Museum Moment: “Black Knight” Uses Fitness, Determination To Achieve Worldwide Success

Nov 03, 2011

By David Shefter

Gary Player wrote in his 1991 autobiography that “… I am an animal when it comes to achievement and wanting success. There is never enough success for me.”

Perhaps this explains why in April 2009 at the age of 73, he competed in his record 52nd Masters, or why later that summer he played in the Senior British Open at Sunningdale Golf Club, 53 years after claiming his first European Tour victory at the Berkshire, England, venue.

Or maybe that is how, at 5-foot-7, 155 pounds, the South African, who was nicknamed “The Black Knight” for his all-black attire (inspired by his lifelong love of westerns) and bulldog mentality, managed to successfully compete against golfers of much greater stature.

Player, who turned 76 on Nov. 1, not only is one of the game’s greatest globetrotters – it has been estimated that he logged more than 15 million miles during his Hall-of-Fame career – he was one of the fittest golfers to ever grace the professional ranks.

That work ethic drove the Johannesburg native to nine major titles, including the 1965 U.S. Open at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis that completed his career Grand Slam. A sweater from one of his three Masters victories is currently on display within “The Age of Superpowers” gallery at the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J.

His third and final Masters victory, in 1978, saw him rally from a seven-stroke deficit with a final-round 64 that enabled him to edge Rod Funseth, Hubert Green and Tom Watson by a single shot.

“Gary, as much as anyone I ever saw, has that thing inside him that champions have,” 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus once said.

In his bio on the World Golf Hall of Fame website, Player said of his achievements: “I had a great deal of talent, but talent alone will only take you so far.”

Which may explain Player’s obsession with fitness. Long before it became chic for golfers to shape their bodies through exercise, diet and weightlifting, Player became a pioneer for working out. Many believed weightlifting was detrimental for golfers, but on the eve of the 1965 U.S. Open, Player was squatting 325 pounds. During his younger years, Player’s workouts focused on core, leg and forearm strength exercises.

His weightlifting programs and high-fiber diet were considered 30 years ahead of their time.

Player’s obsession with diet and fitness could have also come from his upbringing. His mother, Muriel, died of cancer when he was only 8. His father, Harry, spent most of his time several thousand feet below the earth’s surface in the gold mines.

“He told me that men died like flies in those mines,” Player said in a Golf Digest article in 2002. “I went to visit him one day, and when he came off the “skip” – the elevator that lowered them into the mine – he immediately sat down. He took off his boot and poured water out of it onto the ground. I asked him where the water came from, and he said, ‘Son, that's perspiration. It's hot as hell down there.’ ”

Choosing not to follow in his father’s footsteps, Player took up golf at 14 and turned pro four years later.

His drive and determination helped him win several tournaments in Africa, Europe and Australia before he finally came to the U.S. in 1957.

Eventually in the 1960s, Player became part of the Big Three with Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, his chief rivals on the PGA Tour. This April, the three will reunite as honorary starters at the Masters, where they have a combined 13 green jackets.

Player won 165 tournaments on six continents over six decades. He won the World Match Play in Europe five times, the Australian Open seven times, the South African Open 13 times and the 1974 Brazilian Open, where he posted the only 59 ever shot in a national open.

And by staying in top physical condition, Player was able to compete into his early 70s on the Champions Tour.

Player, who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974, won nine senior major titles, including the 1997 Senior British Open at the age of 62. He also claimed back-to-back U.S. Senior Open titles in 1987 and 1988.

To this day, Player still is a workout fanatic, often doing 1,000 pushups and sit-ups each morning. He will exercise for about an hour five to six days a week.

Player also continues to have business interests throughout the world with his golf design business, which features some 350 projects.

But since becoming the first South African to win the Masters, Player has been a big influence on future champions at Augusta such as Trevor Immelman (2009) and Charl Schwartzel (2011) as well as U.S. Open champions Ernie Els (1994 and 1997) and Retief Goosen (2001 and 2004 ) and British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen (2010).

He also continues to be a spokesperson for exercise and diet.

“We have to try to influence the youth, tell them that the best means of health care is self care,” Player said during a 2009 interview with The Independent. “People have to start learning to take care of themselves and not always want the government to do everything for them.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.

Gary Player won 165 tournaments on six continents over six decades, including the 1965 U.S. Open at Bellerive C.C. in St. Louis, Mo.


Gary Player, who was nicknamed “The Black Knight” for his all-black attire (inspired by his lifelong love of westerns) and bulldog mentality, turned 76 on Nov. 1. A sweater from one of his three Masters victories is currently on display within “The Age of Superpowers” gallery at the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J.


Long before it became chic for golfers to shape their bodies through exercise, diet and weightlifting, Gary Player became a pioneer for working out. By staying in top physical condition, Player was able to compete into his early 70s on the Champions Tour.