Gary Player laughs as he reveals that he was tasked with keeping answers tight when interviewed during a dinner the previous night. “I had to do it very briefly, I was instructed… that was very hard for me!’
A genuine golfing legend, with nine majors to his game, the raconteur’s stories are plentiful, wide-ranging and winding, but the fact they are laced with references to fellow greats such as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan and Seve Ballesteros and recount final-round battles and the guts behind the glory, give his opinions real credence.
So, when he talks of the boost a Tiger Woods victory this week would give the game – people listen.
Back at Carnoustie fifty years after he won the second of his three Open Championships, he recounts an iconic shot on the 14th fairway. That 3-wood, into the wind, to within two feet of the hole separated him from the rest that year and is hailed by Player as a moment of divine intervention.
“I was playing with Jack Nicklaus, one ahead of him. The wind was into our face, and I hit a drive up the right-hand side. The other day I went there and kissed the ground and said a prayer of thanks because those kind of things don’t happen in your life, maybe only one time. I’m not that good. That’s a miracle!”
Behind the folksy anecdotes, there is grandfatherly wisdom and a fire that burns.It is fuelled by a love of the sport he has promoted for more than 60 years and stoked by his frustration that some modern-day players seem to be demanding superstar remuneration before attaining that status. Which brings him back to Woods.
“I remember Peter Thomson, who I thought was a highly intelligent, well-read man, who was one of the best links players that ever lived, a five-time Open champion. He said something to me close to 60 years ago. He said: ‘Appearance money will harm the game’. He couldn’t say to what extent but what I’m seeing happen now is quite serious.
“We had the biggest money tournament in the world in South Africa, the Nedbank Classic. We had Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, everybody. Now, if you want a top player to come from America, even one who’s never won a major championship, never really excelled, he wants $500,000.
“Yes, pay them. But managers have got to be realistic and realise that every golfer has a debt; to society, to you people, we have a debt to the public, and the sponsors. We want the world to see the top players.
“Tiger Woods was paid millions of dollars. He deserved it because he was in a league of his own. And he brought the people in. But when you see an ordinary player who’s never won a major asking for $500,000, it’s a very sad day.”
The return to the top for the American is something Player would love to see marked with another major win. In a field he believes is wide open, he has an inkling Rickie Fowler may emerge from the pack, but believes that Woods gaining his 15th major would be best for the game.
“My big wish would be that he would win because Tiger Woods is responsible for these guys playing for a million every week,” said Player.
“I think Tiger captured the young people, which we need in this game desperately at the moment. If he can bring this, it enhances the game and brings more young people into the game, the sponsors are delighted, the public are delighted, you media are delighted. People are still in awe of him, which he deserves after 14 majors.”
Heralding him as the only superstar in a competition brimful of others Player downgrades to stars, very good and good players, he says the profile of the game would benefit. “I hope he wins another major. We desperately need him to do that for the sake of the game.
“I have a way of judging players, I go by the bottom line. Not how charismatic they were, not how far they hit the ball, not how good a putter they wer but what they won. I’ve always said there are categories. Superstar, star, very good, and good. And I’ve always said, to be a superstar, because you’ve got to set the bar high, you need six majors.”
With 14, Woods is the only man at Carnoustie to meet those standards, Phil Mickleson, on five, is the only other who can aspire to join such an exalted grouping come the end of this week. But, on a course that served up Player’s fondest career memory, there are over 150 others he says could throw a spanner in the works.