The word legend can be tossed around all too easily these days – but for golfing great Gary Player the lofty status fits just fine.
The South African superstar blazed a trail for generations of golfers – scooping nine Major championships (including being part of an elite group to claim a Grand Slam of all four prestigious titles) as well as more than 100 other tournaments on all corners of the globe – during an incredible career spanning several decades.
But ask the genial 82-year-old about what his legacy will be – and he will not point to the amount of shiny trophies he has put on his mantelpiece or the amount of dollars accumulated in his bank account but instead to the lives he has helped to change.
The Johannesburg-born sportsman once said the game of golf is a puzzle without an answer – but he has sought to find solutions to other problems facing millions of people through his sterling charity work.
He set up the Gary Player Invitational series back in 1983 as a way of helping those less fortunate and the event has since grown into a global phenomenon, with tournaments in the UK, USA, Japan, China, South Africa and here in the UAE raising more than $60 million for good causes.
The UAE leg of the fantastic fundraiser will be returning to Saadiyat Golf Club, designed by Player himself, for a one-day pro-am showdown on Monday, January 29, featuring some of the top talents in the game as well as celebrity faces and business leaders from across the country.
Player can’t wait to tee off in aid of this year’s chosen charity, the Zayed Higher Organization for Humanitarian Care and Special Needs.
The superstar tells Time Out: “I am very excited about coming back again. I want to thank the Abu Dhabi Sport Council and His Excellency Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan for their continued support.
“All over the world we have been able to help take people off the streets who have gone onto become doctors and lawyers. It is an amazing thing.”
Player says his own troubled upbringing led him to make a promise to give back to the community should he make his fame and fortune with the swing of a club.
After becoming one of the most decorated players in the history of the game, he has made good on his promise.
Player adds: “My mother died when I was eight, my brother was at war at 17, my dad was working in the goldmines and my sister was at boarding school. At times I wished I was dead as I was so lonely. But it helped form my character and I said when I became a champion I would help other people struggling in life.”
Player has managed to do just that – thanks in no small part to the stellar fields his events regularly attract.
Player is excited to see an influx of young champions vying for glory on the greens in Abu Dhabi this year, including rising UAE talent, Rayhan Thomas, one of the top amateurs in the game at the tender age of 18.
Player adds: “I am looking forward to seeing how Rayhan does. He could be a major star in the future. We also have Matthew Fitzpatrick, a great young player from Britain and [Spanish star] Rafa Cabrera Bello playing, as well as the European Ryder Cup captain, Thomas Bjørn.”
Player himself shows no signs of packing up his clubs and still plays at a competitive level, as well as spending much of his time masterminding golf course designs and spearheading his charity work.
He remains an avid lover of the game of golf and is hugely impressed by the young stars at the top of the game – though he remains hopeful an old stager can complete a remarkable sporting comeback.
Player adds: “I really like Rory Mcllroy and Jordan Spieth. They are both just one win away from completing a career Grand Slam. It will be a great story for golf and I think they will do it.
“I do believe the sport needs a standard bearer like Tiger Woods. Nobody today can play the way he can. He was well on his way to becoming the greatest golfer that ever lived. The world wants to see him come back to his best and win more titles.”
As well as acting as an ambassador for golf, Player hopes his continued presence in Abu Dhabi can shed a light on the capital.
He adds: “I can’t wait to come back to Abu Dhabi. I feel like an ambassador for the place. There is so much to see and do here, from the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque to the F1 and the Louvre. I am hoping to visit the Louvre while I am here.”
The great news for golf lovers is they can see every drive, chip and putt without spending any wedge as entry is free.
The series has helped The Player Foundation raise millions for charities worldwide as it works towards its goal of $100 million by 2025. And looking at Player’s track record of success it is a goal he is well on course to achieving.
Free entry. Mon, Jan 29. Saadiyat Golf Beach Club, Saadiyat Island, www.garyplayerinvitational.com.