The Black Knight and the finest women golfer of this century share great qualities, in addition to a passion for golf: a pile of major championships - 10 for the South African and nine for the Swedish star. They are in fourth place in the rankings for number of major championships won by male and female players, together with fellow greats Ben Hogan and Babe Zaharias (nine and 10, respectively).
The Black Knight
Of his many famous phrases, one that particularly stands out is, “The more I practise, the luckier I get.” Born in Johannesburg on 1 November 1935, Gary Player has had a remarkably successful career.
Known as “The Black Knight” because of his golfing attire (predominantly that colour), the South African won 163 international titles in his long career around the world, including nine majors (three US Masters, three British Opens, two US PGA Championships and one US Open).
Player was the first non-European or non-American golfer to shine on the international stage. The son of a miner, he turned professional in 1953, at 18, and almost immediately dominated the golfing scene in South Africa. When he travelled to the UK in 1955, it was said of him that he didn’t have the makings of someone who could triumph in the world of golf – and that it would be better for him to seek a different profession. But the doomsayers were wrong and, when he returned the following year to Great Britain, Player won the Dunlop Masters at Sunningdale. That same year he also won the South African Open.
In 1957 he joined the US PGA Tour, and his first Grand Slam title came two years later on European soil – the British Open.
Player broke many records during his long and distinguished career as a golf pro. For example, in 1961 he became the first non-American to win the US Masters and finished number one on the US money list the same year. The following season he won the US PGA Championship, and in 1965 completed the coveted Grand Slam with victory in the US Open – at the time becoming just the third player to win at least one of each of the four majors.
His last win in a major was the 1978 Masters at Augusta, thanks to a magnificent final round 64 after starting the day seven strokes behind the overnight leader. His nine wins are the third highest tally in Grand Slam history. He was the only player to win British Opens in three different decades of the 20th century.
The Black Knight’s collection of victories is extraordinary: 163 around the world, including 24 on the US PGA Tour. He won at least one event a season for 27 consecutive years. Then, on turning 50 he joined the US Champions (Seniors) Tour and went on to win 19 titles in all.
Player was, of course, a flag-bearer in his own country, winning the South African Open 13 times. He was also victorious in the Australian Open on seven occasions, and collected five World Matchplay titles.
Apart from the phrase mentioned above, one of his other famous quotes was, “I’ve studied golf for 50 years now and know a hell of a lot about nothing.”
Player has received countless prizes, awards and honours throughout his career, highlighted by his inclusion in the World Golf Hall of Fame and his selection as South African Sportsman of the Century.
Away from the fairways, Player was also distinguished by his efforts to ease racial discrimination in his country, as for most of his life South Africa was run by an apartheid regime. He founded the Player Foundation to promote education for children without resources, and the foundation constructed a school in Johannesburg that provided classes for more than 500 students.
When he had more time away from top competition, Player dedicated his efforts to designing courses, a facet of his career which also proved to be a great success – with 200 bearing his signature around the world. One of his hobbies away from golf was breeding race-horses.
His relationship with golf, and with life in general, was a reflection of Ben Hogan’s, in the sense that he practised and prepared for the game almost obsessively. He undertook an intensive regime of exercises, and even today takes care of himself physically almost as if he is someone various decades younger.
ANNIKA SORENSTAM: AN EXCEPTIONAL TALENT
Annika Sorenstam was the most successful female golfer during an illustrious 15-year career on the US LPGA Tour, where – before retiring in 2008, aged 38 – she won 72 times, including 10 majors, and collected $22 million in prizemoney, as well as making history by teeing up alongside the men on their tour.
“I’ve enjoyed playing golf a lot,” Sorenstam said in the last tournament of her brilliant career. “They have been great years and I have had the opportunity of enjoying a long career and sharing my memories with my fans.”
Her 15 years on the US LPGA Tour produced one of the most spectacular résumés in women’s golf: 10 majors and 62 other titles. Only two other players had won more titles: Kathy Whitworth, with 88; and Mickey Wright, with 82. As for Grand Slams, only three had won more, Wright (13), Patty Berg (15) and Louise Suggs (11); while Babe Zaharias also won 10.
Sorenstam retired from golf to look after her business interests and start a family. One year later she married Mike McGee (her second marriage), and they have since had two children together.
Sorenstam reigned over women’s golf like few before her, in particular during a period of five years when she won 43 titles and finished in the top three 70 per cent of the times she teed up.
Apart from her many achievements, which included the honour of being the only woman to card a round of 59, 10 majors and the distinction, shared with five other woman, of completing a Grand Slam of majors, Sorenstam also gained fame for testing her ability against the men on Tour. She became the second woman, after Babe Zaharias in 1945, to compete in a men’s US PGA Tour event. She failed to make the cut in the 2003 Colonial but was widely praised for the way she handled the pressure under such an intense spotlight. She was named Player of the Year on the LPGA Tour on eight occasions, including five in a row. Lorena Ochoa ended her run in 2006.
With a total of 72 titles, Sorenstam, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, is third in the all-time list, behind Kathy Whitworth (88) and Mickey Wright (82). Whitworth, who was born in 1939 in Texas, became the first female golfer to top one million dollars in career prizemoney on the LPGA Tour, the same year (1981) she won her 88th title. These included 10 wins during her best season and six majors. Born in San Diego (California) in 1935, Wright won 13 majors (a tally only bettered by compatriot Patty Berg, with 15). In her best season she won 13 events; and in another, three majors. She retired at 34 suffering from a knee injury.
Annika, who has a professional golfing sister, leads the career money list, with a total of 22 million dollars – two million more than second-placed Australian Karrie Webb (now 43)..
After doing well as a skier and also playing football, Annika began to hit her first golf shots aged 12, and – after an impressive amateur career – turned professional in 1992, at 21. Missing out on gaining her LPGA Tour card by one shot, she joined the Ladies European Tour where, after four second place finishes, she was named Rookie of the Year.
Sorenstam’s first win as a professional came in 1994 in the Australian Open, on the Women’s Australian Tour. In the US, she won the Rookie of the Year title during a season when she had three top-10 finishes, including second in the Women’s British Open. The following season was when she really took off: she won her first LPGA Tour title, the US Women’s Open, finished number one on the money list and became the first non-American to win the Vare Trophy as the season’s best player.
She was only the second player in the history of the Tour to be named Player of the Year and win the Vare Trophy the year after being chosen as Rookie of the Year. She also won the Australian Masters and two events on the LET, and became the first player to finish number one on the US and European Tours.
Away from the competition, Annika has become a successful businesswoman in many areas, under the umbrella of the “Annika” brand and with the catchphrase “Share my Passion”. Apart from designing golf courses and owning a golf academy in Florida, the former world number one has other business interests related to golf apparel, wine and perfumes.