Gary Player Swinging Hard On Life's Course

At 63, the South African--born golfer is still carrying off trophies. Hisgoal: to extend his winning streak into the new millennium and become the first athlete to win championships in six straight decades. How does he stay mentally and physically fit for the challenge?

It's often been said that golf is more of a mental game than a physical one, and no one proves it better than Gary Player. His legendary mental discipline has propelled him to the top ranks of the professional golf world for the last five decades. He was only 29 when, in 1965, he won golf's Grand Slam--the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA--the youngest competitor ever to reach that pinnacle. Now in his sixth decade, he's set his sights on an even loftier goal. Few would be willing to bet against his success.

At 5 feet 7 inches and 150 pounds, Player has always been small for a pro golfer, but he's thought big from an early age. As a teenager, he read Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking, and the book transformed his approach to sports. Player was among the first to grasp and apply psychological principles to golf. His mental resolve as well as his dedication to fitness (he was a pioneer here, too) has set a standard for both peers and junior players. And his powers show little sign of diminishment. Since joining the Senior Tour in 1985, he's scored nine major championships.

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At the recent PGA Seniors tournament near Winston-Salem, North Carolina, writer Mirinda J. Kossoff had a chance to talk with the famously courteous Player about why, as he puts it, "The answer is not in the swing; the mind's the thing," as well as his philosophy of life off the links.

PT: You've been playing golf since you were 14, and you're still going strong. Do you still love the game? And as much as when you were 29?

GP: When I was young, I was going to win every week, and I was so determined and concentrated so hard and played so hard, that I don't know if I enjoyed it as much as I enjoy it now. I don't think so. I did enjoy it. I loved it, but I don't think I loved it as much as I love it now.

PT: Why is golf so fascinating to you?

GP: I love it so much because it's always challenging my mind.

It's such a demanding game. It requires so much time and effort. You travel continuously which means being away from your family, and living in three motels a week. It's very tiring. You've got to have the mind to be able to adapt or adjust to this very very demanding life. You've got to work on the mind to be able to do the things you want.

PI: Do you have a specific goal in mind right now?

GP: I've won professional golf tournaments in five decades, and I think that Sam Snead is the only other one who's done it. But I would love to win a professional golf tournament in the year 2000, because that'll mean I'll be the only athlete to ever do that in six decades.

Now, that is a record that will never be broken, because first of all you have to live that long. Secondly, you have to be healthy. Thirdly, you have to have a talent, and fourthly, you have to have the nerves. And fifthly, you have to have the mind, which controls all of it. The only way I'm going to obtain that is by working on my mind.

PT: What does that involve for you?

GP: Mainly, I mean patience. We all know that patience is a virtue, but it's a thing that I've found lacking in so many human beings. I meet hundreds of people, and I seldom meet anyone who's patient.

PT: How do you build up patience? What kind of mental exercises do you do to keep yourself mentally fit?

GP: Well, suppose I've been a little irritable on the golf course. If afterwards I do 800 sit-ups, I say, `OK, now you're going to really hurt. You're going to do another 200, really go through a pain barrier, to make you realize that you mustn't be irritable.' Do you follow? You associate that pain barrier with being irritable. I say to myself, `That's your reminder that you mustn't be irritable.'

PT: So in a way you're punishing yourself for being irritable?

GP: I'm a great believer that we all need some kind of punishment to keep us level-headed and humble.

PT: That's a stern lesson.

GP: Meek, humble, wisdom. All words from the Bible.

PT: What other things do you do? Do you meditate daily?

GP: Well, I try. I do quite a lot of meditating. I associate the meditating with visualization to a great degree. And another good exercise, if you're very jumpy and irritable, is to get in your car and just drive on the highway and find the slowest old truck or a car driven by a little old lady and just stay behind it.

PT: There's a patience exercise.

GP: Yes, it's a great patience exercise. We need to have these associations, because we're an impatient world.

PT: Have you ever used a sports psychologist?

GP: No. I've done most of it myself.

PT: Because a game stretches over such a span of time, is there ever a point when you lose focus because you're standing around waiting to play?

GP: Yes, you can lose focus and you can sort of be lethargic, or you can be overenergetic. You've got to try and keep a good balance.

PT: What do you do to achieve that?

