South African, 80, owns Gary Player Stud in Colesberg
Fell in love with horses aged eight
Bred 1994 St Leger second and Derby runner Broadway Flyer
Won nine major golf championships between 1959 and 1978
He is one of the golf’s legends, but Gary Player has twin passions that are on a par.
Horses and farming have provided the bedrock for the South African’s celebrated sporting life and are his sanctity away from golf and the limelight.
“I love golf, and I love horses and farming. I don’t know what I love more – I have to give them a tie,” Player told CNN’s Winning Post.
“They both play a very important role in my life. There’s a wonderful saying, very familiar with people in the horse business – ‘the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.’
“When I take a break from golf, I can recharge my batteries, which is a big help. Longevity has been a very valuable part of my life.”
The 80-year-old – famous for his role as one of golf’s “Big Three” alongside Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus – won nine major championships between 1959 and 1978.
To put his achievements into perspective, Player is one of only five golfers to have won the career Grand Slam of all four major titles alongside Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
Player forged his global career at a time when air travel was often a long-winded affair, and claims to be the “most traveled human on the planet.”
But despite the hundreds of thousands of air miles, Player’s heart has always been in South Africa. And since 1974, on his farm near Colesberg on rich karoo (semi-desert) veld midway between Cape Town and Johannesburg.
“When I bought this farm it was just bare ground,” says Player, who has six children with wife Vivienne, and 22 grandchildren.
“There was an old mud hut house here and a few old stables. I demolished everything and I planted every tree here, [built] all the rock walls, all the dams, all the irrigation schemes. And I plan this when I’m traveling on airplanes. You’ve got to have an interest.
“I mean, I lose money on my farm here but I keep going because it’s a passion. It’s a way of life, what it does for me, I go to bed early, I wake up early.”
Player’s vast property features more than 300 acres of irrigated pasture, a 1,500-acre game reserve, a golf course and his thoroughbred breeding business, the Gary Player Stud.
His mares have bred more than 2,000 winners, including Broadway Flyer, which came second in the 1994 English classic the St Leger and ran in the Derby the same year.
He became the first South African to breed the winner of an international Group One race when Broadway Flyer won the 1996 Sword Dancer Invitational Handicap in the U.S.
Player attributes the quality of his stock to the land on which they are raised and live – the karoo, which holds an abundance of trace elements and high calcium content crucial to growing strong-boned, athletic horses.
“Water wise and fresh air wise, you can’t get better in the world,” Player says.
“It’s God’s way – it’s nature’s way. Not artificial, for a start. Some of our paddocks are three or four hundred acres big, natural grazing with 50 different kinds of bushes with different minerals.
“We plant our own lucerne, or alfalfa as they call it in America. So I know what’s going in my alfalfa, I don’t put too much nitrogen in it. It’s all natural here. What a big difference to raise that horse knowing what they’re eating.
“This karoo, it’s very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter, which I think is ideal. I love the idea of heat and cold. We do that in athletics today, if you’ve got a pain – ice – heat – ice – heat. Other times it’s very moderate.
“They have their freedom to roam, and as an athlete, I realize we’re still in our infancy regarding the value of exercise. At 80 years of age, I still beat most 40-year-olds in the fitness contest because of exercise.”
‘Fell in love’
Player’s passion for horses stemmed from a very early age and stayed with him as he strode the fairways of the world.
“I was eight years old when my mother died and I was very lonely because my brother went to war at 17, my sister was at boarding school and my father worked in a gold mine, 8,000 feet underground, making a hundred pounds a month,” says Player.
“I had a friend at the school I went to – King Edward VII – who had a beautiful farm in Johannesburg. He very kindly invites me to the farm and I get on this horse and we wash the horse and take the sweat off it and I fall in love with the horse.”
Player’s equine business interests began by importing American quarter horses, speedsters over short distances which are popular as rodeo and working ranch horses.
“I went to America and visited farms and they put me on these quarter horses,” Player adds. “They are remarkable. So just one thing after another, I brought 60 quarter horses to South Africa – I wish I had bought thoroughbreds at that stage – and then obviously followed with the thoroughbred business.”
Player puts his longevity – he played a record 52 Masters tournaments between 1957 and 2009 – down to healthy eating and exercise, not dissimilar to the life of his horses.
“Being small in stature, I wanted to be a professional athlete and I realized that I needed to do something different,” he says.
“I outworked every other golfer. I might not have the size and I have to travel to their countries, without jets, 40 hours in an airplane, stopping four times, with six children, to play against these people around the world and beat them.
“If I’d have been born in their countries I would have won way more tournaments but I wanted to live in South Africa. I wanted my children to be raised in South Africa because there’s something in Africa that you can never ever explain.”
Player will return to Augusta in April to perform the role of honorary starter for the Masters alongside his old pals Palmer and Nicklaus.
But his heart will always be in the karoo.
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