AUSTIN, Texas - Gary Player is synonymous with golf. Justifiably so considering he has 163 wins on both the PGA and Champions Tour, including an incredible 18 major wins - second only to Jack Nicklaus. However, when you take a closer look, you realize Gary Player is so much more than golf.
Fortunately, when Player recently stopped in Austin to check on the progress of his signature and future home course, Marshall Ranch, and visit with the local media, I had the opportunity to spend a day with the "Black Knight," so named for his penchant to wear black attire on the course.
Naturally, golf, which has been his livelihood for 49 of his 67 years, was the central topic of conversation including his successful venture into golf course design and projects such as Marshall Ranch. However, it was quite evident in the various conversations throughout the day that Player has an assortment of other interests outside the game as he discussed subjects such as health, fitness, and education.
The day started out ominously as Player and his staff were late. In an effort to kill time, representatives of Marshall Ranch took several members of the media on an impromptu tour of the "under construction" course. At the conclusion of the ad hoc excursion, we drove up a dusty, gravel path to the top of a hill and under several clusters of oak trees. As we exited the car one representative explained this was the future site of the clubhouse while he pointed to the 73-mile long Lake Travis behind. However, on this day there was no extravagant clubhouse, but instead, an air-conditioned trailer. The setting was surreal, as we would be interviewing one of the greatest golfers of all time in essentially a well-furnished construction trailer.
Finally, almost a half-hour later, an entourage of cars pulled up the same dusty road and the small man with a big history stepped out of - appropriately enough - a black SUV.
"Good morning, gentlemen," he greeted us, in his distinct South African accent. "Sorry we were late, but that Austin traffic was much worse than we expected," he apologized.
Moments later and after a few handshakes with various people, the two of us were sitting inside the cool, quiet trailer. Player sat behind an office desk in a reclining chair while I sat on a small sofa.
After I introduced myself, Player, again expressed regret for being late. "We left an hour ago and had no idea it would take this long," he explained. "I'm very sorry."
I assured him that his tardiness was not an issue. How could I complain? I was in the presence of one of the game's greats. I had read stories about this tenacious competitor who had an equally polite demeanor that had earned him the title "The International Ambassador of Golf." Minutes after meeting the man and several sincere apologies later, I realized the nickname was a perfect fit. In retrospect, it was at this same time the surreal location of our interview faded out of my mind.
Expectedly, golf and Marshall Ranch was his first and foremost thought. When asked why he chose to design a course for Marshall Ranch, located 30 minutes northwest of Austin, the reason was simple - the property is second to none.
"When you come to Texas, particularly Austin and the Hill Country and you have this lake, I could see a lot of potential here, like you see in not a lot of places. It's an architect's dream," Player beamed about the property.
"You know, Kyle," he surprised me, referencing me by name, "we've done 200 courses around the world in all kinds of places such as mountains, beaches and forests. Not many places will compare to this. This is really exceptional."
A half-hour later our interview was complete. In hindsight, the day had just begun.
Following several other media interviews, we were shuttled back down the dusty, gravel path on to a paved road and to a house, which was virtually on the lake. With the caterer running late, Ed Pazdur, publisher of Executive Golfer Magazine, and myself mingled about with Player's staff and several Marshall Ranch representatives. During that same time, Player conducted several phone interviews.
When lunch arrived Player sat down with Pazdur, several others, and myself for some friendly conversation. It was here on the veranda, over lunch and overlooking Lake Travis where we really learned about Gary Player, the person of varied interests, concerns and passions.
Since we were eating, the conversation naturally gravitated toward eating, health, and fitness.
Without question, the most unique of Player's health-related philosophies is regarding the consumption of food, or lack thereof, in the evening. He said he eats fruit, and on occasion, small portions of fish, but not very often.
"An old friend once told me, you don't go fill up your car with gas at night and then park it in the garage. Eating a big meal for dinner is essentially the same thing," he smiled, knowing the simple analogy made its point to those who listened.
He continued on health, discussing obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and how all are preventable. "It's simple. You exercise regularly and watch what you eat and you could extend your life and quality of life."
The 70-plus-year-old Pazdur, who by his own admission is overweight and has had heart problems in the past, was transfixed by Player's conversation listening intently to his every word. Finally, the portly man spoke up. "Gary, do you think it's too late for me?"
"No Ed," the golfer, now health tutor said assuredly. "It's never too late."
Pazdur looked down at his food, paused, then glanced up at Player across the table. "If you say it's not too late, then I'm going to do it," he said sincerely. "
Immediately, there were flashbacks to the old E.F. Hutton commercials - "When Player talks, people listen."
Toward the end of our lunch, Player changed the topic embarking on a discussion about his interest in education. He spoke of the Gary Player Foundation, which he created in 1983 to provide education for underprivileged children in poor rural communities in South Africa.
Player said at the Blair Atholl Farm, just north of Johannesburg, the Foundation has undertaken three projects including the building of a primary school for 400 children, upgrading a pre-school for 75 toddlers, and the creation of a new community resource center.
While creating or upgrading these facilities is important, he said the actual operation of each is crucial and includes transportation to and from school, feeding the children, and basic medical care.
In addition, the Foundation established an outreach program for adults that provides adult basic education, teacher training, and sporting facilities for the community.
It was only after our lunch conversation that I realized those who had conducted phone interviews with Player before lunch may have got the quotes for their story, but they didn't get the whole story. They didn't hear the conviction with which he spoke. They didn't see the animated movements of his hands, or his facial expressions that conveyed so much emotion. They didn't see those around him and how they listened to his every word like it was the gospel. I was the lucky one.
Although I had planned on leaving immediately following lunch, I couldn't resist when afforded the opportunity to ride around with Player, Pazdur and a few others to view the future 18-hole course. I knew there would be more great stories and more wisdom imparted. But it was his excitement, passion, and overall zest that I wanted to be around. It was contagious.
I was not disappointed.
When we approached one hole where large precision-cut stones weighing several tons were resting, Player was first to climb up and over the rocks twice his size to show us a future par 3. "Look at this stone," he said excitedly, as he carefully stepped from one stone to the next. "It's just spectacular." For a native Texan who has seen this type of rock for many years, I normally would not have been impressed. But coming from Player, the rocks had a unique characteristic I had never seen before.
Almost two hours later, we returned back to the house, where I informed the group that I had to leave. I walked over to Player and shook his hand, thanking him for his time. He smiled. "Thank you, Kyle. Thanks for coming out. It was a pleasure meeting you."
No, Mr. Player, the pleasure was all mine.
December 22, 2002
Since graduating from the University of Texas in 1992 with a degree in journalism, Kyle Dalton has been a writer and editor for a variety of national publications in various fields.
Finding a golf course to play in the Sarasota/Bradenton area 45 miles south of Tampa is easy. World-ranked beaches, European-style boutique shopping and al fresco dining, and a fantastic circus museum are just a few of the choices available for off-course entertainment.
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