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November 22, 2009

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Champion with a warm heart

ONE of world golf's champion players and course designers, Gary Player has a heart of gold when it comes to using his fame to make a better life for the disadvantaged around the world. He tells Nancy Zhang how his childhood circumstances inspired him to try to make a difference.

The rise of one of golf's most successful professionals ever, Gary Player, hardly reflects its image as a sport indulged in by the well-heeled elite.

Player's story is a classic rags-to-riches tale of someone who came from nothing and made it by living frugally and working hard.

Now aged in his 70s, Player is giving back with his charity work -- turning adversity to opportunity not once, but repeatedly in his life.

"We all need help in life, it doesn't matter who you are. I had nothing, I came from nothing, and I always said if I became champion I would help," he said in Shanghai recently.

With the Gary Player Foundation, he has raised US$25 million in the past 25 years for children and impoverished neighborhoods worldwide. One of his major projects is AIDS relief in China, for which he has already raised US$10 million over the past three years.

There are 33 million people infected with AIDS worldwide. With 1 million infected in China there are 150,000 AIDS orphans here according to the Chinese Foundation for the Prevention of STD and AIDS.

Player was in Shanghai for his foundation's third annual charity golf tournament, which kicked off with a fund-raising banquet hosted by superstar Jackie Chan and record-breaking hurdler Liu Xiang.

"It's far more important to give a child a decent chance at life than being the leading golfer in the world," he said of his current work. "We've helped tens of thousands of kids around the world, it's just amazing to see the happiness on their faces."

Despite this modesty, it was his great fame as a golf champion that made it all possible.

Before retiring from the professional golf circuit, Player clocked up nine major championship victories and is widely regarded as one of the greatest players in the history of golf.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, as the son of a poor gold miner and a mother that died by the time he was eight years old, Player's unlikely success was characterized by his determination to win -- plus a few lucky breaks.

The first of these came in the form of a US$100 bank loan his father took out to buy the young boy a set of golf clubs.

Player was 14 when he first hit out on the Victoria Park golf course in Johannesburg. Spending hours on the vast green grounds learning the disciplined creed of golf, the spirit of the game became profoundly ingrained in his attitude to life.

"My father played golf, he understood golf. It teaches you things like discipline, precision, hard work and patience. For example, the penalty for lateness beyond five minutes is disqualification. It is a religion and a culture of its own," he said.

Another lucky break came a few years later when Player was working as a golf instructor in a club, laboring long hours for a tiny wage every month. When a chance to compete in England came up, the club members collected some funds to buy a ticket for him to travel to the tournament.

He remembers these small gifts vividly in an early life otherwise characterized by hardship and sheer determination.

When asked if there was a time when he wished for help that never came he said: "I never had any money, but money was never the issue for me. I just wanted to be a champion, and I got there by working harder than anyone else."

On his first night in Scotland he was too poor to afford a hotel, so he slept on the beach. In the remaining years before he achieved fame and championship, he traveled with his family of six children, often living in tiny rooms, he said, to attend competitions and tournaments around the world.

This was in the days when it took 40 hours to get from Johannesburg to North America.

By the end of his career he had clocked up an average of two different hotels a week and 14 million air miles. He is often called the most traveled athlete on the planet.

After retirement, Player's interests diversified into an astounding range of businesses. He designs golf courses around the world, owns the acclaimed Gary Player Stud Farm breeding champion race horses, plus his own charity foundation which supports educational programs on four continents.

Differing from the recent HSBC golf championships, the seed money from Player's charity tournaments does not go to the player, it goes to orphans of AIDS families in Yunnan Province.

The playing fields are made up of celebrities and businessmen and other donors.

Up until now the tournaments have sponsored 2,000 children. This year Player hopes to raise US$3-4 million and double the amount of kids helped to 4,000.

He also continues a lifelong devotion to healthy eating and exercise. Amidst his busy schedule he finds time to go to the gym every day.

Perhaps it's his healthy focus that has given him the energy to keep so many balls in the air and to make a difference for so long.

"The beauty of golf is its longevity," he said. "When you train one champion golfer, such as Tiger Woods, you have someone who will be known to the world for the next three to four decades."

In China, he is particularly interested in the issue of health.

Having visited Hong Kong since the 1950s, he is worried by the trend of young Chinese people eating more and more Western diets with increasing proportions of meat and fats.

"I'm a fan of your grandfather's diet," he said to me, "which was rice and vegetables and fruit. Your body is a temple and health is the most important thing."

Player's golf courses also reflect his concern with health. Being open, green spaces, he said golf courses are naturally conducive to greening the environment and promoting health.

In the six golf courses he has designed in China -- in Suzhou, Shenzhen, Nanjing, Zhaoqing and two in Hong Kong -- he incorporated gyms onto the site to encourage all-round health consciousness.

Golf course design also serves another long-term goal. Partly because of his own background, Player is keen to take golf to a wider audience than its traditional clientele of rich businessmen.

His designs try to break away from the exclusivity of private courses, giving some access to young, poor players as he once was.

Although public golf courses are in their infancy in China, he believes adding gyms gives a public component to a course. All his courses also encourage caddies to play.

"Think how many people there are in China, there's got to be a world champion here if we only give them a chance," he said.


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