This should be quite a difficult choice but in fact it`s pretty easy. There are many sportsman who have staked a claim. Graeme Pollock is rated as one of the 5 best cricketers of all time and has a test average (of players with 20 tests or more) second only to Donald Bradman. We have had some of the best rugby players ever to grace the game. Jody Scheckter became the F1 World Champion driving for Ferrari.
Yet, one man stands head and shoulders above all the others. This man is Gary Player. He has won 9 majors titles, which is 4th on the all time list, the South African Open (which is the oldest national championship in the world) a record 13 times. He has won 163 tournaments worldwide and was voted the South African Sportsman of the Century.
Looking at the stats it seems pretty impressive and rightly so. But, if you delve deeper it becomes blatantly clear that Gary would have won a lot more majors if he had an equal opportunity. Ok, I know that`s a big statement but I base it on the following.
Gary played golf when South Africa was ruled by the National Party and Apartheid was the order of the day. SA became the pariahs of the world and most of our sporting teams were banned. Golfers were not though and they could play throughout the world but at a price.
You see, golf is a gentlemans game but the fans haven`t always been gentlemen. Gary was abused for most of his career. There were instances where he was spat at by spectators. Other times spectators would shout on his backswing. There are many other examples of bad behaviour. This happened mostly in the States but also in other countries.
Through all of this, Gary kept his head down and kept working. He once famously replied to a reporter who asked him why he was such a good golfer; "The more I practice the luckier I get". That is the essence of the man. The more life threw curveballs at him, the harder he worked.
Jack Nicklaus won 18 majors. I have huge respect for Jack and him and Gary are best of friends. But, Jack played 3 of every four majors in front of partisan crowds at home. The only AWAY major was the British Open and crowds were never nasty towards Jack in the UK.
I am not saying Gary would`ve won more than Jack if the playing fields were level but I am saying that Gary would`ve won a lot more had he been treated fairly. Or even if he had played most of the Majors at home. Being blamed for the mistakes of the government, one in which he had no say, was very unfair.
Gary has made a lot of money from golf. He has one of the most renowned golf course design companies in the world. He has however ploughed a lot of that money back into SA. He built a school for underprivileged children on one of his farms and pays for everything the kids need to get through school. He hosted the Nelson Mandela Invitational which raised a lot of money for charities in SA.
The other thing that Gary has been very vocal about is his Christianity. He has never been afraid to openly chat about his love for God.
Another quote that comes to mind and which has left a major impact on me was when a fellow player once said to Gary while they were playing in wind and rain "What a horrible day". Gary turned to him and said "God has never made a horrible day" I always remember that and I have never complained about a horrible day ever.
We have a lot of good golfers. Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and more recently Trevor Immelman rates among the best in the world. They have had the benefit of friendly crowds and hospitality. Ernie was the heir to Gary`s throne and had all the potential in the world. He however never had Gary`s work ethic and that is why he has won only 3 majors. I mean Gary still does 300 sit ups every morning of his life!
Gary Player will go down as South Africa`s best sportsman of all time. Not just that, he will be remembered as a human who made it against the odds and who gave back as much as he won. Gary the person is as big an icon as Gary the champion golfer.