As with most things Gary Player related, his recent comments about Augusta National were cringeworthy to say the least. The nine-time major winning South African was a hell of a player in his time, but being a champion golfer doesn’t necessarily make you a champion person, and Player has been far from the only example of that.
But his recent comments in which he ranked the Masters as a distant fourth in terms of major championship prestige were hard to swallow for a number of reasons.
Firstly, in ranking the Masters fourth, it’s directly in contrast to previous statements in which he ranked the Masters second only to The Open Championship, ahead of the US Open, with the PGA Championship held in lowest regard. Now, I’m not here to dispute Player’s rankings – if that’s his opinion then he’s entitled to it – and they’ve since been backed by Jack Nicklaus, though the Golden Bear stated that the Masters was his favourite tournament, but by being a ‘tournament’ it can’t be ranked ahead of the other three ‘championships.’
One can’t help suspect that Player’s revision is rooted in ulterior motives, however, especially following recent comments to The Times in which he spoke of what he felt was a lack of respect shown to the three-time Masters champion by the membership of Augusta National. Like all past champions, he’s an honorary member, but has never been granted full membership status like Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were. That’s Augusta National’s right, of course, but when dealing with extreme narcissism, the wants and rights of other parties are seldom considered.
Exactly why did the Green Jackets not bestow the same reverence to Player as they did to his contemporaries? Augusta National is not the kind of club to air their dirty linen in public – in fact, it’s hard to imagine so much as a slightly stained table cloth ever being seen at the most exclusive of venues – so we can only speculate as to why, but I’m going to have a stab at it anyway.
There’s been the recent controversy involving Wayne Player, son of the three-time champion, who I’m sure you’ll all remember hijacking the tribute to Lee Elder, the first African American to compete at the Masters by thrusting a sleeve of golf balls into just about every photograph taken of the since-passed-away Elder. It was crass, opportunistic and disrespectful, and though Gary Player himself wasn’t the guilty party, he was guilty by association and when dealing with omnipotent forces, guilt by association is enough.
Of course, that’s only two years ago and Palmer became a full member in 1999, so the decision to exclude Player had little to do with Wayne’s antics.
I’d argue that the decision was made a quarter of a century prior, when Augusta National, having its own dark history when it comes to race, broke ground by inviting Elder to play in the 1975 Masters tournament.
Player had been an outspoken supporter of the Apartheid regime in South Africa and of its leader John Vorster – a regime whose racially-motivated policies caused widespread condemnation and an international boycott of South Africa on the global sporting stage, and in Augusta National’s increasing progressiveness when it came to race, any association with Player beyond that of three-time tournament winner was likely considered counter-productive.
That’s not to demonise Player whilst absolving the club – the actions of both came at a time when such views, however abhorrent, were commonplace in many circles – but private members clubs are exactly that. The membership of such clubs have an undeniable right to extend membership to whomever they choose and it’s hard to argue that they didn’t make the right choice regarding Player.
But one only has to hear him speak for a mere minute to know that Player holds himself in a regard that very few others are capable of even imagining, and to not have the red carpet rolled out wherever he chooses to go is akin to treachery in his mind.
Nevertheless, he’ll be there on Thursday alongside Nicklaus and Tom Watson to ceremonially begin the tournament, and the patrons will treat him with the respect that a three-time champion deserves, as he’ll likely be for the entirety of the week.
For the other 51 weeks of the year, however, he’ll be persona non grata. If he thought it was hard to get a tee-time before, it’ll be impossible now.
For you or I, to publicly criticise the membership, the golf course and the tournament might seem like the actions of a crazy man, but then again, you and I don’t think that we made the course and the tournament what it is.
He’s made his bed, now he can lie in it.
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