Fergus Bisset speaks to golfing legend Gary Player about his 65-year career, the current state of the game and how to get more young people involved...
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Through an incredible career, Gary Player won nine Major titles in three different decades.
He was the first golfer from outside the US to win The Masters and is the only international player to have won all four Major titles.
A truly global sportsman, Player won 165 tournaments as a professional. The South African estimates he’s spent more than three years of his life in an aeroplane.
He’s a successful businessman, a renowned golf course designer, a philanthropist and a great ambassador for golf.
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I was fortunate enough to be given a chance to speak with Mr Player at Carnoustie before this year’s Open, to hear about his life and his thoughts on the game.
Player has been a professional golfer for 65 years. He turned pro in 1953 – the year of the Queen’s coronation.
He played against Snead, Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus, Trevino and Watson.
He’s seen golf become a multi-billion-dollar international industry.
In his first Open Championship in 1956, first prize was £1,000; this year it was £1,420,000. He has witnessed significant changes.
The 83-year-old is vocal in his support of the game and critical where necessary.
Given his experience, it’s arguable that nobody on the planet is better qualified to give an opinion on the sport...
You’ve just played at Panmure. You obviously still enjoy links golf…
I’ve always loved links golf, I prefer it to any other golf. That’s why The Open is the greatest championship in the world. The first hole today, you hit a driver and a wedge, and you look at your yardage book and shake your head. Tomorrow you’ll hit driver and 3-iron. So yardage books don’t really mean much. You play with instinct and you’ve got to trust that to the end – I like that, it finds those with real natural talent and aptitude.
And will you play some more links while you’re here?
Yes, I’m going up to play Trump International in Aberdeen. I’ve heard it’s absolutely spectacular and I can’t wait. I was so impressed when I went to Turnberry to see the work that had been done there.
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Trump has invested significantly in Scotland…
In Scotland, yes, one of the greatest things economically speaking is the tourism. People love to visit and what he has done entices people to come. It can only be good for the country. Whether you like the man or not, you have to give him credit when he achieves something. I hear some people in the country aren’t supportive of Trump, but I really can’t understand that. He is investing millions.
What makes golf such a great professional sport?
I was at Wimbledon this summer and I started to think about this. In the last 16 Wimbledon tournaments, there have been only four winners. In the last 16 Opens there have been 14 winners. At Wimbledon, the competition is against the same man in (often) the same weather conditions. When golfers compete on a final Sunday, there are 70-plus guys who are playing and most could just about win if the wind comes up – look at Paul Lawrie coming from ten back in 1999. So, the conditions are different for everybody, the bunkers will be different, the greens are different, the wind, the rain, and you have to beat 70 guys, so what a difference. This is why I say Jack Nicklaus is the greatest sportsman the world has ever known because, if you work out how tough it is to win a Major, he won 18 of them! To me, it’s like winning 40 Wimbledons because he has to beat all of those guys in the field. It’s unbelievable how tough that is. The ball is travelling in the air 200-plus yards with so many variables, it really made me think.
Nobody stands head and shoulders above the pack?
Not right now. There are great players but nobody is dominating. When Tiger Woods was at the peak of his powers then yes, or Nicklaus or Hogan, yes… they stood out. Hogan is still the best golfer I have ever seen. I’ve never seen anybody close to his swing. He changed his swing entirely to hit that fade and he said when he eventually found out how to swing, he was too old to put it fully into practice. That’s some thought!
What about Tiger’s comeback?
It’s great to see, it’s something we all wanted to see. Tiger has drawn a lot of young people into golf. Whether he’ll win another Major? It’s a big task with what he’s been through. Only time will tell. One thing I could never understand with Tiger was how he could win the US Open one week by 15 shots and then, the next week, be taking lessons from different people – going to people who were good teachers but perhaps not good enough to teach a man who was a world champion. That’s another thing I noticed from tennis. Almost every tennis player is coached by a former champion – an Edberg or Lendl. Golfers go to guys who can’t break 80. I got thinking about that – it’s amazing really. Now, let me say I have the greatest respect for club pros and what they do for their members, but if I were to have a lesson, I would want to ask Jack Nicklaus or Lee Trevino or somebody who’s been a champion!
The pro game seems to be thriving right now, but what can we do for the amateur game?
For amateur golf, we simply have to get the game to speed up. People can go cycling, hiking, swimming – they have so many choices and they don’t want to be out on a golf course for five hours. I just built a 13-hole golf course at Big Cedar Golf in America and you can go out and play in a couple of hours – it’s straightforward. There are no bunkers in front of the greens and it’s forgiving for the average player. I think it’s something course designers must consider – the average person who is at the heart of the game. If players generally can’t carry the ball onto the green and stop it, you can’t put hazards right in front of the surfaces or you’re just making it too hard. Put the bunkers on the sides – close to the greens, on the edges. A bunker ten yards short of the green? Few can play it and that slows up play – they leave it in, just limp it out or blow it through the back.
What do you say to the amateur looking for guidance?
I could say learn to hit the ball by rotating the hips if I was being technical. Don’t hit the ball with your hands. Never fall back, and rotate the hips onto the left side through the swing. It’s difficult to do, but will make a huge difference to the majority of amateurs. But really, my key advice to weekend golfers is to be realistic. If you don’t practise and play once a week, or once every two weeks, then you can’t expect to play superbly well, certainly not every time. The most important thing is to go out and enjoy the game – it’s great fun to be on the golf course so make the most of it.
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You are famed for your short game. What tips would you give on that?
First of all, I’d tell the amateur not to move his head even a 16th of an inch when he’s putting. The problem is that’s very difficult to do, and many amateurs simply can’t manage it. Every time an amateur strikes a putt, they move their head – you must learn to keep your head dead still. You should never see the ball go in from three feet. Always listen. And for chipping, the worst shot that the average golfer plays is the chip. And it’s one all can work on and improve. I’d say to hit down more on the ball. Amateurs are often guilty of scooping it.
What about as players get older?
Keep playing. Keep swinging a club. I know I’ve got to keep playing, I have to keep the hand on the club because otherwise, three days for us not playing makes a massive difference.
What about young people. What can we do to get them golfing?
Young people need to feel golf is a modern game. They don’t want to be told they can’t take a phone onto the course. They don’t want to be told they can’t do things. I see things I don’t like and the older generation will always feel that way, but they have to get past that. I don’t like seeing the players with caps on in the dining room, but you have to move with the times. In the US in the golf cart at some courses, there’s music playing. And it’s not as bad as you think. It’s old guys like me who need to accept that the world changes. As Churchill said, “Change is the price of survival”.
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Do we need to make people aware of the physical benefits of golf?
Yes. Contrary to what people think, golf is very physical. If you let someone tell you it isn’t, send them out to hit 100 drives. See what they say when they come back. Golfers live a long time because they walk a lot and walking is proving to be one of the best forms of exercise. When you talk of attracting people to the game, we should be pushing the fact they will live longer. Health experts have reported that those who play golf twice a week and walk the course will live five to ten years longer on average.
Fergus is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin (also of Golf Monthly)... Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?