Although I greatly admired the other two members of golf's Holy Trinity of the day - Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus - I revered Gary Player like no other.
At 72, Player is still going strong
Although I greatly admired the other two members of golf's Holy Trinity of the day - Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus - I revered Gary Player like no other. He has been a huge influence on me since childhood, because, while he may have lacked the natural talent of, say, Seve Ballesteros he made himself a champion through dedication and hard work.
The Golden Bear may have been the giant of golf but Gary fascinated me because he was the 'little fella trying to topple the bear'. When Player told the world he did 100 press-ups on two fingers, I did 100 on two fingers. When Player told us he hit bunker shots for three hours, I hit bunker shots for three hours. When he told us he ate bananas, I ate more bananas than Guy the Gorilla in Regent's Park Zoo.
Fast approaching 73 he may be, but Gary Player is a walking advertisement for a healthy lifestyle that has been his mantra. The hair may be greyer, the stresses and strains of winning nine majors may have added a few furrows to the face, but the grandad who teed off in the British Seniors' Open at Royal Troon looked unnervingly like the 24-year-old who won his first Open title at Muirfield in 1959.
Is it hard work being a legend? "I love people, I love golf, and I love travelling so, no, I wouldn't describe my job as hard work," he says. "That's why it is interesting to see what happens to Tiger Woods in the years to come. "When I won the grand slam at 29, I thought to myself 'I wonder if anybody will ever beat that?' Then Jack Nicklaus came along and did it at 26. "For Tiger to do it at 24 was phenomenal. The pressures on Tiger are fantastic; he is the Elvis Presley of golf."
Although Tiger has been the dominant force in the game for the past 12 years, it is my belief that the greats of the past - Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead plus Sandy Lyle's 'Holy Trinity' - would have found a way to beat the young master from time to time. What do you reckon, Gary? "I don't know how you'd beat him, but I would have loved to have played against him," he yearned. "I'd also like to say this: I'm old fashioned, I have to admit, but in defeat and victory Tiger takes his hat off and that shows consideration to his opponent. I want to tell you, hats are something of the past.
"It's been going on for some time in America and it's starting in Britain, people wearing hats back to front, people sitting in clubhouses without taking their hats off. This young man is bringing back golf's old-fashioned values." But let us consider the immense popularity of seniors' golf throughout the world. Why is it the galleries are so enthralled by the wrinklies? "Because of the quality of golf," said Player.
"Of course it's nice to come along and see the legends, but the scoring is fantastic. "You shoot a 69 in the States and you'll walk back into the clubhouse to find four guys have shot 66s. The scoring in America is just one notch below the regular tour in Europe. "When I won my first British Open I earned £1,200; now they're playing for two million dollars a week on the Seniors' Tour. No wonder the guys are now watching what they eat.
"What's worse is that they seem to be getting younger and younger. I can't believe Bernhard Langer, here, is now a senior." Does he rage against the years, or do great champions accept the end of their era as the natural way of things? "I always said I'd retire at 35 and so did Jack. Not Arnie, he always insisted he'd play till he dropped," added Player. "But if I have one regret, it's that I'd love to be playing for the money available now."