Gary Player

Business Jet Traveler » June 2009
Portrait by Manuello Paganelli
Monday, June 1, 2009 - 5:00am

As Golf legend Gary Player's Black Knight Enterprises continues to grow, his travel schedule is expanding to allow him to keep commitments all around the globe. These include speaking engagements; designing golf courses (more than 200 to date); working his farm in his South African homeland; overseeing Black Knight subsidiaries Gary Player Academy, Gary Player Equipment and Gary Player Enterprises; working at the Gary Player Stud Farm; and overseeing The Player Foundation.

The Cessna Citation Xs and other jets that Player relies on today are much faster and more efficient than the airliners that used to ferry him and his family on long flights. But the speed of his current aircraft doesn't mean Player spends less time aloft-he takes advantage of that speed to cram more meetings into his schedule.

Still lean and pumping out 1,000 sit-ups every day, Player remains passionate about golf and immensely proud of his record as only the third man ever to win all four Grand Slam events. But for Player, life is not all about golf. His foundation focuses on helping disadvantaged children in Africa and elsewhere. And Player's concern about the environment manifests itself in his current golf course design ethos, which minimizes water and fertilizer use.

Player also gets terribly excited about the subject of obesity. Healthy living, he claims, has nothing to do with body type. Anyone eating too much of the wrong foods "will start to get fat," he said in his clipped South African accent. To help people understand this, Player is surveying healthy eaters in places like Japan, India, China and Africa and writing a book titled Mothers, You're Poisoning Your Children.

He talked to us about this issue-as well as about private jet travel, water-wise golf courses, the perils of gum trees, wildebeest raising and the influence of his gold-miner father. Then the self-proclaimed "International Ambassador of Golf" and "World's Most Traveled Athlete" jetted off in a Sentient-arranged Citation X to conclude another day of business, adding still more travel miles to a lifetime total that exceeds 14 million.

How much do you travel?

If a businessman travels extensively for 25 years, it's remarkable, and if a pilot flies for 35 years, it's also amazing. But I've been traveling for 56 years.

Right now we have 60 golf courses and design projects on our books in 20 countries. We're also involved in eight real estate developments at some of the courses. I've got to visit them. Before Christmas, I was in 13 countries in one month. Now I've been doing this for this length of time, so how is it possible for anybody to ever travel as much as I have? I don't think it is. I'm 73 and I'm doing more travel now than ever because I'm so active in all the businesses that I'm involved in.

How did you fly when you first started traveling?

We used to travel to America with our six children. It took 40 hours. It was very difficult because you'd stop in the Belgian Congo and in these African states and they really didn't have great facilities in those days.

Contrast that with traveling via business jet.

A huge difference. We have a meeting this morning [in Southern California]. Then we fly to New Orleans and have several meetings there, and tomorrow morning we go to a convention and I'm able to fly back to my home in Florida tomorrow and spend the night with my family. You just can't do that [on the airlines].

We have a saying in business-there's no substitute for personal contact. I can meet somebody on one of my flights, one of the owners that I'm doing a project for, and I'm able to get to know him on the plane in a two-hour flight. Instead of getting off the plane, meeting him for the first time, I'm sitting there discussing his project with him.

On the other hand, let's say I have two very important site visits to make. I can leave at 6 in the morning, arrive at my first client, have breakfast with his team, do my site visit over 18 holes, fly to my next site visit, have lunch, do the site visit and have dinner and leave. I've got a lot crammed into one day. It would be very difficult [via the airlines].

Do you currently own a jet?

I wouldn't own my own jet today. I see young guys buying their own jets. I don't understand it, when you can have somebody like Sentient and you don't have to worry about all your spares. I had my own jet [a Hawker 800] for a while. I think having your own jet is a worry. You've got to take care of your pilots and you've got spares and this and that, and the expense of oil fluctuating. I will guarantee that 20 percent of private aircraft in the United States will be on the market [soon]. And they know that they're going to struggle to sell them. So why go that route? It just doesn't make sense.

When you're in the air, how do you use that time?

I have all my reading matter on this flight this morning. I will do my tax forms. I will keep up with world news. And I'll get all my correspondence up to date. I'm a great believer that the pen is mightier than the sword. 

Are you a better traveler than your golfing peers?

One year, we were playing in France-Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and myself-and we committed to going to the Australian Open. Our round was fogged out on a Sunday, so we had to play on a Monday. The travel agency said, "Look, you're going to Australia, you're going to arrive at the golf course two and half hours before you're supposed to play." Arnold and Jack said, "We're not going, it's too close." I went. I [had to go via] France, New York, L.A., Hawaii, Fiji, Sydney and Melbourne, and I got off the plane two and half hours before the game. I'd never seen the golf course, and I won the Australian Open by seven shots. You've got to be a very good traveler to do that.

How do you prepare for those trips?

I try and go to bed the night before more on the time [of the place] I'm going to. The next day I wake up and double my exercise program so by the time I get on that plane I'm exhausted.  I just put my head back and I'm a champion sleeper. If I wasn't a champion sleeper, I could never have had the lasting power that I've had.

Do you exercise in the air?

No, it's not necessary because I go to the gym every day that I can. Last night, I was in the gym and I worked out profusely. I did over a thousand sit-ups and worked out with the weights on every part of my body. Then I got on the treadmill and I did my cardio.

What about your diet?

