73: Gary Player

73: Gary Player

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 73 •
GARY PLAYER

Grand Slam Champion golfer, member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and founder of The Player Foundation

Billy Graham is one of the all-time great American heroes. And I don’t say that lightly. When you win enough major golf championships, you get to travel and meet people from all around the world. I have been doing this for over sixty years and I have never met anyone who did not love him.

When he came to South Africa he filled the stadiums. He gave people a lot of encouragement, and he always gave such a well-balanced talk. He dedicated our youngest daughter to Christ during that crusade, and wow, she is a true daughter of Christ! She’s something special. She has seven children and still finds time to teach all the neighborhood children every morning.

I first met Billy Graham in about 1960. Arnold Palmer and I were playing an exhibition game in Asheville, North Carolina, and he played with us. He played very well, too. But the most amazing thing for me was that the following year he invited me to his house. I spent two days there.

On one of those days, we were in the swimming pool together and Billy said, “You know, you’ve been playing so well this year.” This was true. I was the leading money-winner and had won several tournaments leading up to the Masters. Billy went on to give me some great thoughts to use and carry with me when I was playing. He understood the pressure of the game and what it took to win the Masters, and he gave me some great tips that helped me tremendously over the years.

“Keep relaxed, keep cool, but stay keyed up at the same time,” was one piece of advice I remember him telling me. I didn’t have any trouble with the second part of that because I was always very pumped and focused. But it helped to have the idea of also remaining calm, no matter what was going on in the heat of competition.

Billy also said, “You are going to have adversity in a tournament, whether you like it or not. When you have a bad hole you have to look up and say thank you very much for that bad hole, and I’ll show you what I’m made of now and how I’ll come back.”

So at the Masters that year I realized before I teed off that it didn’t matter how well I played — I was going to face adversity. And that’s exactly what happened. At one stage I was leading Arnold Palmer by about four shots. But then I got a 7 at number 13 and a 6 at number 15. They were both par 5s where normally I’d get 4s. Suddenly, I was facing possible defeat. But I was determined, just as Billy told me, to stay cool and come back from an adverse position. When I came to the last two holes, numbers 17 and 18, I made miraculous pars. It was a very strong finish, and I won by one shot.

Over a decade after that memorable visit, Billy visited my home in South Africa. It was a thatched roof house on a big piece of ground. We invited about two hundred people to come along and meet him, and he gave us a wonderful sermon right on our lawn. I remember our Golden Retriever running through his legs while he was talking, and people sitting on the grass. It was a wonderful occasion. I get quite tearful thinking about it. I have a picture of him from that visit thirty-nine years ago that hangs in my ranch in South Africa.

Billy is a man who is so full of love. The last time I saw him was when I was flown in a helicopter from our home at The Cliffs in South Carolina to his home in North Carolina. His wife was near the end of her life and I felt sad. They had such a great marriage and he loved her so much.

Sometimes I wish he was nearby so I could just visit him and ask him about life. I think we all go through phases in which we worry about various things. You worry about your grandchildren, you worry about death, or if your wife dies. I suppose it’s just natural. Of course, I know the general theme of what he would say about “going to a better place,” but I would love to hear his exact response because he always had such a well-balanced, well-thought-out answer.

Talking to Billy Graham always reminds me that everything we have is a gift from above. It doesn’t matter what our achievements are, because in a sense they are not really ours at all. Take my own situation, for example. I’m the only man on the planet who has won the Grand Slam — that’s the four biggest tournaments in the world — on the regular tour and the senior tour. People say, what an effort, but I say, no, it wasn’t me; it was purely a gift, a gift from above. I would be very conceited if I took all the credit or honor for myself.

I have that sense every day of my life as a gift, that there is something bigger than me at work, and I am always thankful for what that larger presence brings me. I never forget to say thank you when a plane lands, and when I leave a hotel room I say thank you for having had a bed to sleep in. All these things are gifts from God.

I try to explain this to children when I speak to them. They think I’m from another planet when I start by asking them, “Do you have a bed? A toilet? A bath? Soap? Clothing? Do you have a car to take you to school, and a TV?” When they answer yes to all these questions, I tell them that most of the children in the world don’t have any of those things. They are shocked. They are not used to thinking of these things as precious gifts.

It’s that attitude of honoring the gift that God gave and continues to give that marks Billy Graham’s life and work. People always respond to what he says because he embodies the spirit that the Lord gave him, and he also earned that spirit. He was able to impart his spirit and his feelings to people, and that has been a special gift that he has shared with everyone. He is a great contributor to mankind worldwide, and what greater compliment can you give a man than that? Everyone wants to leave here knowing they have contributed to this planet.

I think back again to the time of our first meeting. It was wonderful playing golf with him right in his home state. He played so well, and he was happy, and happiness is contagious. Billy is the kind of man who would never put energy into criticizing people. He always uses that energy for something constructive. He is always interested in what others are doing. He once said to me, “Never forget to enjoy the success of others because when you do well you would like them to enjoy your success.” And you can’t get better advice than that.

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