An enlightened guide to top courses and essential gear, plus sage words from PGA legend Gary Player
IT’S NOT EASY, climbing into a steep, flawlessly raked, beach-white sand trap to go after a slightly errant shot, but even at 76, Gary Player hops down like a rabbit, heel first, and slides a little, almost surfing the face of sun-bleached silicate before he two-steps onto the trap’s floor and stands beside his ball. It too is glistening. “You can’t be afraid of the sand,” he says. “I’ll tell you I never was. Not even as a boy. I always liked the challenge of it. You have to love the challenge.”
Player is a nine-time major champion, the lifetime winner of 165 tournaments worldwide and only the third winner of golf’s grand slam (which he completed at age 29). He’s also the best man you could possibly have with you in a sand trap, as he’s widely considered to be the greatest sand player ever. So when he beckons, I follow.
My ball’s there too, by the way, just a little bit buried, creating a bunker phenomenon known as a “fried egg.” I gingerly approach the bunker, and Player is waiting for me. It’s an intimidating sight. He’s superfit, a lifelong health nut, and looking down at him from the bunker’s edge, I have two distinct thoughts. One is that his waist is thinner than my thigh. The second is Don’t hit it fat. I clump down, right foot first, and the sand accepts my presence next to one of the lions of the game.
Player can still play, even at his age. While he’s got some length off the tee (and I can stay with him there when I get through the ball), he is foremost a rock-solid iron player who still tests clubs for Callaway. This morning, for instance, he hit 200 balls with 17 different irons. The company does film him, but what matters most are his words. “I like this,” he’ll say. “Oh yes.” He’s chatty about it, doesn’t mis-hit a single ball, all the while drawing conclusions not from ball flight or distance, but from the mysterious return he gets from his hands.
Minutes earlier, before the sand trap, I ask him about his iron play, standing over a 230-yard shot to a flag that’s pushed cruelly to the back of a tiered green. “Mostly I can still hit it very straight,” he says. “I test clubs simply because I’m a straight hitter, and they know that. I always have been. I’m not some giant, not some young johnny who batters the ball. When you play your irons well, you can do anything.”
I look down at my hybrid 4-wood. Player holds out a palm, welcoming me to take my swing. He’s a good host. “It’s all right. You hit what you hit. Just hit it straight.” I get into this one, and it is straight. Straight left of target. Right into the big mouth of the bunker. “Pulled it,” he says, walking forward briskly as ever. “That’s fine, just fine.” He seems to make walking into a fitness event. He famously wheels his golf bag through airports, in hotel lobbies; he’s speedy to the car, into the dining room. He walks like a hungry 17-year-old.
He approaches his ball, about 200 yards out, squares up and hits a beauty, high and well gauged, which turns midflight, bounces twice across the green and gently rolls into the same trap. “It’s just sand and grass,” he says. “All just sand and grass.”
He’s a ruddy golfer, implacable and polite. Kind to a fault. Playing him, one wishes he would slow down, if only for the sight of him, the great champion, the champion’s champion, dealing with some routine impertinence of the game — a sprinkler head, ground under repair, a long forced carry. He’s forever moving, forever flowing into one of his monologues.
“I’ve seen every level of golf technology since before they started calling it technology,” he says as we walk to the bunker together. “But it is technology. I mean, the differences today are microscopic. You need instruments to measure it all. And it’s chemical, too, all the metals. Imagine: For these fellows here at Callaway, I am the instrument. Throw a ball on the ground and I will hit it straight. It’s always been that way. Since I was a young competitor. Very reliable. I was never afraid of where the ball was going — you can’t be.”
He offers me a piece of fruit, as he did once when I first met him in Africa ages ago. Back then it was an orange, and I’ve been a devoted consumer of the fruit ever since. I tell him this, which occasions another monologue. “Years ago I put you onto oranges?” he says. “Well, I was right, wasn’t I? You have to eat oranges. They are an American treasure. I’m always warning people about eating that mush they eat, about taking worthless meals for no good reason. Consider every bite. I’ve done that since I was competing. More now than ever. You have to acknowledge the facts of food.”
The golf world stretches out when he speaks. He says all this before we get to the bunker, to the wayward shots that somehow end up near one another in the sand. It’s good that he rambles. That he crams so much into so little space. I want to hear more, and there are only three holes left.
We reach the bunker. “Have a go,” he says, and I hood my club a bit, but don’t swing firmly. My ball jumps up, over the edge, and trickles onto the bottom of the green. Though it’s not worth much praise, Player is complimentary. “All right then,” he says, as he stands over his ball. Everything shines: the ball, his wedge, the very moment. The greatest sand player in the world, right in front of me. He swings, and the ball rises. It’s above the hole, though without spin. It stops 15 feet past. “See there,” he says. “Nothing to remark about. Just a poor shot.”
But I know there’s still plenty for Player to say, and plenty of daylight left in which to hear it. I go to prompt him, but he climbs out of the bunker, quickly, and gets back to work before I can say a word.