The most entertaining man in golf might be an 81-year-old who hasn’t contended at a major championship in some 25 years.
Gary Player is indisputably one of the all-time greats. He’s a Hall of Famer, a nine-time major winner, a three-time Masters winner, and one of only five men to complete the career grand slam (Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, and Gene Sarazen being the others — so yes, he’s among the very best this game has ever had to offer).
He’s also incredibly fit, opinionated, and bursting with joie de vivre at 81 years old. I caught up with him for five questions after he played a round with friends on Sunday at Augusta National. The Black Knight ascended the sloping 18th hole after four-plus hours on a serene afternoon at a course he’s come to know so well. Player still puts a great move on the ball with his driver and its seems a fist pump and chest-high leg kick are now an official part of his follow-through when he does.
Player is an authority on the game that you could listen to for hours.
We discussed this year’s ceremonial tee shot on Thursday morning, where the “Big Three” of Palmer, Player, and Nicklaus will be just two for the first time. We also discussed the biggest changes in the Masters since he last won, fitness, and some of the major problems with the game that he loves.
He also quoted Winston Churchill multiple times, disturbed a still and quiet clubhouse scene by whacking himself in the stomach to demonstrate his unparalleled 81-year-old body fitness, and roasted me for my own fitness, or lack thereof.
What are your expectations for Thursday now with Mr. Palmer no longer here?
Well, it’s sad that Arnold is not here. We were friends for 60 years almost. We traveled the world extensively and to all corners of the globe, promoting the game of golf.
We were like brothers. We were like brothers. He came to my ranch and we went to the game reserve in South Africa. We went down in the gold mines. And I went to his house at both Bay Hill and up in Pennsylvania. We played around the world and competed against each other for 60 years.
But everything shall pass and Arnold Palmer had a great life. People loved him. We really tried to beat each other all the time. We knew that and it was part of the deal. I called him Tarzan because he liked his drink, he liked his cigarettes, and he never really worried about what he ate. If I did that, I would have been dead at 70. I always called him Tarzan — he lived until 87!
And here’s the thing, right here [pointing to Augusta’s 1st tee]. Now, what he did was, he was in a chair [referring to the 2016 ceremonial tee shot gathering, Arnold’s last]. He could hardly get up. He was in a chair. My hero of all time is Winston Churchill and Churchill said “manners maketh the man.” And Arnold was sitting in the chair and he could hardly get up and they announced “Arnold Palmer” and [grunting to simulate Palmer’s movement] he got up anyway. He stood. Manners. Always when I walk by the first tee I’ll think of that.
It’s not an end to a friendship. I don’t look upon death as a tragedy. It’s a time to rejoice because you’re going to a better place. I said last week, “Make sure you got a good course up there. Make sure it’s good conditions. Jack and I will be there. We’re not in a hurry to tee off but be the head pro in the meantime.”
What’s the biggest difference at the Masters between your win in 1978 and today?
Well, the biggest difference is the prize money. You think about it — I won three times. Placed second three times. Top 10 14 times. Most number of cuts — Fred Couples and I had the most number of cuts in a row. Most number of times in the tournament. And I don’t know if I won $300,000. I mean, my three victories alone were 20-20-40, OK, that’s $80,000. Now it’s $1.5 or 6 million or something. So the prize money is the biggest difference.
Secondly, the ball goes 50 yards farther. You got bigger grooves on the club. The bunkers are raked more uniformly. The course is in wayyyy better condition. It’s not the same course. You can’t compare a man like Tiger Woods to Jack Nicklaus. You can’t compare. It’s completely different conditions.
What are some changes you would make to the game both at the pro level and at the amateur level — particularly with regard to making more people want to play this game?
At the pro level, I would cut the ball back 50 yards. The ball has hurt the game. The fact that the ball is going so far, all the clubs now are changing their golf courses. Why?! The golf courses were perfect. They don’t have the money to do it.
You can buy a golf course for a dollar today if you take over the debt. So the worst thing is the debt. Now, the debt is with you on Mondays, public holidays, Christmas, New Year, and on your birthday. So the clubs were debt free and now they see “Oh we gotta make our courses ... More water.” We’re running out of water! “More fertilizer.” Poison! So more real estate ... [sigh] … it’s just a mess. We’ve made a mess. And professional golf has never been so healthy. Never.
Rounds of golf for the average person — we’ve gone about it the wrong way. So we need to reinvent the wheel. Make the game faster. No bunkers in front of greens that little old ladies and men cannot hit the ball over and stop the ball. They like to run the ball up — put the trouble on the sides. We’ve gone about it the entire wrong way and that’s what has hurt the game of golf. It’s hurt the average person playing.
Winston Churchill also said “The youth of the nation are the trustees of posterity.” Put your money to the youth. What they did here today with the youth [referring to the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship]? Marvelous! Did you see it?
Yes, I was here.
Marvelous! That’s the kind of thing we need. There are a lot of other things — shorter golf courses. I just designed at Branson, Mo. a 13-hole golf course. You can go with your family. Eat breakfast, six holes, in. Twelve holes, in. Eighteen holes if you want to. And speedy. Short. Nice. Bigger greens. Not so undulating. Lots of things we can do.
Let’s turn to fitness. How important was fitness in your career? You were a bit ahead of your time considering where we’ve come now with player fitness. And you’re starting to see a bit of a backlash. Golf Digest had an anonymous commentary out today from players and caddies and someone said “I’ve never seen the heavier guys injured.” There’s a concern Rory might break down. You were ahead of the game when it comes to personal fitness. What has changed and what are your thoughts on some of the backlash these top players now get for working out?
You’ve got people giving opinions that don’t really know — never been able to play neither for nor win a major championship. They’ve never won. They’ve never played the Tour — some of them — with any great success. If I want to know about a business, or a businessman with acumen, I go to the head of the company. I don’t go to the doctor. I don’t go to the butcher.
All I can say is, I worked out for 64 years now. Even two days ago, I pushed 400 pounds with my legs. I did 1,300 crunches and sit-ups and 100-pound weight on my chest. And I mean, [Player takes his left arm, winds up, and violently smacks his midsection, creating a loud echo late in a still day under the Clubhouse Oak], I’m in shape! And how come at 81, I’m able to go and play and shoot around par.
And so, why they criticize, I don’t understand. The more you exercise in life, the better your are. The healthier you are. Exercise is the secret to longevity. To health. To brain cells working properly. It’s like, I hear guys on the Golf Channel say, “Oh the guy hit a bad putt because he jabbed it.” The best putter who ever lived, Bobby Locke, he never followed through at all. So I hear a lot of crap!
You’ve got to keep exercising. Tiger Woods played his best when he was bulked up and strong.
I need you to be brutally honest. How would you assess my physical fitness in a sentence or a word?
Yes. I need you to be brutally honest.
[Laughs.] So we’re going to have a bit of fun. Well, I met you. I noticed your stomach. You haven’t seen your private parts in the last five years and that’s a sadddd thing.