Gary Player’s a man of the people

Gary Player (Getty)
Gary Player (Getty)

As Gary Player stepped on to the first tee at the Lost City Golf Club yesterday – the 20th anniversary of his Gary Player Invitational charity tournament – Johannes Vilankulu walked up to him to shake his hand.

Vilankulu had climbed into his car at 4am and driven from Pretoria so he could arrive at Sun City before tee-off and fulfil a lifelong dream of meeting Player and shaking his hand. And the golf legend didn’t disappoint as he obliged with a photo and a chat.

For decades, Player has said there was no substitute for personal contact. This tournament, which raises money for the Port Elizabeth-based Wings and Wishes charity organisation and the Blair Atholl Pre-Primary School in Krugersdorp, is the embodiment of how personal contact can make a difference in people’s lives.

This year, South Africa’s sports stars came out in force – among them Steven Kitshoff, fresh from his Rugby World Cup triumph with the Springboks, and former Boks Bryan Habana, Akona Ndungane, Odwa Ndungane, Butch James, Patrick Lambie and Owen Nkumane. Also present were former Proteas cricket captain Shaun Pollock; International Boxing Hall of Fame member Brian Mitchell; former Bafana Bafana stars Mark Williams, Aaron Mokoena, Jimmy Tau and Matthew Booth; and a host of Sunshine Tour and Sunshine Ladies Tour members.

For many of the stars, spending time with Player this weekend topped their own bucket lists. It’s easy to imagine somebody like Vilankulu being overawed by Player, but when you hear other sports stars speak with such admiration for the man, it’s a powerful reminder of the status Player still occupies in South African sport.

“He is so passionate and full of energy and, even though he is 84, it doesn’t affect the impact he is still having,” said Pollock.

“Player is so inspirational. When he talks, it makes you just want to get up and conquer the world,” added Lambie.

“I was ecstatic when I received the invitation. We all know the icon that Player is, so to spend some time with him is a great opportunity,” said Ndungane.

Player has spent a lifetime in the public eye. He taught Elvis Presley how to play golf, has met with presidents and royalty, and has dined with kings. Yet the allure of playing golf and meeting ordinary people such as Vilankulu is still strong.

And it’s precisely his love of personal contact that makes everybody – from a 12-year-old to a 65-year-old – want to meet Player.

And South Africans should take that opportunity while they still can. He may well be the youngest 84-year-old in history, but time is marching on.

Player himself is being constantly reminded of this. Before his tournament started, he received the news that his friend and long-time caddie Alfred “Rabbit” Dyer had died.

“I’ll miss Rabbit dearly. He caddied for me for 18 years. We travelled around the world together. Like me, he had such a great sense of humour. He always reminded me of Muhammad Ali in that he was always ready to laugh. He had tons of charisma. During our time together, he was able to put his son through Princeton University [in the US], which I know made him immensely proud as a father. I’ll miss him so much,” said Player.

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