Player: South Africa’s sportsman of the century

With 163 international tournament wins, Gary Player is 63 wins ahead of the man whom many consider to be the greatest golfer of all times, Jack Nicklaus.

Known as the Black Knight because of the all-black clothing he wears on the course, Player turned professional in 1953 and is still active on the Senior Tour today. (Image: Keith Allison, Flickr)

Brand South Africa Reporter

When readers of the country’s top-selling newspaper, the Sunday Times, were asked to vote for South Africa’s Sportsman of the Century, the runaway winner was golfer Gary Player.

It was hardly a surprise choice: with 163 international tournament wins, Player is 63 wins ahead of the man whom many consider to be the greatest golfer of all times, Jack Nicklaus.

South Africa’s Sportsman of the Century as voted for by readers of the country’s top-selling newspaper, The Sunday Times, Gary Player has blazed a trail of success on golf courses the world over.

The most travelled athlete ever

It is estimated that Player has probably flown further – in the region of 17.5-million kilometres – than any athlete in history. He has won 163 tournaments in that time, 63 more than the man acknowledged as the greatest golfer ever, Jack Nicklaus. In addition, Player is one of only five players to win the sport’s Grand Slam.

His remarkable career contains other milestones that demonstrate just how tough and durable the man is. Perhaps the best example occurred in 1978 when he won the US Masters after starting the final round seven shots off the pace. He blitzed the final 10 holes of the course for seven birdies to achieve a remarkable victory.

Player is also the only player in the twentieth century to win the British Open in three different decades. He scored victories for 27 consecutive years, 10 years better than the second-best mark by any golfer. He is also the oldest player to make the cut at both the British Open and the US Masters.

Nine major victories

His nine major victories place him fourth on the all-time list. He has won a further nine majors on the Senior Tour. Player won even more South African Open titles than his combined majors total, lifting the trophy 13 times, and won the Australian Open a record seven times. The Black Knight also showed how tough he is in one-on-one competition with five World Match Play Championship victories, a victory tally matched only by Seve Ballesteros and Ernie Els, who joined Player on that mark in October 2003.

He shares the mark for the lowest ever round in professional golf, a 59, which he achieved in the 1974 Brazilian Open. Player is one of the original inductees into the Golf Hall of Fame and one of only 10 golfers to be made an honorary member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club.

Player’s career is tightly bound to that of Nicklaus and another great, Arnold Palmer. The competition between the three great men from the late 1950s through to the 1970s, especially in the majors, did as much as anything done before or since to popularise the game.

The Black Knight

Known as the Black Knight because of the all-black clothing he wears on the course, Player turned professional in 1953 and is still active on the Senior Tour today. He recorded his first tournament victories in 1955, winning the East Rand Open, the Egyptian Matchplay and the South African PGA.

In 1956 he added another four victories to his record, successfully defending the East Rand Open and capturing the South African Open for the first time, as well as the Dunlop and Ampol Tournaments. In 1957 Player won for the first time outside of Africa, claiming the Australian PGA title. He also won the Coughs Harbour and Transvaal Open tournaments.

1958 was an important year for the Little Master as he recorded his first victory on the US PGA Tour in the Kentucky Derby Open. He added another four wins with the defence of his Coughs Harbour title, as well as a first Australian Open win and victories in the Natal Open and the Ampol tournament.

First major title

1959 brought with it an even bigger milestone when Player won his first major title, the British Open, with a four-round total of four-under-par 284, improving his score in every round. In a highly successful year he also won the South African PGA, the Natal Open, the Transvaal Open, the Western Province Open, the Dunlop Open and the Victoria Open, seven titles in all.

The beginning of the new decade brought another six titles for Player, including a second South African Open and a third South African PGA. His win in the Transvaal Open was his third, while he also successfully defended the Natal and Western Province Opens and added the Dunlop Masters.

In 1961 the Black Knight claimed his second major title when he became the first overseas player to don the famed green jacket awarded to the winner of the US Masters. It was a big year for Player, who also won two more times on the PGA Tour, claiming the Lucky International Open and the Sunshine Open International. Besides those three wins, he recorded his third win in the Ampol event and also picked up the Yomiuri Open title.

PGA Championship

1962 was another major winning season for the South African superstar as he claimed the PGA Championship. He failed to pick up any additional wins on the PGA Tour, but he did take the Transvaal Open for a fourth time and the Natal Open for a third time. His victory in the Australian Open was his second in that event.

Player enjoyed a flood of tournament victories in 1963. In the United States he captured the San Diego Invitational, while elsewhere he successfully defended the Australian Open title, winning the tournament for a third time. He took victory number five in the Transvaal Open, victory number two in the Dunlop Masters and added further wins in the Sponsored 5000, Liquid Air, Richelieu Grand Prix Cape Town and Richelieu Grand Prix Johannesburg tournaments.

