Gary Player, slouched cozily among a circle of friends gathered around a barbecue pit, yawns into the South African night. He is in the sanctuary of his 5,000-acre stud farm, located in Colesburg in the midst of his beloved country's vast Karoo. The black night is penetrated only by the glowing coals and dense clusters of blinking stars. All seems well, but in fact the natural order on earth has been disturbed. Gary Player, human dynamo, is worn out.
Few people have witnessed this phenomenon. In past years, 45-hour-long, propeller-driven flights from Johannesburg to New York with six children and 33 pieces of luggage, four-hour sessions on the practice tee, 36-hole final days in major championships and 100 or so one-arm push-ups were needed to exhaust Player.
At 60, it takes only slightly less. After six weeks of a breakneck schedule that had him crisscrossing four continents—61 hours in the air, he figures, resulting in 56 hours' worth of time changes—Player has had it. In the lap of his favorite place, the strain of all the rounds of golf, the course building, horse buying, people pleasing and deal making seeps away, and golf's Jack LaLanne allows himself, for a moment, to go to seed.
For three relatively bacchanalian nights, Player makes a mockery of the most trumpeted health and training regimen golf has ever seen. The man who says "Rest is rust" averages 12 hours of sleep a night, doesn't touch a club and doesn't do a single jumping jack. The Player who says he "eats like an African—little meat and little fat" ignores his customary diet of wheat germ, fiber, fruits and juices in favor of hunks of roasted lamb, dripping sausages, chocolate and, yes, even alcohol. When someone offers to refill his wineglass, Player accepts with a giggle. "Oh, am I getting pissed!"
Gary Player tipsy? Man alive, to use one of his favorite expressions. Before things go too far, however, Player clicks back to his usual self. When a friend comments on the design of the barbecue area, Player is energized. Rising to his full 5'7", he holds forth, cutting the air with his famous clipped accent. "This is nothing," he says. "The area we have planned for the other farm will be 10 times better. It will overlook the river. There's a canopy of trees. It will be perfect. Oh, I can't wait."
So it always is with Gary Player, the game's greatest life force. He lives by the premise that the present—and especially the future—must outdo the past. For a man in his seventh decade, it's a hard rule to live by, especially for a golfer who has won 159 tournaments, including nine major championships (and eight more senior majors, he is quick to point out). But even as his intimates wonder when Player's energy will ebb, he continues to take on the challenge.
Next week at Royal Lytham and St. Annes on the west coast of England, things will be no different. Player will compete in his record 42nd consecutive British Open at the site where he won his third Open, in 1974. That victory made him the only man to have won the venerated event in each of three decades. Player is going to Blackpool with an idea to make it four.
"I have to be realistic, but I tell you I can still win a major championship," he says in low, sincere tones. "You've got to be putting super, but, gee whiz, I can do that."
To those who are picking up Gary Player late in his life, such talk must sound slightly insane, almost pathetic. After all, he hasn't finished in the top 10 of a major since the 1984 PGA Championship and has won only one Senior tour event in the last three years. But Player should never be underestimated.
"Everything Gary's ever done in golf probably seemed impossible to most people, but the man's got more belief in himself than anyone I've ever seen," says Lee Trevino, no piker when it comes to overcoming obstacles. "He's always been David against Goliath. He had a gigantic heart. That was all he needed."