Gary Player or the “Black Knight” is a South African professional golfer widely considered as one of the best golfers ever to tee it up.
Most experts and historians believe Player to be in the same elevated category as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, and Byron Nelson. Player captured a total of nine Major Championships and a total of 160 professional wins worldwide.
At the tender age of 29, The Black Knight captured the 1965 US Open and, in doing so, became the first international golfer to have won all four Majors during his career; this is known in golf as the “career grand slam.”
At the time, Gary was the youngest player ever to have achieved the feat; however his rival and friend Jack Nicklaus eclipsed Player’s achievement by winning all four majors aged 26. Tiger Woods now holds the record for the youngest golfer to win all four majors at age 24.
In 1974 Gary Player was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and amazingly won professionally in five different continents over six decades. Gary’s personality led to the three nicknames he’s most known for; the Black Knight, Mr, Health and Fitness, and the Global Ambassador of Golf.
More than a golfer, Gary is a renowned and prolific golf course architect and has been responsible for designing and constructing over 400 golf resorts globally.
Gary is so much more than a golfer and has authored 36 publications on everything from golf instruction, philosophy, health and fitness, nutrition, and motivational factors. His Gary Player Foundation has raised and donated millions of dollars to underprivileged children in his native South Africa.
The Foundation also provides education from kindergarteners through to high school and currently houses more than 500 students.
The Foundation has raised more than $60 million, and in January of 2020, President Donald Trump awarded The Black Knight with the illustrious Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Images in this article are from Gary Player’s Instagram, check more out here.
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Gary And His Family
Gary was born in the South African city of Johannesburg. He was the youngest of three children, and tragically at age eight, Gary’s mother passed away after a long battle with cancer. Gary’s father, Harry worked away from home in the South African gold mines; however, he saved enough money to order a set of golf clubs for his young son.
Gary first started playing golf at the nearby Virginia Park Golf Course, and this is where his love for the game of golf grew. At the tender age of 14, Gary headed out to play his first-ever round of golf and ended up parring the front nine. Two years later, aged 16, Gary publicly stated that he would be the world’s number one ranked golfer; a year later, The Black Knight decided to turn pro.
Gary’s wife, Vivienne, is the sister of fellow professional golfer Bobby Verwey and the two tied the knot in 1957, just four years after Gary had turned pro. The pair have six children, Jennifer, Marc, Wayne, Michele, Theresa, and Amanda, and to go with that, Gary has 22 grandchildren.
In the early days of Gary’s career, the whole family would travel together along with a tutor and a nanny. Sadly, Gary’s wife Viviene passed away from cancer in 2021. Gary’s oldest son now takes care of the business interests, including Black Knight International and all endorsements, sponsorships, merchandise, golf course design, and real estate investments. Gary’s brother is also a well-known activist and environmental conservationist in South Africa.
The Career of the Legendary Black Knight
Gary Player has won nine Major Championships, which puts him fourth on the list of Major victories, sharing the spot with his longtime friend and rival, the legendary Arnold Palmer. Together with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, the trio are known in the golfing world as the “Big Three” because of their domination of the sport from the 1950s through to the early 1980s.
Gary is part of an elite and small group of golfers who have won the career grand slam; remarkably, only five golfers have achieved the feat, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, and Gary himself. Gary accomplished the career grand slam at age 29 when he won the 1965 US Open.
Gary was not the first multiple major championship winner from South Africa, though, that achievement went to the great Bobby Locke. Since then, two other South African golfers, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, have also captured multiple majors.
The Black Knight first started competing regularly on the US PGA Tour in the 1950s, and in 1961, Player led the prizemoney list. Gary amassed a total of 24 wins on the PGA Tour and 120 worldwide. Gary is also known as the most traveled athlete of any sport in history, and it’s been estimated Player has clocked 27 million miles in plane travel.
When it comes to records, Gary holds plenty, but the one he cherishes most is his 13 wins at his native South African Open; he also captured the Australian Open 7 times and has won the World Matchplay Championships on 5 occasions. Seve Ballesteros matched his record in 1991, but finally relinquished it to another South African, Ernie Els, who has won the title six times.
Gary was also in the top ten of world golf rankings from 1968 until 1981; he was ranked number two in the world on three occasions in 1969, 70, and 72, each time behind Jack Nicklaus.
Player is also the only golfer in the 20th century to have captured the Open Championship in three separate decades. His first win came in 1959 after he dramatically double-bogeyed the 18th hole. In 1974, The Black Knight became one of only a few players to capture multiple majors in the same year.
In 1978, Gary performed one of the greatest come-from-behind wins in Masters history after coming from seven shots behind to win by one shot, beating out Hubert Green. Less than a week later, Player repeated the feat winning from seven shots behind at the Tournament of Champions.
In 1984, Gary Player, aged 48, finished second place behind Lee Trevino; the win would’ve made him the oldest golfer ever to have won a major. My favorite Gary Player accomplishment is when he became the oldest player to make the cut at the 1998 Masters, at Augusta National. After the round, Player credited his longevity to his diet and rigorous exercise regime.
Player was critical of the Ryder Cup, which he was never eligible to play in as its only open to American and European golfers. Player is quoted as saying of the event, “The things I have seen in the Ryder Cup have disappointed me. You are hearing about hatred and war.” The Presidents Cup was established to give international players the opportunity, but Gary was well past his prime by that time.
Gary and the Green Jacket
The Green Jacket is one of the most prized trophies in all of golf and is reserved only for the Masters Champion. The Augusta National Club has strict rules when it comes to the Green Jacket, with the primary one being under no circumstances can it be taken off the grounds.