The following year Player won “only” three events, the ‘500’ Festival Open Invitational and Pensacola Open Invitational in the USA, and the Dunlop Masters. The next year, though, proved to be a very big one.

Grand Slam completion

Player captured the US Open at the Bellerive Country Club to complete a Grand Slam of major victories, only the third person in history to achieve the feat, and today he remains one of only five players to have won the big four, the others being Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods. He also secured a third South African Open win, a fourth Australian Open and other wins in the World Series, the World Matchplay, NTL Challenge Cup and World Cup Invitational.

In 1966, Player successfully defended his World Matchplay title, trouncing the Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus, six and four in the final. He also added a number of familiar titles to his name, the South African Open for the fourth time, the Transvaal Open for the sixth time and the Natal Open for the fourth time.

Player added a fifth South African Open victory in 1967 and the Dunlop Masters once more, but it was a relatively quite year for the South African ace. Player had had a quiet year once before, however, only to follow it with a big one; and so it happened again.

Second British Open title

He captured the British Open for a second time in 1968 on a Carnoustie course that was acknowledged as the most difficult in golf. “It’s the best I’ve ever played and on the hardest course there is,” said Player afterwards. He also won the World Matchplay for the third time to further emphasise his toughness, edging out Bob Charles one-up in a tight contest. In addition, Player won SA Open title number six, Natal Open title number five, Western Province title number three, World Series title number two and the Australian Masters for the first time.

In 1969 Player claimed another PGA Tour win in the Tournament of Champions, and there was a familiar ring to the other events he won, the South African Open, the South African PGA, the Australian Open and the Australian Masters.

The South African tasted success on the PGA Tour again in 1970 when he won the Greater Greensboro Open. He won the Australian Open for the fifth time and also took victory in the Dunlop International.

Crushed Nicklaus

Player faced Nicklaus for the second time in a World Matchplay final in 1971, and once again he crushed the Golden Bear, winning his fourth matchplay crown with a five and four victory in the final. In the United States he won the Greater Jacksonville Open Invitational and the National Airlines Open Invitational. He added three more victories with his fourth Western Province Open title, yet another Dunlop Masters and the General Motors title.

Player let loose again in 1972, taking his sixth major after a break of four years, when he won the US PGA Championship at the Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. Incidentally, the total prize money for the tournament was $69 400! He added another US win at the Greater New Orleans Open Invitational and won the South African Open once more – his eighth success in the event – as well as Western Province Open title number five, World Series title number three, the Japan Airlines Open and the Brazilian Open.

The highlight of Player’s year in 1973 was a record fifth World Matchplay title. It was his closest victory in the event as he beat Graham Marsh at the fourth extra hole, the fortieth. In the USA he won the Southern Open Invitational, while he also secured victory in the General Motors Open.

Greatest year

1974 was probably the greatest year of the South African star’s career. He won two majors. At the British Open at Royal Lytham he won by four shots from Peter Oosterhuis and was the only player to crack par for the tournament. His victory also made him one of only three players to win the British Open in three different decades.

Player claimed his second green jacket with victory at Augusta in the Masters, but he accomplished much more in the same year. He added another US title with victory in the Danny Thomas-Memphis Classic. The Black Knight won his second Brazilian Open, firing a record-setting round of 59, the lowest ever in professional golf, and took wins in the Dunlop Masters, the Rand International, the General Motors Open, the Ibergolf Tournament, La Manaq Tournament and the Australian Open for the sixth time. He narrowly missed out on a sixth World Matchplay title, going down to Hale Irwin in the final, but 10 titles was an amazing achievement.

For Player, 1975 was a much quieter year, but then almost any year would have been quieter in comparison with 1974. Nonetheless, he tallied a ninth South African Open success and also had wins in the General Motors Classic and the Lancome Trophy.

SA Open title again

Player won a further three tournaments in 1976 – the Dunlop Masters for the sixth time, the General Motors Open for the fourth time, and the South African Open, taking his number of victories in this event into double figures.

It was almost predictable that the Little Master would add an eleventh South African Open title in 1977, and besides that win he also recorded successes in the ICL Transvaal Open and won the individual title at the World Cup.

In 1978 Player won the last of his majors, a third title at the US Masters, 17 years after his first at Augusta. It was an incredible victory for the 42-year old. He hadn’t won in four years in the United States, and heading into the final round he trailed Hubert Green by seven shots.

However, aided by a spectacular 30 on the back nine the South African star carded a final round 64 to claim his third green jacket. “I shot 30 on the back nine and I rimmed the hole three times,” said Player. “I thought to myself it was a good thing those putts didn’t go in because if you shoot 27 round Augusta they’ll never invite you back,” he joked.

