Interview: Gary Player, on the impact of long hitters on the game
EVEN AT 76, Gary Player is still a bundle of energy. He’s itter than most people half his age and gets up to some crazy things.
Jumping up on a chair, for instance, to demonstrate how he believes golf is about to be flooded by players 7ft tall who will hit the ball more than 400 yards and make historic layouts such as the Old Course at St Andrews obsolete.
Like the game’s greatest player, Jack Nicklaus, the little South African has grave concerns about golf’s future. It’s why he was happy to have some input into a project commissioned by HSBC, a global investor in the Royal & Ancient game, to produce “Golf’s 2020 Vision”, a detailed look at the future of the sport over the next eight years.
According to the report produced from its research, Asian players will make up one third of the world’s top ten by 2020, while the research also predicts factors such as low-cost urban golf courses, new self-coaching digital “smart clubs”, short-format golf, carbon-positive courses and family-friendly facilities helping to revolutionise golf by the start of the next decade.
Player can still get a golf ball round the course. In a European Senior Tour event in Switzerland recently, he beat his age by four shots and says that feat is a fairly regular achievement. He seemed concerned that the course for this week’s Senior Open Championship at Turnberry had been set up a bit too long for the golden oldies. It was a neck injury rather than fear, though, that led to his withdrawal before teeing off in the opening round. He’s a competitor more than a contender these days, but he is still in the major league when it comes to offering passionate views on the game.
“It was my all-time hero, Winston Churchill, who said ‘change is the price of survival’ and, especially when we get older, we are reluctant to change. But, when you see what is happening in this game, we are going to have to change to survive,” he told The Scotsman. “About ten years ago, I was on the BBC and said that they were going to have to do something because the players were hitting the ball 400 yards. One prominent commentator said I was talking nonsense, but I will tell you now that they are going to hit it more than 400 yards as we are in our infancy with golf.
“You may think they are hitting it prodigious distances just now but this is ‘Mickey Mouse’. In golf, we haven’t yet had a big man, ie a Michael Jordan, and they are going to come into the game, partly because their careers are shorter in some sports and their bodies are ruined in them. They are seeing someone like myself, at the age of 76, still playing in tournaments and will want to do the same. These 7ft basketball players and American football players will be coming to golf, mark my words.
“The game is suffering so badly right now – not professional golf, which is at the highest peak it’s ever been – but the rounds of golf being played are diminishing. Golf has a real problem at the moment. Another change they are going to have to make is to cut the ball back. I know they are reluctant to do that, but I will take a massive bet that they will cut the ball back at some stage.
“There’s a man in Canada, Jamie Sadlowski, who is only 5ft 10in and only weighs 170lbs. I was watching him hit it more than 400 yards. So he could stand on the first tee at St Andrews and carry the green. I played at St Andrews the other day and worked out that in 30 years, they will drive nine of the holes. That is very bad as you’ve got a wonderful golf course that is going to be obsolete.
“We have to look into the future and it’s the man in the street who keeps the game going. I’ve travelled more than any human being in the last 60 years and at every town I go to they are changing their golf courses. They’ve changed it at St Andrews, they’re changing them at a country course in Timbuktu. They should be leaving the golf courses as they are and just cut the ball back for professionals by 50 yards. Instead, we are spending hundreds of millions of pounds making these changes to courses all around the world. It’s all unnecessary.
“The R&A say the game is the same for everyone, but it is two separate games – one for the pros and one for the amateurs. They should leave the technology for the amateurs, let them hit the ball 50 yards further. But in professional golf we have to do something to stop this trend.
“Then there are the long and belly putters. I never choked under pressure. But I can tell you about loads of guys who choked like a junkyard dog. Marc Warren, in the Scottish Open, was three shots ahead with five to play but why did he not win? The nerves obviously got to him. You see this time and time again.
“But players who might have been affected by nerves coming down the stretch are being helped by these long and belly putters. Once you anchor the putter it takes the shakes away. Ernie Els said recently that he felt using the belly was really cheating but he said it was still applicable so that’s why he’s using it.
