During a visit to his new golf course on Saadiyat Island, Gary Player explains why he loves Abu Dhabi.
Legend falls in love with Abu Dhabi
ABU DHABI // Gary Player drives the ball straight down the fairway of the new golf course he designed on Saadiyat Island, turns and says: "Do you know what? I've fallen in love with this place." Player, the winner of nine major titles, is keen to extol the virtues of Abu Dhabi during his latest flying visit to assess progress in the development of the course, which is due to open in September next year. The project promises to be one of the centrepieces of the island, and Player expresses delight at what he sees.
"Abu Dhabi is going to give the world a big shock," says the 72-year-old South African. "Not a lot of people know about it now but I can tell you that, give it five years, and the whole world will know about Abu Dhabi. "With the Guggenheim and Louvre museums coming, along with the other great attractions and structures that are going to be here, Saadiyat Island is going to be a great place for the world to see."
Player won 163 titles over five decades and is ranked by the magazines Golf Digest, Golf and Asian Golf in their top 10 all-time greatest list of golfers. By the age of 29 he had won the career Grand Slam of the four major titles (Masters, US PGA, British and US Opens), one of only five men to achieve the feat. Among his many other distinctions was to become the oldest player to make the halfway cut at the Masters, which he did in 1998 at 62.
Player, who has designed more than 300 courses worldwide, is also pleased with the way his first venture in the UAE, being carried out in conjunction with the Tourism Development and Investment Company, is taking shape. "I have just fallen in love with Abu Dhabi," he says again, as if to remove any doubt about his feelings. "They are doing things in a more pristine way. All their planning is good, and it is not too ostentatious.
"Dubai did not start off with great golf courses. They have some great courses now, and this is something Abu Dhabi must learn from. "It must have great courses from the start and keep bringing in great architects to ensure they are of the highest quality. We have a saying in the company, 'Everything in business is negotiable, except quality'." The environment is also very close to Player's heart. His brother, Ian, is an international conservationist and is credited with saving the white rhino from extinction.
Another attraction for Player is the way that Saadiyat - which translates as "island of happiness" - is meant to be eco-friendly. "This Saadiyat Island golf course is a gift to nature. I am a farmer. I have to watch fertilisation, I have to watch water, I have to watch so many things so that I do not mess the soil up. "I have a lot of things to appreciate as a farmer and I take those concerns with me when building a golf course.
"On Saadiyat we will have trees, fish in the lakes where the whole family can come down and catch fish and take walks on the beach. It will make a huge difference to the standard of living of people who use it." Player is also well aware of the benefits that could flow from having a world class course just off the north-eastern shore of Abu Dhabi. "The course creates jobs, brings in tourism, brings in investment and it is just a thrill to be involved in something like this."
And Player also knows about the connection between power, money and golf. "Those that have lots of money to invest, or spend, play golf. "They can't play soccer or rugby any more. They want to invest and they want to play golf. "I know that this will be one of the best real estate developments that we've done." Golf is also a great catalyst for tourism, investment and raising money for charities.
"On the PGA tour, we have raised US$1 billion (Dh3.6bn) for charities and are on our way to raising the second billion. That is more than any other two sports put together." A committed Christian, Player has wasted little time getting to know his adopted city. "I had the most wonderful time going to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque," he says. "I could have spent two days there. I am very interested in other religions and other people's cultures and I have great respect for other people's way of life.
"God wants us to live in peace. God doesn't want us to have war." Player had a difficult childhood. He was eight when his mother, Muriel, died of cancer. His father, Harry, spent much of the time away from home working in South Africa's gold mines. "I grew up poor and won all the world titles, it's a blessing," he says. "It is a gift that was loaned to me by God. I can't say that I did this and I did that, you can't think it's all about you all the time.
"A lot of the world champions in the last 15 years, like David Duval, Seve Ballesteros and Ian Baker-Finch woke up and they couldn't play again. I don't know what the answer is but it is very humbling. "Golf is a very uphill road, full of adversity and teaching you to accept that adversity. It is a very difficult sport. I had a very difficult upbringing, but I am thankful for it. I would not have been a champion had I not had that because I am a bit of a crybaby really. I am very over-sensitive.
"I would never have been a champion had I never suffered. In my prayers I say, 'Thank you for letting me suffer'. It helped make me the man I am." With Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, Player was part of his generation's "Big Three", and most of the majors would have one of their names on it each year. Now, however, Tiger Woods, already the winner of 14 major titles at 32, appears to be in a class of his own. Player is disappointed that Woods will miss this week's British Open because of a knee injury that ended his season following his US Open win.
"It is sad for golf because Woods is the tour," he says. "So many people need him, the media, the galleries. He brings a lot of new people into the game and manufacturers need him because they need to keep making golf clubs for the people Tiger encourages to take up the sport. "So the game is going to be hurt until he comes back." Woods won at Torrey Pines virtually on one leg. "His US Open win was just phenomenal," Player says. "He was driving the ball all over the place because of his knee but still won it. What a performance. There has never been a man in history that could have made the recovery shots he did."
But Woods's withdrawal means that the event at Royal Birkdale, starting on Thursday, may be closely contested. "Now that Woods is out, these guys that were feeling very mediocre about their game are suddenly getting confident, so we find ourselves with a lot of mushrooms coming up." Not surprisingly, Player picks two fellow South Africans as ones to watch. "I like Ernie Els's possibilities. He hasn't been playing well recently but I've always enjoyed watching his swing. Then you've got Trevor Immelman, who has a magnificent swing.
"He won the Masters and then he tied for a tournament after that." Player also expects a strong challenge from Padraig Harrington of Ireland. "So there are a host of chaps who can come out and win it," he says. "The Open really is so open." One achievement of which Player is particularly proud is the Player Foundation, which he launched with a mission "to provide quality education for underprivileged children and strengthen impoverished communities plagued by disease and crime".
And his desire to help young people, coupled with his attachment to the UAE, gives him a new ambition: to help the country's children develop golfing skills of their own. "I would love to get the young people of the UAE involved in golf," he says. "The whole philosophy of the TDIC company is to contribute to society. I am very interested in this. "Having worked with so many millionaires, billionaires and big companies, this company has a very special commitment on their planning, their quality, and how they do things. It is very important.
"I would love to have 30 young boys and girls hitting balls next time I am out. You might have a Tiger Woods living in the UAE. What a thrill that would be for me to get some little kid from the UAE playing golf at that level." @Email:email@example.com