The little man in the black shirt and black trousers and while cap was practicing golf shots. He had stationed his caddie 200 yards down the practice fairway at the Houghton golf course in Johannesburg, which is in South Africa, that rich, loamy, exciting, depressing, spirited, tormented land, and now he was putting one shot after another between the caddie's legs. Byron Nelson used to say that accuracy was knocking your ball boy down with a shot and then landing three more on his head before he could get up, and that is what would have happened if this caddie had not been alert.
The presence of the little man had drawn a semicircle of admirers, some of them black Africans, or "nonwhites" in the lexicon of South African municipal sign painters. Apartheid-enforced separation of the races—is the official policy in South Africa, but what is actually practiced there is a caste system. The signs in restaurants and at teller windows may separate, but elbows and interests rub all the time and there is an obvious interdependence. In the case of this golfer, black hands reach out to him as eagerly as do white.
They called him "Geddy," the privileged among the admirers, who were carrying on with the little man hitting the balls. They admired his precision, joked with him, offered him tips. If it burdened his concentration, Gary Player did not let on. He encouraged the colloquy. He listened attentively to all the advice. In that respect he is cousin to the hacker, for he will investigate every piece of fribbling criticism from every fly-by-night critic. His father, his father-in-law and his wife happen to be fine golfers and he listens to them, but then if a total stranger tells him he is setting his eyebrow all wrong for the downswing he sincerely wants to know which eyebrow. What he sifts and applies to his exceptional talent for directing a golf ball is, however, quite another matter. He clicked off one impeccable shot after another as he talked. "I am hitting the ball so well it scares me," he said. He often says this, with good reason.
The man in the circle nearest the golfer was Harry (Whiskey) Player. He is the little man's father, and he is twice Gary's size. He looks like Victor McLaglen—same baggy eyes, lump nose, sloping bearlike body. Same delightful McLaglen laugh that, once begun, dwindles only when all the breath is gone from the body. Whiskey Player made his living 10,000 feet underground for 30 years, and when he came up he had a gold miner's pension and a hard case of phthisis. He can speak English, Afrikaans (the language of the ruling Boers, a sort of pidgin Dutch) and six native languages, including Zulu, Sesuthu and Hosa.
There was a time, some years ago, when Whiskey Player was the only gallery Gary had. He slogged faithfully along beside him then and has never to this day been far removed from his son's shoulder, hovering there like a giant Mpundulu bird even when bullied by the excited crowds at places like St. Andrews, Aronimink and Augusta. The Mpundulu is the Zulu bird of conscience, and that is what the old man is. He searches for the flaws and leads the cheers—"Geddy, that's the finest golf shot you ever made," and, "Geddy, if you live to be a thousand you will never hit it any better"—and makes himself handy for those rare moments when Gary Player needs somebody to snap at.
Whiskey Player got his name as a young man of action at a downtown Johannesburg hotel years ago. He had led a delegation of miners into the hotel to celebrate the impending marriage of one of their number and, when refused anything appropriate to celebrate with, he clambered up on the table and shouted, "We want whiskey!" "All of us Players were high-strung," he said as he stood watching his son practice. "That's the-fantastic thing about Geddy, the way he has mastered himself. I would have flapped. I would have had my chips under all that pressure. Not him. Oh, when it was just the two of us out there we bloody well had our fights, all right. He'd tell me he couldn't make it, and I'd tell him he was talking rot. I'd tell him he was falling back off his shots, and he'd say, 'I don't want to hear it,' and I'd say, 'Well, the hell with you,' and then later he'd put his arm around me and kiss me and say, 'I'm sorry, Dad, I just got to explode sometime and you are the only one who can take it!' " Gary Player says no one ever had a father like Whiskey Player.
Near the conversation but ignoring it as they played with two Negro boys were the sons of Gary Player—Mark, age 5, and Wayne, 4. Markie and Waynee, he calls them. They were occupied with a plastic gun that shot little pellets of potato. Mark extracted the pellets from a huge baking potato he was carrying by digging the barrel of the gun into the potato. Gary paused between shots to caution Mark not to kill anybody and to let the other hoys have a turn. Mark handed over the gun to one of the native boys.
Gary Player can he quippish at these relaxed times and at the asking will do an acrobatic imitation of Arnold Palmer's powerful, contorted golf swing. On the follow-through he rolls and jerks his head in the Palmer manner—a rooster trying to follow the flight of the ball, first with one eye, then the other. Player did a rubber-leg, quaking-voice Elvis Presley for an American television audience some time ago, and friends who saw it said he would be a regular in Johannesburg if South Africa only had television. Reasons why it does not, in an otherwise modern, prospering society, are not altogether clear, but they probably have to do with the Boers' protective attitude toward their language—only two million Afrikaners are left in the world—and the strong suspicion of the Dutch Reformed Church that television is corrupting. One political party campaigned during the last election on a pro-TV platform. It did not win many votes.
But now, with this intimate group, Gary Player was talking about himself. The subject happens to be a serious one with him because Gary Player is a simple man, and the simple man in him is larger than the celebrity he has become. It continually struggles for expression. In large measure he reflects the mood of his country: sensitive to criticism, fiercely proud of achievement but not fully understanding the implications of it, craving solitude but wanting to be heard, fearful that in trying to please he will please not—that he will be misunderstood or misinterpreted—perplexed that he does not know all the answers. The trouble was, somebody said, that he tried too hard, that he wanted everybody to like him. Player straightened. When he is intent the dark brown eyes that glow through the billows of his heavy lashes become perfectly round and, with his short black hair combed straight up, they give him a look of protracted astonishment. "Don't you?" he said. "My word, don't you want everybody to like you?"
He said that his worst moments, the times he seemed to please least, were here in South Africa, in his own country that he loves so much. He said it was a bloody discouraging thing. When he wore flashy clothes, people said he was "ostentatious." When he wore black, people said why not white? And when he wore white, people wanted to know what he was selling, ice cream or bus tickets? Why did he have to have that great big Cadillac car? That big house? He said he thought some people actually wanted him to lose. He said he could not appreciate the theory that it was natural for sporting people to pull for an underdog ( Harold Henning is currently No. 1 underdog to top-dog Player in South Africa, and Henning is handsome and well liked), because that meant discounting the time and the energy and the hard work it takes for a man to get to the top. A man like Ben Hogan, for example. "I would always root for a man like Hogan," he said. "A man who works at the game. Any man who thinks he can be a golfer without working at it has bloody cheek."