“We are reluctant to make all these changes and it worries me. The manufacturers are having a tough time and for me it’s the golf ball that has changed the game. It’s down to the R&A and the USGA to sit down and make this change. Rory McIlroy drove it on the 16th green at Royal Lytham in the Open Championship, Brandt Snedeker had a hole in one in practice. In years to come they are going to be hitting 4-irons on there from the tee. It’s going to make a mockery of the game. I talked to people down at Lytham and a lot of them said it’s been terrible not to see players hitting drivers. They want to come to the most important tournament in the world but are watching them hit irons off tees.
“I’m only advocating cutting the ball back for the professionals. I’m also saying the amateurs should continue to use the long putters as what we are trying to do is make the game more enjoyable for these people and also speed it up. It’s murder the time they are taking to play a round these days. We need more nine and 12-hole events.”
One aspect of the game Player is happy to stay as it is concerns the strike rate of South African players in majors in recent years. Trevor Immelman, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel have all made the big breakthroughs and, of course, Els has just been crowned as the Open champion again, the Big Easy’s dramatic win at Royal Lytham last Sunday taking his major title haul to four.
“I was so pleased for Ernie,” admitted the man who won four Open Championships himself and nine majors in total. “Ernie has had a rough time the last two years. I got very frustrated when I would see him like 65th in the world. I’m telling everybody, ‘he should never be out of the top five and he’ll come back’. Last weekend he came back very well and it was fantastic to see.”
In Player’s eyes, the reason Els got his hands on the Claret Jug instead of Adam Scott, who had it wrenched from his grasp after dropping shots at the final four holes, was mainly down to differing course management between the two main protagonists. “That was so noticeable to me,” he added. “Sitting there watching, having won 18 majors [including his haul in the senior game], I know what transpires in these particular events. There’s Ernie, he’s playing the last hole and he looks up and he says, ‘if I birdie this hole, I’ve got a chance’.
“So what does he do? All week, he’s taking an iron. Now he goes with a driver and hits the perfect drive, which he knew he had to do. It sets him up for the birdie and he gets it.
“Now Adam Scott follows behind. With five holes to go, I said to my friend, ‘Ernie’s going to win’. He said, ‘Are you crazy?’ I didn’t know you could put money on at that stage. If I did, I would put 50 quid on it because Ernie was holing the putts the last few holes to put big pressure on him, when he had not had big pressure on him all week.
“Adam’s ball-striking had been the best all week. At 15, he hit a 6 or 7-iron and bogeys it. That shouldn’t happen. That perturbs him a bit. Now he comes to 16 and hits a perfect tee shot to leave him around 90 yards for his second. Playing first, Graeme McDowell, with the wind behind him, pitches short of the green, just on the front edge and runs it up.
“Now, the one thing that Adam Scott has got to say to himself is, ‘I don’t want to go by this hole, I’ve got a three-shot lead’. He hits it, it pitches at the flag and runs 30-40 foot by, three-putts. Bad, bad, bad course management. If he leaves it short, he gets par, at least. Okay, so now, 17, you can bogey that hole [as Scott did after finding a thick clump of rough just off the back left-hand corner of the green].
“Now he comes to 18, and, honestly, I’m not being a smart ass saying this. But, the minute he put his hand on that 3-wood, I said to my friend, ‘it’s lost’. He’s gone with an iron all week, you either lay it up, or you go for it. The 3-wood is in the bunker zone and that’s a certain hazard. I said, ‘under this pressure, he’s going in that bunker’.
“And I’m shocked because his caddie [Steve Williams] is a world-renowned caddie. I would love to get his point of view. He should have gone with driver. If I was him, I would have gone with driver, because he he’s got a beautiful swing and he’s so long that he can carry that. He’s only got a sand wedge to the green and even being in the rough would have done a hell of a lot better than being in the bunker.
“In contrast, I’ve never seen such a display of course management from Ernie. I’m sure he’d have been saying to himself, ‘can I win another major? And people were thinking that he couldn’t. Most people said he won’t win another major. I said, ‘why not?’ He’s 42. When I was 42, I won the Masters; Nicklaus was 46 and won the Masters; and Julius Boros was 48 and won the PGA. So I think those people were talking nonsense. Now, Ernie himself will believe that, and I believe he’ll win some more majors.”
