At 80, Gary Player still fit as ever

Masters Moment: 1961 (0:26)

Masters Moment: International Knight (0:26)

Gary Player might very well be entitled to the last laugh, but that is not his style. The golf Hall of Famer takes more pleasure in knowing that what he long ago believed was the way to live life and approach his career is accepted theory, if not practiced by all.

But when Player, who celebrates his 80th birthday Sunday, turned professional more than 50 years ago, the idea of exercising and lifting weights in golf was largely confined to the 12-ounce curls that were a part of the post-round experience.

Dumbbells were for dummies, he often heard.

"My favorite example is not from a fellow golfer, but from a famous golf architect," said Player, when contacted via email. "I will not mention the name, but one day he saw me squatting with 325 pounds the night before the U.S. Open. And there was quite an article that Gary Player will never last.

"When I went on tour in 1963, I mentioned his name and I said, 'I hope you're noticing this, I'll be joining you in heaven one of these days, make sure there's a good golf course and a good gym with lots of weights.' "

Player made it clear he was chuckling at the memory.

"Looking back on the attitudes of golfers toward exercise, I am very proud to be the first to have helped changed their mindset," Player said. "Golfers were not really thought of as athletes even just a few decades ago. Now, they train like athletes do in other sports like rugby. Tiger Woods and now Rory McIlroy are great ambassadors for promoting fitness in golf. The PGA Tour even has a traveling gym. We have come a long way from when I had to go to the local YMCA."

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Player and various estimates put his worldwide travel at 15 million air miles. He compiled nine major championships, winning his first at The Open in 1959 and capturing his last at the 1978 Masters. Along the way, he compiled 24 PGA Tour victories but worldwide amassed more than 160 titles, including 73 on the Sunshine Tour in his native South Africa. He played in the Masters 52 times.

A prolific golf course designer with more than 350 on his resume, Player also won six major titles on the Champions Tour.

Along with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, Player -- nicknamed the Black Knight because of his preference for black attire -- was part of the Big Three and fought to make his way among such popular and successful players.

In 1961, Player became the first international golfer to win the Masters -- aided by a Palmer double-bogey on the last hole. And in 1965, he became only the third player -- and so far, only non-American -- to win the career Grand Slam when he captured the U.S. Open, giving him victories in all four major championships.

But Player does not trace his fitness prowess directly to wanting to win golf trophies. While it helped him as a golfer, fitness became a part of life that he continues today. Player had yet to start playing golf regularly when his brother, Ian -- 8 years older than Gary -- persuaded him being fit would be important.

"It started when my brother left for war at age 17 to fight alongside the Americans and British in WWII," Player said. "I told him I was going to be a professional athlete. Knowing I was going to be small, he gave me a set of weights and made me promise to look after my body, treat it like a holy temple, and exercise for the rest of my life.

"This led me to becoming a fitness advocate. My school also played a vital role in encouraging sports."

(Player's brother, Dr. Ian Player, was one of the world's leading conservationists and is credited with saving the white rhino. He died in November 2014, at age 87.)

Player, who was just 5 feet 6, 150 pounds, began playing golf at age 14 and had turned pro by 17. He won his first pro tournament in 1955 at 20, his first PGA Tour title coming in 1958 at the Kentucky Derby Open. Throughout that period, Player was ahead of his time as he traveled the world.

"In the early part of my career, people thought I was an absolute nut for training with weights," Player said. "But I stuck to my workout routine even during tournaments, and it paid off big time. Training the way I did gave me an edge no one could top because I knew I was in the best shape of anyone on tour. That was a big part of my mental game. The critics said that Gary Player will not last as a professional golfer past age 35. I think I proved them wrong.

"My fitness and proper diet are the reasons I have been so successful. If I didn't take care of my body with a strict regimen that I still practice today, as well as eating proper food, I might be dead. I am turning 80, but feel 40."

According to his media manager, Bo Wood, Player works out four or five times a week, with various types of leg, lower-back and neck stretching, sets of one-legged squats, 1,000 mixed crunches -- the last done with extra weights -- several core exercises, weighted wrist roles, sprints on the treadmill and sets of heavy leg presses. Wood said Players' emphasis is on exercises that are good for golf, not necessarily other sports.

"I usually go to the gym with him when I am with him," said Wood, who works at the Gary Player Group in Greenville, S.C. "This year at the Masters he leg-pressed 400 pounds. It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen in the gym."

And if that's not enough? Player said he has broken his age in every round of golf he has played this year.

Although there have been some who believe heavy weight training can be detrimental to golfers, Player believes it is OK "as long as you are working the correct muscles. Your body needs rest, so you don't push yourself toward an injury. Exercising your legs, hips, core, back and arms the right way for golf are the most important. Endurance is vital to longevity."

Player seemingly has plenty of both. In addition to his golf course design business, his company is involved in many other aspects of golf. He continues to travel extensively between his homes in the United States and South Africa, where he spends hours each working on his farm. And he's even active on Twitter, sending out his good wishes to all of the winners on the various tours each week.

As for his best tip, Player keeps it simple when it comes to weight loss and continued health. "That's easy, " he said. "Eat less, drink water and exercise more!"