x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

A long-lasting Player

The fitness fanatic, who won nine majors, is a global ambassador for his sport


Who do you think is sport's all-time best? Each week, we profile a candidate, inviting you to decide who should top our list of 50. All participants will be entered into a draw for the weekly adidas prize and an end-of-contest Etihad Holidays four-day trip for two, including business class flights and accommodation, to a mystery location. We will reveal the full 50 at the end, but this week William Johnson looks at golf's Gary Player.

"The harder you practise, the luckier you get" is a slogan that has been reeled off by champions in an array of sports for many years. The phrase was coined by one of the real greats that world sport has produced. And nobody could possibly accuse Gary Player of not following his own motto. Another one of the South African superstar's immortal lines is "I've studied golf for almost 50 years now and know a hell of a lot about nothing."

Those two short quotations go a long way towards summarising the character of a man who has stood the test of time better than almost all of his contemporaries at the top of their various sporting fields. He is a man who has been, and still is, prepared to work tirelessly to achieve his objectives and he is a man who is prepared to admit that he will never stop learning. Only 5ft 7in (1m 70cm) tall, the perfectionist Player has been a giant of golf ever since he announced himself to the watching world by winning the British Open at Muirfield half a century ago.

Eight more major titles came his way, the last of them when he became the oldest player (44) ever to don the famous green jacket as US Masters champion in 1978 as he produced a magnificent 64 in the last round to turn a seven-shot deficit into a single-stroke victory. Within 12 years of turning professional, he became only the third golfer to complete a career grand slam of the four major titles by adding the 1965 US Open championship to the first of his three Masters honours and the first of his two US PGA titles. He was only 29 at the time.

Jack Nicklaus - part of "Modern Triumvirate" with Arnold Palmer and Player in the early 1960s - has since gone on to emulate that feat and Tiger Woods was fifth to join the select band (Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan were the trendsetters) to win all four majors. Player's achievements in tournaments just below major status are phenomenal. He won his native South African Open 13 times, the Australian Open seven times and the World Matchplay championship five times - all are record numbers for the events.

Those cosmopolitan successes contributed to Player earning the title of the world's most travelled athlete. There are various estimates about the number of air miles he has accumulated but 15 million is regarded as being fairly close - and that figure is still rising as the "Global Ambassador of Golf" enters his 74th year. His other nicknames are the Black Knight, to recognise his clothing colour preference throughout a lengthy career and Mr Fitness in acknowledgment of his gruelling training regimes which included doing 1,000 sit-ups a day and countless one-arm push-ups.

Try to congratulate Player on his nine majors, though, and you are likely to receive a good old fashioned ear-bashing. Player takes tremendous pride in pointing out that he considers himself to amassed 18 because he has won another nine since reaching senior status on his 50th birthday. Anybody who attempts to devalue those old boys' awards also risks a firm rebuke by the fitness fanatic whose well-honed body would put many 30-somethings to shame.

He believes that tournaments become harder to win the older you get and places enormous value on the fact that he managed to win his last - the 1997 British Senior Open - as a 62-year-old. His dominance over the other "veterans" of the Champions Tour - remarkably he finished top of the money list on 19 occasions - enabled him to stretch a sequence of trophy-winning years to a remarkable 27. Eighteen of those years were with his loyal caddie Alfred Dyer, a black man whom Player insisted on employing through the most hostile period of South African apartheid. Player was a tireless worker behind the scenes trying to rid his country of the stigma of racism.

Player, the son of a gold miner, was inducted into golf's exclusive Hall of Fame in 1974. He has set up a well-respected stud farm in his homeland - its most famous product so far is the 1994 Epsom Derby entry Broadway Flyer. His biggest passion, however, as he refuses to contemplate retirement, is pursuing a career in golf course design, having been involved in the creation of nearly 300 new venues around the world.

One of the latest is his Saadiyat Island project here in Abu Dhabi which will shortly provide the region with its first links course and a future alternative venue for the annual European Tour event which is currently taking place on the National course. Even an experienced campaigner who has seen as much of the world as Player, admits to being excited by his UAE venture. That, along with many other picturesque creations all over the world, will be a lasting legacy from a man who has served the game he loves so well and for so long.

wjohnson@thenational.ae Cast your vote and enter a draw for a weekly Dh500 adidas voucher and a dream trip with Etihad Holidays. If you think Player is the all-time best, text G40 to 2337. Texts cost Dh5 and voting will end at midnight on Thursday May 15.