GP: I say to myself, `Don't get too excited because you never know what's around the corner.' And when I'm not doing well, I say, `Just keep punching and plugging, because you'll be rewarded.' Today, I was struggling to start with, and ended up with a 70. And I've done this so many times in my career.

PT: You've said that golf helps mold the character of the people who play it. What do you mean?

GP: Golf is such a humbling game. It's not like a team sport, where you have a partner, and you get the ball and you pass it to him and now he's got the load on his shoulders. In golf, you cannot get anybody else to help you. Once that ball goes, you're on your own. Also, the game lasts for a long time--it's four and a half to five hours.

And you can play so well, but the ball is traveling through the air such great distances and the variances are so great. There's a line in a poem on golf called "Forgin's Creed" written by a Scot that goes "so many great shots end up in sheer disaster." That explains it very well. You can be the best player in the world, and tomorrow you can be a chump.

PT: How else does golf mold character? You were heckled on golf courses as a protest against South Africa's then policy of apartheid? How did that affect you?

GP: That was a difficult time for me, because I didn't formulate that policy. I didn't believe in that policy. But I had to bear a brunt of other people's inventions. But that was a very good thing for my mind.

PT: How did you cope?

GP: Well, by a great faith. By a great faith in Christ. And that anything can be done through Jesus Christ, who strengtheneth you. And, whether you're a Muslim, whether you're Jewish, or whatever you are, I believe you must have a faith. And through this faith, I think, is how I managed to survive that. That was very difficult.

PT: When people were hurling insults, or yelling at you...

GP: Or throwing telephone books in my back.

PT: Oh, no!

GP: And ice in my face, and golf balls between my legs, and screaming at me when I was playing.

PT: What were you thinking at those moments? Would you be praying or meditating?

GP: I was just saying, `Please, give me strength. Give me courage.' I never prayed to win. I prayed for courage, patience. And I always made comparisons. I've traveled extensively--11 million miles--and have seen great poverty and suffering, children begging and starving. I would always say to myself, `Well, this is bad, but it's not as bad as some people have it. So, you know, I'm still going to have three meals today' You follow?

I find drawing comparisons very comforting and very helpful. It's like I got on the tee yesterday, and I was feeling a little tired, and then these kids came along who were mentally affected. And I shook hands and spoke to them and I felt so strong. Because we need this reminding, don't we?

And particularly so, Americans. They live in the land of milk and honey, they have clothes, they've got a house, they've got a job, and they've got food. If you've got that, you're so much better off than the majority of the world, but Americans forget that, don't they?

PT: You've alluded to your great faith in God. How does your faith square with your willingness to make the huge sacrifices of being away from family and home?

GP: I think that when you have been loaned a talent--and I emphasize the word loaned--by God, you've got to use it. I've seen so many people in different walks of life, who've had a talent and just thrown it away, which is a sin in His eyes.

I enjoy playing, first of all, I enjoy my work. It is a bit tough that it takes me away from my family and loved ones, my country and my ranch. But one has to make sacrifices in life. To obtain any success, you have to make sacrifices. And if you're not prepared to make them, that's fair enough, but then you must have a nine-to-five job, and be prepared to stay at home and have a different life.

Now, that doesn't mean you're not successful, because you can be successful in your marriage and your family, and have honesty and integrity and things like that, which is important. But if you want to attain success as an athlete, you have to make great sacrifices. The average man in the street doesn't, and doesn't want to.

PT: Where does your ambition come from? How did you grow up?

GP: I come from a very poor family. I lost my mother when I was eight and my father worked like a dog in the gold mines, 12 or 14 thousand feet underground. My brother at 16 years of age was fighting in the last World War. My sister was at boarding school. To get to school, I would travel by street car for 40 minutes, and then walk across town and take another bus for 40 minutes and then reverse the whole thing to get home. I would leave home at six o'clock in the morning. I wonder how I did that at seven years of age.

I often wonder how I did quite a lot of things. Coming home to an empty house every night. The loneliness. That probably gave me this great desire, and saying, `Listen, you've got to be an achiever.' I think it has a lot to do with your foundation.

PT: Tell me about when you won the Grand Slam in 1965 at age 29. You were the youngest to win the title. That's still a record, is it not?

GP: I'm not sure of that. I think it is, but I'm not sure.