There were two more titles in 1978 for South Africa’s Sportsman of the Century, ironically both in the United States, in the Tournament of Champions and the Houston Open.

1979 brought Player a twelfth South African Open title and the SA PGA crown once more. He also won the Bronenbrau Masters and the Sun City title. The following year there were only two wins for Player, in the Trophee Boigny and the Chilean Open.

Thirteenth and final SA Open win

There was a familiar look to his victories in 1981 when he won his thirteenth and final South African Open and the South African PGA.

It was another three years before player won again, taking the title at the Johnnie Walker tournament in Spain. In 1985 he joined the ranks of the seniors and immediately made his mark by winning the Quadel Seniors Classic in his very first senior event, one of only four players to accomplish that feat.

1986 brought him success in the Nissan Senior Skins as well as a senior major win in the PGA Seniors’ Championship, along with two more seniors’ titles at the United Hospital Classic and Denver Post Champions tournaments.

US Senior Open

Player added a second senior major in 1987 when he won the US Senior Open. He claimed other titles at the Northville Invitational, the Mazda TPC Senior and the Paine Webber World Seniors Invitational.

1988 proved to be a very big year for the Black Knight as he claimed three senior major titles. He won his first British Senior Open and took his second victories in both the US Senior Open and the PGA Seniors’ Championship. Besides those three big titles, Player also picked up the Aetna Challenge title, the Southwestern Bell Classic and the GTE North Classic. In 20 starts he won five times.

He repeated his success in the British Senior Open in 1989, successfully defended the GTE North Classic title and won the RJR Championship. 1990 brought Player a ‘three-peat’ as he won his third British Senior Open in succession, while he also won the PGA Seniors’ Championship for the third time. It was the last of his six senior majors.

Player’s penchant for winning titles more than once was evident once more in 1991 when he won the Nissan Senior Skins. He also added the Royal Caribbean Classic to his impressive record.

First winless season in 37 years

In 1992, at the age of 57, Player went winless for the first time in 37 years. The following year, however, he was back on the winning trail, taking two wins, in the Irish Senior Masters and the Bank One Classic.

He was at it again in 1994, securing a win in the Skills Challenge. For the fortieth consecutive season he competed in the British Open and, in the highlight of his year, was named an honorary member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Saint Andrews.

In 1995 he won the Bank One Classic title for the second time. He also received his first honorary degree when Saint Andrews University in Scotland awarded him a Doctor of Law degree. He is one of only two golfers to be honoured by the university in this manner. Besides this, Hilton Hotels bestowed on him their Lifetime Achievement Award.

Honorary doctorate

Player had to wait until 1997 for another win when he claimed the Dai Ichi Semei Cup Senior title. He was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Ireland’s University of Ulster.

He was back in victory lane in 1998, winning the Northville Long Island Classic just two months shy of his sixty-third birthday, making him the second-oldest winner in Senior PGA Tour history.

The following year his best finish was a tie for sixth at the Foremost Insurance Classic, although on the Super Seniors Tour for over-sixties he secured a ninth career title at the Pacific Bell Senior Classic. Maybe the highlight of his year was when the University of Dundee awarded him a third doctorate.

Besting the big guns

After a winless 1999, Player finished top of the pile in the Shell Wentworth Senior Masters and the 2000 Senior Skins Game, defeating Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer in a battle of the greats. He also became the youngest player in tour history to shoot his age when he carded an eight-under-par 64 in the opening round of the Bell South Senior Classic.

He failed to pick up a title in 2001, but his contribution to the game was recognised when he was named the World Golf Hall Of Fame’s Global Ambassador.

In 2003, Gary Player’s great contribution to golf was further recognised as he led the International Team against the United States – led by his great friend Jack Nicklaus – in the Presidents Cup at the Fancourt Links, a course that he himself had designed.

Hall of Fame

Gary Player claims to be the most-travelled athlete in history, and it is hard to argue with his aggregate of over 12-million air miles! With victories in 27 consecutive years, his is the best run of wins in history. It is, in fact, 10 years better than the second-best record. Not surprisingly, he is a member of Golf’s Hall of Fame, and his honorary membership of the Royal and Ancient puts him in select company. He is one of only 10 golfers to receive the honour.

One of the legacies of his career is the famous quote: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” 18 holes-in-one during his professional career attest to that.

Interestingly enough, when he travelled to England in 1955 to pursue a career in golf, he was told he didn’t have what it takes to become successful. Would the person who said that like salt and pepper with those words they were forced to eat?

Player might be getting older, but with a record like he has, and the will to win that he maintains, it is difficult to bet against South Africa’s Sportsman of the Century.

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