Gary Player may be 80 but he is “too busy to die”, so is making plans for the next 20 years. “While most people are sitting on their fat bums and dying, I still have many desires,” said the Black Knight in typically forthright fashion in Dubai, speaking at a press conference to mark the Nedbank Golf Challenge, the Sun City event that Player has been synonymous with for over 35 years, becoming part of the European Tour’s Final Series for the first time this season.
The nine-time major winner expressed his delight about that exciting development, having seen the South African tournament start with just five players when it carried the game’s first $1 million prize pot and go from strength to strength, but, as ever, he didn’t need much encouragement to offer his views on a variety of hot topics in the sport.
Player, for instance, hailed Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, the so-called new “Big Three” as “wonderful young golfers and wonderful ambassadors”, insisting the trio can help attract a new wave of youthful players to golf as we wait and wonder if Tiger Woods can become a force again when he eventually returns from a lay-off that could well see him miss the entire 2016 campaign.
“Tiger gave golf as much a boost as I’ve ever seen in my life and it is vitally important that he comes back,” said Player of the 14-times major winner. “But what a challenge he’s got on his hands after his various knee and back operations. Fifty per cent of me says he will come back, but 50 per cent of me says I have my doubts.”
The South African reckoned Woods, long before he started to become a shadow of his former self as he struggled to hit fairways and was then struck by the chipping yips, was probably the best putter he had seen in the game. Then Spieth came along and raised the bar on the greens to a new level as he won both The Masters and US Open last season to become world No 1 at just 22.
“Rory McIlroy and Jason Day have the best swings of the ‘Big Three’ at the moment, but Spieth might be as good a putter as I’ve seen,” he declared with a sense of real authority built on the fact he has been a professional for 63 years. “Tiger takes a lot of beating, but day in, day out this man is such a great putter.”
Insisting that “superstar” status in golf could only be earned through six major successes, Player went on: “It’s going to be fascinating to see who does the best among Spieth, McIlroy and Day. But that old saying the Scottish people came up with, ‘you drive for show and putt for dough’, is so damn true.”
It is, indeed, and, though finishing third and sixth in Abu Dhabi and Dubai with a combined aggregate of 29-under-par in his first two outings of the year over the past three weeks is far from shabby, it’s definitely on the greens that McIlroy continues to struggle compared to any other part of his game.
Staying on putting, Player said he was “vehemently against” the sport’s two ruling bodies, the R&A and the USGA, including the amateur game in the anchoring ban that came into effect at the start of this year. Indeed, he is adamant that bifurcation is a must for the good of golf overall.
“You can’t do everything the same for professional golf and amateur golf,” claimed the three-time Open champion. “This is where I’ve had disagreements with our leaders in the sport. They all say it’s the same game, and it’s not the same game. If you think it’s the same game, just go and watch Tiger Woods tee off and watch an amateur play at the weekend. You’ll get the shock of your life. We’ve got to make adjustments for the benefit of the game.”
Player’s “plans for the next 20 years” include designing more golf courses around the world, raising $100 million for underprivileged people and, a little bit more from left field, becoming sport’s all-time top orator, hence why he both reads and often quotes Winston Churchill. “Inactivity is what kills you when you get older,” he said. “You have to keep moving and you have to keep improving your mind.”
As ever, a fascinating audience in the desert with one of the game’s greats, who couldn’t hide his delight to see an old friend, long-time Scottish Daily Express golf correspondent Jock MacVicar, for the first time in a while. “I didn’t think you were still alive,” said Player, smiling. “I’m so happy to see you again. You’re the only man that’s got the Scottish blood like me!”