Gary Player: 'In 1955 I slept in the dunes. I wanted to win so badly'

Gary Player arrived at his first Open with £200 in his pocket and a burning desire to succeed. Some 54 years and nine majors later, the South African has seen it all. As the action at Turnberry heats up, he shares his views on cheating allegations past and present, and how the game has changed

It is 50 years since Gary Player won the first of his nine majors, the Open Championship at Muirfield, and extracting the memories is not the most challenging of journalistic assignments.

The problem is more one of steering him back from numerous digressions. During the hour I spend with him, in the back of a chauffeur-driven car taking him from his hotel near Watford to a charity event in south London, his conversation skips from nuclear waste to Rod Laver to hormones injected into pigs to the condition of drinking water in Austria. The great man likes to talk.

But let us start with something topical. I ask Player, who is here for next week's Senior Open Championship at Sunningdale, what he thinks of Sandy Lyle's "cheating" broadside at Colin Montgomerie? It is news to him, he says, and asks for the details. A fleeting silence. In Player's lively company, there is no other kind. "Montgomerie might have made a mistake," he says, "but Sandy shouldn't call him a cheat. I remember Arnold Palmer playing in the Open, at Birkdale, and he was in a winning position when he went into a bunker and accidentally grounded his club. Nobody saw but him, yet he admitted it and took the penalty. Many other great golfers have done the same. So I'm shocked that Sandy has said that."

Player likes to extol the virtues of golf as a game of dignity and integrity, a game that offers lessons for life itself. But he has not himself been immune from accusations of cheating. In a big-money "skins game" years ago, Tom Watson suggested that the South African had illegally removed a weed from beside his ball. Player countered indignantly that he would give $1m to charity if video evidence could be produced, and bad feeling between the pair lingered for a long while, though Player insists that it is forgotten now and asks me not to quote him on the matter.

Whatever, it shows that nothing is new under the golfing sun. Or in the wind and rain of a British summer, for that matter. There are some folk still adamant that the ball Player appeared to have lost in the scrub behind the back of the 17th green shortly before he won the 1974 Open at Royal Lytham St Annes, resurfaced in the nick of time somewhere other than where it plunged to earth. From the pocket of his loyal caddie, Alfred "Big Rabbit" Dyer, is the scandalous implication.

"Look, I had a six-shot lead with two holes to go," Player says, fire suddenly dancing in his big brown eyes. "Even if I took an eight on that hole I was going to win. The caddie might have dropped a ball? With all the cameras there, the marshals, the public? Why do people say these things? Why do people have so much hatred? I've heard people say that Tom Watson won the US Open with illegal grooves [on his clubs] ..."

Enough. Let's turn from age-old speculation to the record books, which show that Player won the Open three times in three different decades, lifting in 1968 and 1974 the Claret Jug he first grasped, aged just 23, in 1959. He had first played in golf's most venerable championship in 1955, at St Andrews, and remembers how disconcerting he found the fiendish pot bunkers, from which there was no option but to play backwards. "I said to my caddie 'this isn't fair'. He said 'laddie, golf ain't meant to be fair'. And he was right. Golf is a puzzle to which there is no answer. It's like genetics. I'm in the racehorse business, trying to breed the best racehorse in the world, and I've studied genetics for 40 years, played golf for 60 years, and I know a hell of a lot about nothing."

It is Player's proud boast that he has accumulated more air miles than anyone alive – some 14 million and counting – and it was in 1955 that the mileometer started ticking. "It was my first trip away from South Africa, and I had £200 in my pocket that my father had given me. He worked in a gold mine 12,000ft underground, never earned more than £100 a month in his life, and I later found out that he got an overdraft to help me. This week at Turnberry, they've all flown in in their G5s, with limousines to meet them. In 1955 I arrived by train, and I couldn't find a cheap room so I put my waterproofs on and slept in the dunes. But really, when I'm asked whether I'd like to play today or when I did, I choose my time, no question, because it created and developed a sense of appreciation."

By 1959 he was at least able to afford a hotel room, and arrived at Muirfield 10 days early, to get acquainted with the golf course. "I wanted to win the Open so badly that I came to Europe before my daughter was born. I was so determined to be a champion that the Cumberland Hotel [in London] was where I first met my daughter, when she was three months old." This time, he leaves the modern comparison unsaid, but it is irresistible, with the Englishman Ross Fisher prepared to down clubs at any moment to be with his wife for the birth of their first child.

"The secretary at Muirfield was an ex-army man," Player adds. "Brigadier somebody. And when he saw me he asked why I was there so early. I said I'd come to practise. He told me I couldn't, except at allocated times. I said 'Brigadier, I don't have much money, I have a wife and a baby, I'm sure you know what it is to struggle in life'. And after that he was very sympathetic. He let me practise and offered me a boiled sweet every morning."

As for the Championship proper, Player recalls being six shots back (actually it was eight) on the eve of the final day. But there were still two rounds remaining. Back then, 36 holes were played on the last day, a Friday, so that club professionals could be back by the weekend to serve their members. Another instance of changing times.

