It would be no exaggeration to say Gary Player has seen it all.
The 84-year-old Hall of Fame champion has played golf on six of the seven continents, won nine regular and nine senior majors and flown more than 15 million miles since the start of his professional career in 1953. He’s also played with every great player since Hogan, which makes his evaluation of the relative merits of champions across the decades especially informed.
That meant that a recent casual encounter with a young South African pro ended up inflaming Player—and inspiring him to get out his pencil. “He said to me, ‘When you were playing, there were only 25 players you had to beat,’ ” Player said. “I thought to myself, ‘How do I explain it to this guy?’ So I started to make out a list of all the great players I played with through the years beyond the ones everyone knows about, like Nicklaus and Palmer and Watson and Trevino. Mike Souchak. Julius Boros. Sandy Lyle. Gene Littler. So many of them have almost been forgotten! They’re as good as any of the guys today, and if you gave them modern equipment?”
Player says he doesn’t diminish the skills it takes to win on tour today, but laments how some of the subtle skills required to win tournaments in the 1950s, 60s and 70s have been lost. “Let’s face it. They basically play the Super Bowl every week now—courses maintained in perfection, with ideal putting surfaces and bunkers that have all been raked by the same machine,” Player says. “Playing in Johannesburg is just like playing in Philadelphia. At the average event in the 1960s, most courses were common Bermuda. If you had a morning time, the dew on the grass forced you to play a completely different shot. If you had a 7-iron distance, you needed to hit a 5-iron and chip it, or the shot would sail on you and fly 20 yards over the green.
“I had to become a good bunker player because I had to play under so many different conditions, even on the same course. Nothing was the same. You had to figure it all out, and that skill is getting lost. The ball goes 50 yards longer now, so the emphasis is all on power and not on the mental test as it should be. Phil Mickelson has a 64-degree wedge. You take a swing, and the ball comes out. You used to have to manufacture that yourself.”
We asked Player to comment on a series of photographs showing both some of the “forgotten” (and not-so-forgotten) players he listed, including himself, and he offered the timeless instruction advice he accumulated through the years from players like Ben Hogan. Animated and sharp, he spent more than an hour on this endeavor. “A million words, all for a one-second movement!”
Too flat? Actually not, says Ben Hogan
Player: “I hear players say they get stuck on the inside. I played with Hogan during my first American tournament, at Seminole. We were waiting, and he said, “Congratulations on your tournament win in England.” I responded that pros over there told me my swing was too flat.
“Hogan said, ‘You can’t be too flat as long as your hands are under the shaft. Your rotation of the body squares the club up. Your hands follow the rotation of your body. When you come from the inside, you feel like you’re hitting the inside of the ball.’ Hogan called it flatness through the ball. Trevino did the same thing.”
Practice unique lies, and practice often
“Being good from the bunker isn’t magic. It’s work. I’d practice from 6:30 to 8 in the morning, and I wouldn’t leave until I holed five bunker shots. I spent so much time just practicing.
“Whenever I played majors, I was never scared to go in the sand, because I had seen it all before. Stand wide, and don’t use your legs beyond a natural reaction. Set the club early and get the club to the ball early. Don’t go deep. Skim the sand. Light the match. One thing I always notice is that every weekend golfer is always short. Out of the bunker? Short. Putt? Short. Get it past the flag!”
The importance of a proper backswing
“What I wouldn’t give to put the club there today. I’m shooting mostly par now, but my swing is probably four feet shorter. I can’t understand people who say, “Shorten your swing.” There have only been a few superstars—which to me means winning six majors. Every superstar has a long backswing. I always carried a heavy weighted club, and I swung it all those years. I still have it. Even though DJ’s backswing is shut—which I’m against—he’s an athlete. He’s a strong as can be, and because he makes that long backswing, he has time to get it back. I like a full backswing. My mouth waters terribly when I think about it.”
The right positions at impact
“Look at Jack Nicklaus coming from the inside. His left arm is outside of his right arm. I was blessed that Hogan mentioned a few things to me. I only met one man who knew it from A-Z. A few knew it from A-Y. But one A-Z, and that was Hogan. I was lucky to listen to what he said. That’s why I won so many majors. He said you have to rotate your body, and then the club comes on the ball the same way. Now, I have the most anti-hook swing, and it was what Hogan told me when I was young. I just couldn’t figure it out completely until I was 70.”
Arnie’s blessing was also a curse
“This is why he was so great driver of the ball. Sensational 1-iron player. Terrible bunker player, because of his shut face. If I could have played bunker shots for him, he would have won 15 more times, and he would have won the Grand Slam. He stayed with the ball. It’s the opposite of sucking your hands across the ball. The path starts down on the inside, and you hit the inside of the ball and stay on the line. I’ll tell you, watch a guy like Moe Norman, nobody could hit the ball better. Stay on the line. He stayed over the ball, and the club is right on line with an extended right arm.”
One of the most underrated swings of all time
“Such a wonderful transition! If I was going to tell the average person to copy somebody’s swing, it would be Boros’. And before you say it’s more complicated than that, I tried it before. There was a player in South Africa, and a friend asked me if I’d help him. I worked on his mind, his diet, his exercise and his swing over the course of a week, and I told him it was going to take him two months to really get it. Three days later, he went out and won the tournament. You have to have exceptional talent. And you have to have the right fundamentals.”
An appreciation of Johnny Miller’s swing
“Johnny Miller had one of the backswings I ever saw. I never saw a person hit the flag out of the cup as much. He said he got muscle-bound from working on his land. That’s crap. I worked on a farm my whole life, and I’ve kept myself fit for 70 years. He got the yips.”
What we can learn from the great putters
“When I listen to guys on the Golf Channel and I hear the commentators says it was a bad putt because he jabbed it, I don’t know what to think. It’s debatable if it was Tiger or Bobby Locke who was the best. Locke? He was a jabber. Casper? Big jabber. Casper had his hands fixed, and he chopped it. Look at Snedeker. Take out the unnecessary movement. The average player? There’s so much movement in the putting stroke, they’re a spaghetti wobbler. It’s still a good eye and great feel—putting and the mind win golf tournaments.”