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Golfing great is awed by China progress

Updated: 2014-02-21 08:33
By Mark Graham ( China Daily Africa)

 Golfing great is awed by China progress

Player, 78, is reknowned as a fitness buff who goes to the gym daily. Provided to China Daily

The country needs to import instructors if it wants to climb the world ladder, Gary Player says

The golfer Gary Player, who has designed eight golf courses in China, and with another five in the pipeline, says it is only a matter of time before the country produces a world-dominating player of its own.

Player, who recently turned 78, is a regular visitor to the country to inspect courses that carry his name and to host the annual Gary Player invitational tournament, which is held in Shanghai and raises money for AIDS orphans. Each time he comes, says Player, he is awed by the pace and scale of progress.

"I admire China and America because they are both nations that worked hard to attain success," he says. "If you look at China, then the change has come basically overnight, whether it is economics or sport. With the history of China, then I am sure it will in time produce great golfers - just look at the success they have had in the Olympics.

"To really develop golf in China they need to bring in instructors from other parts of the world and have golf academies with top instructors. You also need public golf courses. We charge a substantial fee but we would do a public golf course in this country for no fee."

Player's most high-profile China project is at Yanxi Lake, outside Beijing, part of the showcase complex where the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum will be held in October. That is a Gary Player Signature Course, which means the man himself has been involved intimately with all aspects of the design - and personally inspected the course a number of times to ensure it met his standards.

"He is very concerned about the evolution of golf and making it more accessible for less-wealthy people," says Beijing-based Justin Downes, whose company, Axis Leisure Management, represents the golfer's business interests in the country.

"He wants young, old, men, women and children to be able to play. He wants courses to be playable and fun, rather than just making them as long and difficult as possible. We go to a site and say to him 'We have got two hours' and he will be there for eight. He will walk every square inch of every golf hole and stand in every bunker location and every vantage point; he will take for ever. He is very involved.

"He is very switched on and engaged, active in every single way, a long way from being a retiree. You might think that sports stars would be self-absorbed, but he is not. He is a very humble person, very proud of his accomplishments but doesn't talk about them unless you want to talk about them. He wants to know about you and your environment. He has seen a lot in his many years he has some great stories, fun stuff and sad stuff and technical stuff."

Player, who has six children and 22 grandchildren, is known for being an avid fitness buff, taking exercise and diet seriously long before it became fashionable; in years gone by, fellow golfers on the international circuit thought him to be slightly eccentric by insisting on seeking out a gym to perform his daily regimen. Even now, the day starts with a thousand push-ups, with a round of golf later if time permits. He follows a mostly vegetarian diet and drinks alcohol only very occasionally, and sparingly.

Home is the United States, in a Florida golf enclave, and a giant estate in South Africa with its own private game reserve. But for much of the year Player travels around the world by private jet, a non-stop schedule that has earned him the title of the world's most-traveled athlete. He is said to have clocked up about 25 million kilometers during 40 years of competition in which he had 165 tournament victories.

Most keen globetrotting amateur golfers would have hauled their clubs around at least one of the 300-plus Player courses scattered around the world. One of the most spectacular is the Kai Sai Chau public course in Hong Kong, located on an outlying island, where golfers get to the course by ferry and play with a dramatic background of ocean and mountain.

Another China course garnering praise from golf aficionados is Jinji Lake, in Suzhou, a 27-hole development that has won numerous awards and hosted several large tournaments. Like other Player courses, there is a strict insistence on environmental sustainability, ensuring that water is recycled and pollution minimized.

Player has been showered with accolades over his career, but one that gave him particular pride was a lavish endorsement by the late Nelson Mandela, who had followed the sportsman's career during his near 30 years in prison.

Writing later in Golf Digest magazine, the South African president pointed out that Player had sometimes been unfairly associated with the apartheid regime; in reality, he had lobbied for black athletes such as tennis player Arthur Ashe and golfer Lee Elder to be allowed to compete in South Africa. In addition, Mandela said that he established the Gary Player Foundation, which did a great deal to further education among young black people.

Mandela wrote: "He won tournaments in five different decades, including the Grand Slam - all four professional majors - in his career. That is impressive, but it is important to note that Mr Player also was voted one of the top five influential people in our nation's history. His accomplishments as a humanitarian and statesman are equal to, and may even surpass, his accomplishments as an athlete. That is a legacy that will last forever."

Another of Player's many roles is as de facto tourism ambassador for his country, trying to persuade people to pay a visit - whether they are gourmands, nature lovers, surfers, wine buffs, big-game spotters or just lovers of big wide open spaces, clean ocean and blue skies. Golfers, of course, are also apprised of the splendid courses in South Africa.

"One of my favorites courses is the Leopard Creek country club," Player says. "It is on the border of the Kruger National Park. You walk out on to the veranda and you see 22 million acres of space with wild animals and not a light, or a person, to be seen. You can be sitting down for breakfast and 15 meters from your table you will see an elephant, or a lion, or hippos in the river. They are wild animals and if you walked into their territory it is likely they would attack you. The front door has animals outside, the back door has the golf course: you have to make sure you don't mix up the doors. I designed the course in such a way that you can see often see crocodile, hippo, antelope, buffalo and wild boar either on the course itself, or in or next to the river running alongside several holes.

"I have to nominate the home of golf, St Andrews in Scotland, as another of my favorites. The Royal and Ancient Club there is where it all began; it is inundated with history. You can tee off at 10 pm at night there and there will be people watching you. I remember playing once at night with Arnold Palmer - word spread through the town and within half an hour of us starting there were 5,000 people on the course watching."

China Daily

(China Daily Africa Weekly 02/21/2014 page28)

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