"By then I represented Slazenger," he continues, "who had a very English Englishman called Humphrey McMaster working for them. I said to him that night 'Mr McMaster, tomorrow I'm going to win the Open'. He said 'my dear fellow, that's a little ambitious, isn't it?'" A short laugh, while I muse that if Player's golf matched his attempt at a posh English accent, he'd never have broken 100. "The next day was windy. To give you an example, I'd played the 15th hole in practice with a drive and a sand wedge. That morning I hit a drive and a 3-iron, and in the afternoon a drive and 2-iron. Both times I got a birdie and it still amazes me to think about it, with the equipment we had then, the bunkers not raked, big steel [golf shoe] spikes making a mess of the greens.

"But I came to the last hole needing a four for a 66, and there was no question that I was going to win, but I took a double-bogey and I thought I'd blown it. At best I thought there might be a play-off and in those days, people don't realise it now, it was a 36-hole play-off. But Flory van Donck, a marvellous golfer from Belgium, couldn't quite catch me. So I won the tournament."

Does he remember the size of the winner's cheque? "Yes, £1,200. But it was never about the money. I won a [over-70s] tournament in America this year and the prize was $40,000 [£24,500]. As I told the press afterwards, that's what I got for my last Masters [in 1978]. This year, Angel Cabrera won $1.3m [£730,000]."

The 1978 Masters was to be the last of Player's haul of majors, and it is worth reflecting that all nine of them were won in the heyday of either Palmer or Jack Nicklaus, or both, not to mention Watson, Lee Trevino, Ray Floyd, Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf. "Weiskopf was a better golfer than Jack Nicklaus, but he didn't fulfil his promise for reasons only he knows about," says Player. It is one of his favourite themes, the squandering of talent. "You want to know who was the most naturally talented player I ever saw? John Daly. If Daly worked like Tiger Woods works, he would have gone down as the greatest player who ever lived. He had a phenomenal future and in my opinion he ruined it. I've seen it happen in business, all walks of life. The drinking, the smoking, the late nights ... they lose their edge."

I ask him whether he subscribes to the view that Woods is the greatest who ever lived? "No, Nicklaus is. People are too quick to say that Tiger's the greatest, that [Roger] Federer's the greatest, of all time. If Tiger stays fit, he will overtake Jack's number of majors and then he will be the greatest. But how do you compare different eras? Ben Hogan was the best golfer I ever saw in my life from tee to green.

"I've never seen the likes. And he won the first three majors in 1953, but couldn't get back [from Scotland] in time to prepare for the [US] PGA. This coming Sunday night, Ernie Els, Tiger Woods, will sleep in their beds at home in Orlando. Imagine if Hogan could have done that. He won nine majors, but he was also away at war for five years. So you can call someone the best of his time, but it's very hard to say the best ever."

These are wise words, but Player is eager that they are not misinterpreted. "I'm a big Tiger fan. He speaks well, handles the press well, dresses well, I love his work ethic ..."

Come to think of it, the short white South African and the tall black Californian are, in many ways, kindred spirits.

At 73 Player still does 1,000 sit-ups at least four times a week, in fact it is a surprise that he does not claim to have done more sit-ups than anyone alive or dead. He does claim to have hit more golf balls.

"I have worked out," he says, "for 63 years. In the early days I was ridiculed. There were only two of us doing it, myself and Frank Stranahan, the great amateur, and they said it was fatal for golf. But the night before I won the US Open to win the [career] Grand Slam – and I won the Grand Slam before Nicklaus, people don't realise that – I was squatting with 325lbs on my back. Let me tell you something. We haven't had giants like Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal coming into golf, but they're coming. Why? Because in basketball, football, tennis, you're finished at 32. In golf, you're reaching your prime."

So says the man who, through ferocious willpower, made his own prime last as long as it humanly could.

What a Player! His story so far...

The man

Born 1 November, 1935, Johannesburg

Turned professional 1953

Joined PGA tour 1957

Joined Champions tour 1985

Career earnings $10m+

The youngest of three sons, Player lost his mother when he was just eight. Following her death his father had to take out a loan to buy Gary his first golf clubs. Player's earliest rounds were played at the Victoria Park Golf Course in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The majors

Major victories

Nine Masters 1961, 1974, 1978

US Open 1965

The Open 1959, 1968, 1974

PGA Championship 1962, 1972

Player is the only man to have won the Open in three different decades, and joint fourth on the all-time majors victories list, alongside Ben Hogan. He retired from the Masters after this year's tournament at Augusta, his 52nd appearance.

The tours

Tour victories

Total: 164

PGA tour: 24

Sunshine (South Africa) tour: 73

Others: 34

Senior victories

Champions Tour: 19

Other seniors: 14

The quotations

"You must work very hard to become a natural golfer."

"The more I practice, the luckier I get."

"If there's a golf course in heaven, I hope it's like Augusta National. I just don't want an early tee time."

Chris Medland

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