They say you should never meet your heroes so it was probably just as well that Gary Player didn’t feature on my list of all-time favourite sporting stars when I shared a car journey with him to a golf tournament.
Okay, I’ll be a little bit more precise. Yes, there was only the two of us in the car, but I was the taxi driver and Player was my back seat passenger.
It was 1998 and I had wangled a job at the Senior Open Championship that was being held at Royal Portrush.
Player, the winner of nine Majors, and the only non-American to ever win the Grand Slam, was the defending champion. On the second morning of the event, I was sent to pick him up.
I’ll admit I was delighted to have got the run. Although I was quite excited about the prospect of meeting such a global star, I’m not really a fan of golf.
And apart from the Pope and Brian McGilligan, there aren’t too many people I would put on a pedestal.
The real reason for my excitement was the prospect of the tip I eagerly anticipated.
In prize money alone, Player has earned an estimated $200m. That doesn’t include the cash he has netted from golf course design, the 36 books he has written or co-authored, and the stud farm he owns.
Suffice to say, Player is filthy rich. As you can imagine, Mr Player got a five-star service. Doors were opened. Doors were closed. There were bells. There were whistles. I think he even got a smile.
To be fair, the South African was perfectly cordial. But before we set off, he informed me that I was not to use my mobile phone, not even if it was a call from HQ telling me about the next job.
And it’s not what you’re thinking. Player wasn’t concerned about me veering into the Atlantic as I tried to negotiate the roads with only one hand on the steering wheel. Not at all.
Player just didn’t like mobile phones. That’s actually an understatement. He despised them. He feared them. He didn’t like them around him. A complete health nut, he was convinced the radio waves on which mobile calls are transmitted, caused cancer.
For the bulk of our journey, Player proceeded to inform me about the great dangers posed by “cell phones” and how one day it would emerge that they were the greatest killers on our planet. Under normal circumstances, I would have argued with him. Bear in mind that I would argue with the Pope (although I’d draw the line at McGilligan).
But as Player delivered his lecture on the dangers of cellular communication, I sensed that he was a man who was unfamiliar with two-way conversations. Rather than jeopardise my tip, I did the sensible thing and agreed with everything he said. Like Tina Turner used to sing: “You keep your mind on the money.”
Unfortunately, and to my eternal regret, my uncharacteristic silence and impeccable good manners were a complete waste of time.
The zillionaire Gary Player didn’t give me a penny. And forgive me for my smallness, but to this day, I have never forgiven him for it.
Fifteen years later and my grudge with Gary Player is alive and well.
It resurfaced at the weekend when I discovered that he has posed in the buff for the Body Issue of ESPN Magazine.
The 77-year-old has always kept himself in good nick, and he likes everybody to know it. When I met him, he was doing 1,000 sit-ups a day. But he no longer maintains that regime.
“Now I’m up to 1,200,” he said in his interview with the magazine, which has just hit news stands in the US.
With characteristic modesty, Player revealed why he was so evangelical about fitness. “Very few people do what I’m doing at my age. I want to show the world how fit you can be at this age and not just accept being old.
“I still work on my ranch. I represent a lot of companies, I do golf course design, I’m travelling seven months a year. You’ve got to keep moving. If you sit and watch TV on your backside all day, you’re going to die.”
At this point, the silent taxi driver would like to inform Mr Player that even if you do 2,000 sit-ups a day, and even if you never watch a single episode of Jeremy Kyle, you’re still going to die.
But my old passenger is unlikely to take any heed. Outlining his reasons for posing buck naked, he said: “My big dream now is to help people become healthy. Obesity, as far as I am concerned, is the greatest problem facing the planet at the moment.”
Then again, it all depends on what planet you happen to be living on.
Yes, over-eating is a problem. But people who don’t eat because they are starving to death arguably present a slightly bigger humanitarian issue.
The Save The Children advertisement currently being broadcast on television claims that 19,000 children die needlessly every day. Many presumably live on the same continent as Gary Player, but the golfer has identified a different priority.
“Look at our foods; our foods have steroids in them, antibiotics. People are over-eating and eating all kinds of fatty foods and high sugars and junk.”
While hundreds of thousands of Africans are suffering from starvation and malnutrition, it’s good to know that one man from that continent is thinking about all us wealthy Westerners who are eating ourselves to death.
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