The only exception to the rule is the winner may take the green jacket home but must return it the following year. The Black Knight became the Masters first international winner in 1961 and was not aware of the rule.
The following year Gary finished second-placed to Arnold Palmer and after the round packed his green jacket back in the suitcase and flew back to South Africa. Augusta National Chairman, Clifford Roberts, called Gary to let him know he was not supposed to take the jacket off the grounds. “I didn’t know you were supposed to leave it there,” Player said. “Next thing you know, there was a call from Mr. Roberts.
The Gary Player Legacy
In 2000, Gary Player was voted the Greatest Sportsman in South African history. Player was also awarded the highest distinction in golf by receiving the Bobby Jones award in 1966. The Bobby Jones Award is granted in recognition of displaying distinguished sportsmanship over the course of a player’s career, both on and off the course.
1974 saw Gary inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, and in 2006 the Hall of Fame launched the”Gary Player Global Journey Exhibition” to recognize his feats on and off the course. Golf Digest ranked The Black Knight as the eighth greatest player of all time in 2000.
In 2002 Player was voted the second greatest and most influential golfer in the history of the game. The voting panel comprised golfing experts from media, coaching, and golf industry stalwarts.
Gary, played in his last Masters event in 2009, and it marked the 52nd time he had teed it up at Augusta. Remarkably, Gary had only ever missed one Masters tournament, which was in 1973 while recovering from injury. Player was the last of the big trio to retire from the Masters Tournament as Nicklaus and Palmer had already hung the clubs up.
His longevity is unmatched, and at age 73, The Black Knight, played in the Senior British Open Championship at Sunningdale Golf Club, 53 years after winning his first European Tour event at Berkshire.
In 2011, The Augusta National Golf Club announced that they had invited Gary to join his longtime rivals and friends, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, to be an official honorary starter for the Masters; this was the first time for years that the “Big Three” had stood on the first tee together and boy was it a sight to see; the crowd was witnessing history.
In 2013 Gary became not only the oldest golfer but the oldest athlete of all time to pose nude for ESPN Magazine. Player said he did it because he wanted to “motivate people of any age to take care of their bodies through regular exercise and proper nutrition.”
The Gary Player Foundation
Gary’s eldest son, Marc, established the Gary Player Foundation in 1983 as a way to help educate underprivileged children; since its inception, the foundation has flourished and now offers medical care, nutrition, and sporting scholarships for the children of South Africa.
Many of the children come from a small area situated on the outskirts of Johannesburg, close to where Gary grew up. The Gary Player Foundation has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years and has donated and raised more than $65 million to help fund children’s charities in South Africa and around the world.
The Gary Player Foundation is entirely funded by grants, donations, and specific events that are organized by Gary’s son, Marc.
Every year four invitational events are played in Europe, America, China, and Gary’s homeland of South Africa. The tournaments are referred to as “pro-ams,” which pair the best golfers in the world with some of the most famed celebrities. The proceeds from these events are what help to fund the ever-growing expansion of the foundation into new areas like Wildland Conservation, Twilight Children, The Make-A-Wish Foundation, and many more.
Gary and the Nelson Mandela Invitational
Gary’s company, the Black Knight International, hosted the Nelson Mandela Invitational starting in 2000. In 2007 the tournament came under intense media scrutiny when the involvement of the design for a golf course in Burma came to light. As a result, one of the main sponsors, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital, withdrew its support.
Nelson Mandela, along with the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, accepted Gary and his son Marc’s position and viewpoint regarding the course in Burma. The Black Knight Company had personally overseen the course’s funding, design, and construction and wanted to see it through to the end.
In the end, Mandela and Tutu continued their involvement with the tournament, although the organizers moved the venue to the world-renowned Sun City Resort in Sun City, South Africa.
Gary and his views on apatheid
Player came under further criticism for his views on apartheid when he espoused approval for the policies being set forth by Hendrik Verwoerd. Player writes in his 1966 book, Grand Slam Golf, “I must say now, and unquestionably, that I am of the South Africa of Verwoerd and apartheid, a nation which is the product of its instinct and ability to maintain civilized values and standards amongst the alien barbarians. The African may well believe in witchcraft and primitive magic, practice ritual murder, and polygamy; his wealth is in cattle.”
At the 1969 PGA Championship held in the US, activists came out in force to protest and denounce Player’s statements. In the same year, Player faced protestors at the Australian Open, and although several threats were made against Player and his family, nothing came of them. Player traveled back to Australia in 1974, where he was met with angry fans yelling, “Go home, racist.”
Much later on in 1987, Gary was questioned by a Los Angeles Times reporter on his views regarding apartheid Player stated, “We have a terrible system in apartheid; it’s almost a cancerous disease. I’m happy to say it’s being eliminated; we’ve got to get rid of this apartheid.”
More recently, Player talked openly to Graham Bensinger about his early views on apartheid, saying that “the South African Government had pulled the wool over our eyes” and that “the people were “brainwashed” into supporting these policies.
Gary’s view on performance enhancing drugs
In 2007, Gary commented on what he saw as the ever-increasing use of performance-enhancing drugs in the Game. Player made the statements during the Open Championship and stated that in his mind, “at least ten players” were “taking something.” Gary said steroids, creatine, and growth hormone were the likely substances being used.
In 2016 the R&A and the USGA released a comprehensive report that concluded driving distance had only increased minimally over the past few years. Player branded the report as “laughable” and cautioned of a ‘tsunami coming’ due to the governing bodies’ negligence to handle new golf technology matters.