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Camaraderie with Palmer is special

Gary Player may be 76 but remains as youthfully exuberant today as he was when he won at Muirfield 53 years ago. The South African legend, considered among the greatest golfers of all time with 165 tournament victories, was in the Capital and HT caught up with the ‘Black Knight’, supposedly the most travelled athlete in the world with more than 15 million air miles to his name, on Thursday.

other Updated: Mar 02, 2012 02:13 IST
Tomojit Basu

Gary Player may be 76 but remains as youthfully exuberant today as he was when he won at Muirfield 53 years ago. The South African legend, considered among the greatest golfers of all time with 165 tournament victories, was in the Capital and HT caught up with the ‘Black Knight’, supposedly the most travelled athlete in the world with more than 15 million air miles to his name, on Thursday.

At the very outset, why golf?
Well, I was 14 when I first got interested in the game. I was playing cricket and rugby mainly when my father convinced me to try golf. Initially I was hesitant and tried it just for the sake of it but quite soon after I really took the sport. I turned professional at 17 much to my father’s disgust as he was more keen that I went to university instead.

Golf tends to be regarded as a rich man’s hobby. Would you agree?
I lost my mother when I was eight years old and my father was a gold-miner who was away from home quite a lot and did not earn much money. However, he took out a loan to buy me my first set of clubs. Golf is anyone’s game provided you have the will to excel.

Would you say that better technology available today makes better golfers? How has professional golf changed in your opinion?http://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/Popup/2012/3/02_mar_pg21a.jpg

Not really, I don’t see anyone play as well as Ben Hogan or Sam Snead even with the changes in clubs and balls. That said, it would be unfair to compare golfers across eras but yes, improved balls today travel much further than before and the fairways and greens look like snooker table cloth. Things like these are advantageous.

Back then, we had to travel for hours to get to a tournament. My earnings from three Masters wins was about $80,000 when one can make almost $4.2 million today. We used to catch a cab from the airport, today there’re cars to make the players’ lives easier. But we had great times, it was more closely knit and we would often even head over to a fan’s house for a meal or catch a drink. You don’t see that nowadays.

At your peak and much after, you lived under an apartheid regime. Did you ever feel a sense of responsibility when you were travelling abroad for tournament as a white South African?
Definitely and I tried to do my bit for people in the country itself by sponsoring black golfers and an Indian-origin golfer, Papwa Sewgolum, for tournaments. I put up a quiet demonstration at St Andrews once where I wore pants that was white and black on either leg. I was close to the Prime Minister at the time, John Vorster, who was staunchly for the apartheid government and I tried to remove apartheid from South African sport when I went to his office and said that I wanted to bring Lee Elder to South Africa and he agreed.

With the exception of Seve Ballesteros, you’re probably the best bunker player of all time. What made you focus on the short game?
I’ve always said that it’s important to focus on the short game as that is what will win you matches more than the ability to hit long. I used to practice every day from six in the morning to perfect bunker shots and that set me apart from a lot of the field. Seve even challenged me once and I won!

You also harped on fitness which in those days was held in casual regard.
That’s because I was small as compared to most of the other pros. I figured that if I could get strong and fit then I’d be able to match them. I still maintain a strict regimen today, 1000 sit ups over a week. I’m quite certain that I’d beat most twenty year-olds in the gym! That’s the beauty of golf, longevity is possible which isn’t the case with soccer, cricket or tennis.

What set Arnold (Palmer), Jack (Nicklaus) and you apart?
They’re both incredibly talented golfers and between us I think we have almost 56 Majors - that’s what sets us apart for now. The camaraderie made it all the more special.

Your one most memorable accomplishment?
It would be becoming the first non-American to win the Grand Slam and also the wins on the senior tour.

Who’s impressed you the most among the current crop of players?
Rory McIlroy, I think he’s a tremendous and very intelligent player. However, I do hope Tiger (Woods) gets his form back as that will be great for golf.

You’ve played with quite a few celebrities in your time, US Presidents Eisenhower, Ford and Bush Sr. to name a few. Which celebrity do you wish you could have played?
(laughs) They’re usually not very good but I think I’d love to have taken on Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela if that was possible. I’m not too sure Gandhi played golf but he’s someone I really admire.

The interest in throughbreds – how did that come around?
Well, I had a friend who owned horses and from the first time that I went to his house, I was consumed by the thought of breeding thoroughbred horses. And they’ve been doing quite well at the races too!

Golf courses have been proven to be damaging to the environment, the usage of pesticides having been linked to Non-Hodgkin’s Disease among superintendents alongside massive water wastage. How do you counter this on your courses?
I own a large scale farm and I grew up respecting natural resources which is why I try to make my courses as environmentally friendly as possible. For example, we’re using treated water from the sewage plant here (in Gurgaon) and I explain to the workers the importance of using the right grasses which will limit the use of pesticides. We need to value the environment even as golf expands across the world.

Finally, how much potential do you see in Indian golf?
South Africa is a tiny nation that has 23 Major champions to its name. India, with its huge population, can certainly produce golf champions but for that there need to be good courses and the schools need to be tapped. Academies need to be put in place. China’s doing some great things with golf, there’s no reason why India can’t either. Jeev (Milkha Singh) is a great competitor and there will be many more like him if not better.