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
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
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
PT: Why is golf so fascinating to you?
GP: I love it so much because it's always challenging my
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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'
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,
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
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
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
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
PT: At what point will you feel that you have set enough records,
and you've achieved enough? Can you conceive of retiring from
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
PT: But that won't have anything to do with a chronological age,
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.