Three of the last four majors have been won by players using belly putters, Els having followed Keegan Bradley (USPGA Championship) and Webb Simpson (US Open). With the R&A and USGA currently looking into whether or not action should be taken against the use of long putters, Player added his voice to the chorus calling for them to be outlawed.
“I’ve always said that nerves are such an integral part of the game and when you hit the long putter or the belly putter, straightaway you’re reducing nerves by 20 per cent,” said the man known as The Black Knight. “That’s a shame because coming down the last few holes, this is what determines who wins. Once you anchor, you’re taking away a large percentage of nerves. Ernie has said himself that he feels players using long putters are cheating and they shouldn’t have them. But I’ve been saying it for years.”
Based on the emergence of players like Oosthuizen and Schwartzel in recent years – Branden Grace, a three-time winner on the European Tour this season, could be the next to make the big breakthrough – South African golf is leading the way in world golf at the moment in terms of having a conveyor belt of talent.
“Again it was Winston Churchill who said the ‘youth of the nation are the trustees of posterity’ so we have to get as many young people as possible playing the game,” said Player.
“Look at South Africa, a small country half the size of Germany that has had more major winners post-war than any other country outside America. Can you believe that South Africa has had more major winners than Britain or Australia. It’s incredible.
“Why is that? First it’s because we have the best climate in the world. Second, it’s because we have 300 golf courses, third we have marvellous junior programmes and fourth we’ve had a bar set by Bobby Locke and myself.”
For Player, that bar has been high throughout his career. Indeed, he regards his senior career grand slam – the only player to have achieved that feat – as being more impressive than recording the same feat in the regular majors. “People laugh at me when I say that,” he admitted. “But the reason I say that is that you’ve got to do it after the age of 50.
“The standard of senior play is also very high. Take Tom Watson at Turnberry in 2009 [when he came close to winning a sixth Open Championship at the age of 59]. I reckon that [his second to the 72nd] was the most unlucky golf shot in history.
“He hit a perfect shot in there but lost the Open. If he’d won that it would have been the greatest achievement in history.”
European golf has enjoyed some great achievements in recent times, as Player was reminded when he paid a visit to the European Tour offices at Wentworth a couple of years ago. “I walked in and saw the four major championship trophies [held at the time by Oosthuizen (Open), Martin Kaymer (USPGA), Charl Schwartzel (Masters) and Graeme McDowell (US Open)] there,” he recalled. “I looked at it and thought I would have bet a million pounds at one point that wouldn’t have happened in my time. It is very good for golf because you don’t want domination.
“The changes I have seen in the Ryder Cup have been remarkable. When I came over here, in the old days I vividly remember that I never even looked on the Monday to see who had won the Ryder Cup. It was a one-way street, a massacre. But now the Ryder Cup has become a phenomenal event.” Those remarks were made within earshot of Doug Ferguson, the reputable golf correspondent for Associated Press. “We don’t look on Monday now either,” quipped the American to a hearty chuckle from Player.
A sitdown with him, however, wouldn’t be the same if he wasn’t the one telling humourous stories. On this occasion, the pick was about Tommy Bolt, the former US Open champion who had a fierce temper that regularly led to him sending his club hurtling after the ball. “When I first met Tommy out in America, he came strutting out and I introduced myself to him. He asked me where I was from then said, ‘son let me give you some advice’. I was not a club thrower but he said, ‘make sure you throw it with all your weight on the left side with your right hand out looking like a matador. If you do it in style like that, you will get on the front page. But, if you throw it like a commoner, you’ll get the back page’.
“He said, ‘have a look at my golf bag’ and I looked over to see the following words on it, ‘you must buy Tommy Bolt’s clubs – they stay in the air longer than any other clubs’ ”. I couldn’t stop laughing. One of the few names I knew then was Arnold Palmer so I asked Tommy, ‘what about Arnold Palmer, he doesn’t throw golf clubs around?’ Tommy was almost shouting when he replied, ‘Arnold Palmer’s wife, Winnie, is the greatest club retriever that ever lived’.”
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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