I don't eat as well as a man in China who lives in a rural area, but I'm trying to eat more like a Chinaman as I get older. There's a book called The China Study, which every American should read because America's going to have a serious problem with diabetes. Thirty percent of the youth are obese already. And I don't know how you overcome that [when people are] taking exercise out of school and eating so poorly. I'm 73 and I've got to have the energy of a 25-year-old.

And so I've got to exercise, and I've got to have mind-strength and I've got to above all eat exceptionally well, and I can't eat the things that normal people eat. Mainly fruit and vegetables, things like avocado and [roughage]. I eat brown bread and drink green tea and herbal teas and stay away from things like milk and bacon and ice cream and white bread. Those are, in my opinion, the killers of the human.

You feel strongly about this?

It's vitally important. If you said to me, "What ambition do you have left in the world?" well, I've achieved everything in golfing that I wanted to. I'm the only man who won the world grand slam on the regular tour, and the world grand slam on the senior tour. I've been fortunate, but now I'd like to influence hundreds of millions of young people that their body is a holy temple and they've got to look after it. The best thing is self-care, and this is what has to be taught. There have to be incentives given for people that take care of themselves. How you do that, I don't know. It is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than to get an average man to exercise.

Obviously your regimen helped your golf game.

Exactly. The other day, at 73, I [scored lower than] my age every day in the tournament. I would beat 80 percent of America's 30-year-olds in a fitness contest. That's why I'm able to continue with my business and be productive.

What other projects are you working on?

We have the Gary Player Foundation, where we participate in Africa, Europe, Asia and America. And we've raised about $25 million. Wherever an event takes place, the money is allocated in that country. In South Africa, it's all for underprivileged children, for education. In China it would be for AIDS children. In America it would be mainly education. And then I do my ranching in South Africa.

We raise thoroughbred racehorses, and we raise all crops from alfalfa to corn to oats. We have cattle and sheep and goats, and we raise wild animals, which is a really good business. It's a tradition in South Africa. We have wildebeest, waterbuck, gemsbok, impala, lesbok-12 species. And I built a 70-percent water-free golf course on the farm as a showroom to [illustrate how to deal with] the water problem in the world. I use 70 percent less fertilizer and water and 50 percent less overall cost to maintain the golf course. Abu Dhabi sent people to see it and they liked it, and they want me to do a golf course for them.

Are you worried about the environment?

The other day I played at Del Mar [in San Diego]. The effluent water [used for the course] goes right down to the edge of the golf course, but all the houses are using drinking water to irrigate their gardens. It doesn't make sense. This place is just full of gum trees, eucalyptus. If they cut every gum tree down in California, the water level would rise. They would be shocked if they saw what would happen with their water level. [Governor] Schwarzenegger should make a law: tomorrow they should all be cut down. Because each gum tree is taking up hundreds of gallons of water, and I just don't see anybody worrying about that.

Look at the whales that are so fantastic, and people are slaughtering them. And the sharks, to get shark-fin soup. I ask you with tears in my eyes: shark-fin soup! Cut the fin off and throw the shark away! Don't they understand that that shark maintains the cleanliness in the ocean? It plays a role, and then they kill the dolphins! And they kill everything, and then all the sewerage is going into the ocean, and they're dropping atomic waste. The ocean they think is just a place they can dump everything in.

Is your real estate development business suffering?

Obviously the real estate is a little quiet now, which is natural. I believe that the depression-it's almost a depression, it's more serious that a recession-is the best thing that could have happened to the world right now, because we were running out of space with the way we were living in greed. This is going to start getting rid of the toxin, it's going to put us back to normality, because the way we were going was just crazy. The greed and the incompetence of people that were so-called leaders in the business world is a tragedy.

Is playing golf still fun for you?

Ah yes, it is. I play about eight tournaments a year. But I've cut down on my golf to put more time into my business.

What else do you enjoy?

Work on my ranch. And I love body surfing in the ocean. That's just on holiday, but I work on my farm at least three months a year. I work hard. I shovel, mix cement, carry rocks and put up fences and get involved with bulldozers and shoveling manure in the stables. It doesn't matter what it is-I wake up at 5 o'clock and I work.

What was the genesis of the Black Knight?

My father was a gold miner and didn't have much education. He loved golf and he got me started. One day I said, "Dad, I'm going to be the world champion." Can you imagine a gold miner hearing his son talk like that? It was utter nonsense to him. He said, "Son, I don't know if you realize how tough golf is." And he said, "You've got to work like a Trojan, which I know you will do." Because I was born a workaholic.

He said, "You've got to have a trademark." And he said, "Get your head up, get some fresh air and go out on your own and get a brand of some kind."

And I came to America and I saw a show called Have Gun-Will Travel, with [Richard Boone playing] Paladin. And Paladin was dressed in black and he had the holster [decorated with a chess knight symbol], and I loved cowboy movies and I said, "Damn it, I'm from black Africa, here's a man dressed in black, I've got to dress in black." And then they started calling me the Black Knight. And then on our clothing and endorsement, we had that Black Knight emblem, and my son [Marc] changed it to the flowing Black Knight.

Fast Facts

NAME: Gary Player

AGE: 73

OCCUPATION: Legendary golfer, philanthropist, golf-course designer, farmer, environmentalist.

TRANSPORTATION: The Gary Player Group signed a partnership with charter broker Sentient Jet Membership in 2007. Player generally travels on Sentient-arranged jets in the U.S.

PERSONAL: Lives in Florida and South Africa with wife Vivienne. Six children, 21 grandchildren.

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