Now you see so many players have won three tournaments, but not the fourth. Tom Watson hasn't won the fourth. Sam Snead never won the fourth. Lee Trevino never won the fourth. Arnold Palmer never won the fourth. And so, to win the fourth, that's the pressure.

PT: How did you cope with that pressure?

GP: Well, when I went to St. Louis that year where the U.S. Open was being played, every day I went in to a church that was there and I prayed for great patience and courage. And I used to go down to the score board that listed the names of the champions through the years--1965 was vacant. I'd stand there for a few minutes everyday and I meditated. I saw my name up there. Gary Player, 1965, Open Champion. It was almost a self-hypnosis.

PT: I understand you read Norman Vincent Peale as a young man. Have there been other books since then that have influenced you?

GP: Well, there was PsychoCybernetics by Maxwell Maltz, one of the original self-help texts that defined the body-mind connection.

And Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom. He's basically turned out to be a saint. To be in jail 27 years and come out and have no hatred or revenge, now there's a special trait. Most people who go to jail for 27 years, or who suffer under a system the way he suffered, there's hate in their heart. Now that is a special human being. I've been in his company a few times and questioned him, and seen the example of the years.

PT: We've talked a, lot about mental fitness. But what about the physical? You were one of the pioneers in exercise.

GP: Yes, I was. When I first started out in 1953, there was a man called Frank Stranahan, of Champion Sparkplugs. He and I used to exercise and use the weights. They always said we'd never play golf a long time, we'd be muscle-bound and all tight. And we're both two of the fittest guys around. He's 70 and I'm 63.

If I look back at myself, I wasn't big like an Arnold Palmer and a Jack Nicklaus and strong like some of these great champions, but I had tremendous energy, which I got through exercise, and I've got fitness. I wasn't as big as they were, but I was fitter than they were.

And exercising is a great discipline-builder. To go home when you've had a hard day, or a tiring day, and exercise, boy that is great, great discipline. And of course that helps you to attain the other: the mind and the patience as well.

PT: What do you do to keep fit? I know you do pushups.

GP: I do a lot of sit-ups to keep the stomach strong. Because that's what keeps your body together, your stomach.

Americans, white South Africans and the British are probably the worst eaters in the world. We have the best food in the world, an abundance of all the good things. But yet we're the worst eaters. And where does a person get fat? Not here. Not here. Here, the stomach. It's the first place it goes on a human being's body

PT: So what is your diet?

GP: Oh, I try and avoid the saturated fats and refined sugars. The secret is to eat more fruit and more vegetables and more roughage. And I take a lot of vitamins. But the big thing is I try not to eat much. Try and keep lean and mean.

PT: It's a holistic approach.

GP: It is. I want people to be successful with their whole life. With their families, their bodies. To be happy and have energy. That's my big ambition in life. When I'm finished with my career I want to be more of an influence on people's lives than a champion who's won 163 tournaments.

PT: The one thing we haven't talked about is family How do they fit into your equation for a successful life?

GP: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and myself, we were known as the Big Three. But, to me the Big Three are our incredible wives. They're one of the very significant reasons we were successful.

PT: What are the special qualities these wives possess?

GP: Well, never nagging and complaining about our leaving to go on tour, not being selfish, not being demanding, and dedicating themselves to our lives, to see that we did well, which in turn they benefited from. And the family did. The old-fashioned way.

Love is still the secret. The most important word in your life, in the English dictionary, in any dictionary, is "love." When you get that from your wife, your family, from grandchildren, it's a great booster. You don't need any steroids. You don't need all this stuff that people take.

PT: At what point will you feel that you have set enough records, and you've achieved enough? Can you conceive of retiring from golf?

GP: Yes, and how do I know when that time comes? Because I'm an animal. I'm an animal with great desire and great ambition. I would not like to be out on the tour if I couldn't win. No, I know when to stop.

PT: But that won't have anything to do with a chronological age, will it?

GP: No, it won't. At 63, my income is better today than it was in my prime. Because of the Senior Tour. The Senior Tour has played more of a role than any sports event in the history of the world in saying you're not getting old when you get to age 50.

You know, in Africa, many people don't know how old they are. Have no idea. They go by how they feel. When they get too tired, they say `I can't go anymore.' But they don't ever say they're too old.

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