Player is the blueprint for a golf globetrotter

For the first time, Gary Player, center, will join Jack Nickluas and Arnold Palmer as honorary starters at the Masters, bringing a Hall of Fame career full circle.

For the first time, Gary Player, center, will join Jack Nickluas and Arnold Palmer as honorary starters at the Masters, bringing a Hall of Fame career full circle.

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TRAVELERS REST, S.C. - It’s a Friday evening in October, and Gary Player has just spent another long day at his golf architecture office. Since 9 a.m., he has been signing papers, reviewing design plans, showing visitors around an unfinished course and following orders from his longtime executive assistant, Debbie Longenecker.

For a man about to be an honorary starter at the Masters, there is nothing ceremonial about his workday.

Player also has been checking for word from Brazil, where the Rio 2016 selection committee was expected to send request-for-bid documents. This was early in the contest to award one of the game’s plum assignments: design of a course in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics, golf’s return to the games. (Player’s firm ultimately emerged as a finalist before losing to Gil Hanse.)

In the downstairs portion of Player’s office sprawls the 2,300-square-foot studio that is home to Gary Player Design. Natural lighting supplemented by a stainless-steel industrial chandelier and four tubular aluminum beam lights make the design tables, drawing boards and AutoCAD workstations resemble an ultra-modern art loft.

The global scope of the enterprise is evident from a vast world map at one end of the studio. It reveals the drama of the international golf market. Pushpins depict the firm’s 27 course projects under contract: three in Africa; four in South/Central America and the Caribbean; five in Europe; three in the Middle East; 11 in eastern Asia, including seven in China. There’s one on the board for North America, representing the course just outside the window, The Cliffs at Mountain Park.

One-third of the pins represent projects on hold, including The Cliffs at Mountain Park. That’s the design business today: global but very uncertain. Part of chasing work these days is chasing payment for work done.

Rio wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last that the diminutive South African has had to prove himself on a world stage.

Player, 76, has been golf’s tireless globetrotter since the mid-1950s. As a 20-year-old assistant professional at Johannesburg Country Club, Player sold his two-door Ford to clear his debt and put up the money to try qualifying for his first Open Championship at St. Andrews in 1955. He arrived without a room reservation and slept on the beach that first night, with his waterproofs on and his golf bag as a pillow. The next year at Royal Liverpool, Player finished fourth and has never looked back.

A cartoon caricature of Player, one of hundreds that adorn his office, captures the pioneer spirit of his travels. It shows Player, a golf bag strapped to his back, about to parachute out of an airplane.

He always seems to land on his feet. Player, a World Golf Hall of Fame inductee (Class of 1976), is one of only five golfers (joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods) to win the professional Grand Slam, thanks to two Open Championships (1959, ’68), three Masters (1961, ’74, ’78), two PGA Championships (1962, ’72) and the U.S. Open (1965).

Along the way, he has embodied a curious mix – one part Tony Robbins, the motivationalist; another part Jack LaLanne, the late indefatigable exercise enthusiast. And throughout his career, Player has had to tightrope-walk the awkward matter of his citizenship in a country that practiced apartheid.

At the 1960 Open Championship in St. Andrews, he pulled off a powerful symbolic act when he played in slacks that had one leg white and one leg black. He became an early advocate of opportunity for black athletes in his homeland. Not that his efforts spared him scorn. White South Africans criticized him for being traitorous. Yet he also was heckled by critics of apartheid, such as at the 1969 PGA Championship at NCR Country Club in Kettering, Ohio, where he finished runner-up despite being pelted with ice and needing a police escort.

It’s now later on that October Friday, and Player has checked in at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport for a flight to his home in West Palm Beach, Fla.

There’s plenty of time for an airport dinner. No sooner is he seated at the restaurant than he starts up a sympathetic conversation with his server, who, as Player quickly hears, is struggling to make ends meet and dealing with her ailing husband. She has no idea who Player is. It takes Player about 45 seconds to extract her life story. He’s near tears in empathy, as are nearby patrons. Somehow he manages to turn a fleeting encounter into an empathetic moment. And the strange thing to an observer is that it’s obvious he genuinely cares.

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