Player’s enormous charitable footprint, which has seen his foundation raise over $64million for charity over the years – an area of his career and life he is rightly proud of and one he believes he may have spurred fellow players onto following.
“Well it's been interesting and very enjoyable for me," Player said. "It's not easy at my age in the latter part of my life to travel to all these countries and raise that amount of money, but we are helping young people that are not as fortunate as we are with a number of projects.
“The sponsorship of Berenberg Bank has been just unbelievable. In London, they've helped us build the Depaul home for young people experiencing homelessness, who are turning their lives around, becoming doctors and lawyers after sleeping on the streets. It’s quite remarkable. In South Africa, we've built two schools which is really rewarding to see; people without an opportunity of having education now going out into the world and excelling. The support we have raised gives people a place in the sun. Having been very poor as a young person, it gives you an appreciation. Few people in the world have the same luxuries as we do and we are inclined to forget that.
“I think golfers are very interested in helping charities. Most of the golfers have a charity of their own. And, if I may say, this started in 1965 when I won the US Open. I was the first golfer at that time to give my entire check back to cancer as my mother died of cancer, and to junior golf. Since then, it's been a continuous thing that's being done by all golfers and I'm very proud of the way golfers have really helped people along the way. Golf is a magnificent sport and it's a great catalyst for raising money because the average man can play golf with pros, but he can't go out and play rugby with professionals, for example.
“I don't want to take too much credit. Obviously, it's their enthusiasm that makes them do it and they realise that they have a debt to society. I think people must realise that. And I think that it's going to continue, even more so into the future. The young people, they're making so much money. When I think back my first Open win at Muirfield, I won a thousand pounds, but that was in 1959. I don't know what that would be today but a substantial amount of money, and these young fellows are making so much more.”
Before Player gets to play host next week – a role the energetic octogenarian thrives in – he, like the rest of the golf world, will be glued to this week’s golf in Northern Ireland.
The ‘Black Night’ was as forthright as ever when asked to rank the event amongst the other majors.
“I'm neither America nor a British citizen. But I really consider The Open to be the most important tournament in the world.”
The Gary Player Invitational charity series was founded to raise funds for those less fortunate, contributing to the goal of The Player Foundation of raising $100 million by 2025. The Berenberg Gary Player Invitational will take place at Wentworth Club on July 22 2019 in aid of Depaul UK.