South Africa’s First Star Deserves Respect

South Africa has a new golfing superstar. With many wondering if Ernie Els’ time as force in the majors is now in terminal decline, with Retief Goosen perhaps not the player he was a few years ago, Trevor Immelman’s Masters victory has delivered a new force.

Yet one star continues to transcend them all. Immelman’s hero, Gary Player, continues to be the most recognisable of South African sporting heroes. In his seventies the man who, with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, changed the face of golf, continues to travel, play and promote the game that made him rich.

But Gary Player is not feted the way Nicklaus is. Or the way Palmer, Watson and Trevino are (all of whom won fewer majors than the Black Knight). The BBC commentary at the Masters picked up on the perceived lack of recognition: tellingly there was nobody in the booth prepared to wholeheartedly advocate Player’s claims for immortality.

In the national press here in the UK there has been an undercurrent in all the coverage of Player’s record 51st appearance at Augusta. The sneering, the outright hostility, is never far away when some journalists talk about him.

True, Player missing yet another cut is hardly news. But his playing partners on Thursday and Friday looked to be enjoying playing with a legend. And on Friday, dressed from head to toe in white but hell bent on refusing to surrender, Player broke 80. In his seventies and, whisper it, beginning to look something approaching his age, the world’s most travelled athlete gained some measure of self respect against a course that was ravaging men half his age.

But still Player is not celebrated in the way his peers are. His last, perhaps most impressive, major at Augusta in 1978 is rarely lauded in the way Nicklaus’ similar rolling back of the years is talked about. (Despite Player shooting 64 to win in ’78 compared to Jack’s 65 in 1986).

The galleries rarely seem to cherish seeing him in the way they clutched the maturing Palmer to their hearts. If Palmer had kissed the 18th green the way Player did on Friday you can imagine the patrons at Augusta would have gone into paroxysms of delight. Player’s ovation was respectful not warm. Arnie was celebrated for what he had achieved, what he meant to people. Player, at times, seems celebrated for nothing more than still being here.

In Wednesday’s Par Three event Player played with Nicklaus and Palmer. Some three ball, to be sure. But it seemed that Player was an interloper at that feast of legends. They loved Arnie, they loved Jack. They watched Mr Player.

Why is it that Player does not seem cherished in the way that other greats are? Arnie’s Army accounts for a lot of the affection that Palmer enjoys. But Player’s star shone for longer. Arnie’s career at the highest level was emphatic but brief.

Player’s detractors would argue that his own insistence at his place in the game’s firmament makes it hard to like him. You can only concede this point if you accept that the Golden Bear has been quick to point out his own achievements down the years. True, it can be irritating when you here Player drop in his claim to be the most travelled athlete in the world in every interview. And there is only so much you can hear about his fitness regime or his thoughts on diet without wanting to lie on the couch and eat ice cream.

But it is that fitness regime, the insistence on practicing, the thousands of miles travelled that have helped mould the professional game as we recognise it today. Immelman was quick to pay tribute to Player on Sunday evening, recognising the debt that golf, and South African golf in particular, owe him.

But in a cynical media world Player’s boyish enthusiasm for life and for his own achievements mark him down as something of an oddity. For years little more than tolerated, the tide seems to be changing in favour of ridicule and hostility.

Many of these journalists will have met Gary Player. Many, like me, will never have even been in the same room as him. He may well not be a likeable guy. But lots of old sportsmen are not nice people and they are still respected for their achievements.

If you find it irritating that Player still hangs around then fine. But he deserves to do what he likes, he’s earned that right. Don’t canonise him but at least let respect for his achievements overrule personal antipathy.

In a game as civilised as golf it would seem churlish if Player was turned into some sort of joke, barely tolerated and judged for getting old not for being a great champion. Player deserves more than being celebrated only when he’s gone.

One Response to “South Africa’s First Star Deserves Respect”

  1. PJ says:

    Gary Player is a golf legend by any measure. The fact that he is not American goes a long way towards explaining why he is not always recognised as a hero in that part of the world. The best judges are his golfing peers who have the utmost respect for the man and his talents.
    He is arguably the best bunker player ever and no one had more determination to win, this despite his slight stature. I will never forget seeing Gary playing in Australia at Royal Sydney and The Australian Golf Club in his prime. It is only those who are ignorant or jealous who will deny Gary Player his rightful place at the highest level of golfing heros. I for one hope he continues to play for all his fans. Good luck to one of golf’s heros and great ambassadors.

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