GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – By the time Gary Player danced his way up to the front of the Sage Valley Gun Club’s al fresco banquet room on Tuesday evening, he was nearly out of breath. But Player, 78, was not to be stopped.
Player’s welcome message at the opening banquet for the Junior Invitational was both riveting and energetic. He did it after making a Mic Jagger-like entrance complete with high kicks and dance steps with wife Vivienne as a quick South African beat played in the background. During a week when junior golfers are made to feel like princes, Player delivered a message of humility and gratitude.
“Golf is an education, and education is the light,” Player had said earlier in the day, in revealing what he hoped to focus on with 54 of the world’s best junior players listening.
Part of the Junior Invitational’s growing tradition is the keynote speech. PGA Tour players Bill and Jay Haas hosted a Q&A at the inaugural tournament in 2011, George W. Bush spoke in 2012 and Jack Nicklaus gave last year’s pre-tournament speech.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have some unbelievable speakers for the event,” said Tom Wyatt, president of Sage Valley Golf Club.
Player paced the stage Tuesday night while telling of lessons learned from Nelson Mandela, days spent as a young man trying to make it as a professional golfer and memorable matches with contemporaries like Jack Nicklaus. He pounded his stomach – one of the flattest in the room – while talking about fitness and eating right, and twirled a golf club while talking about shaping his short game into one of the best in the world.
“This pair of hands hit more balls than any other pair alive,” Player said, “because I had to.”
Player brought balance to the event in his caution to competitors that they couldn’t become complacent in their practice or in the rest of their lives. Among other advice, Player encouraged the young men to read and do it heartily.
“It’s very important if you’re going to be a professional golfer to be a little different,” he said.
This man, as he showed Tuesday night, has lived those words to the fullest.