In an exclusive interview with FORBES AFRICA, golf legend Gary Player speaks about the greatest community golf course he has worked on, and it’s in Soweto.
Golf legend Gary Player has thrown his weight behind a project in South Africa’s Soweto township that he believes should be viewed as a game-changer in how to integrate courses into local communities and is perhaps the first step in producing a black golfer capable of winning a Major title for the country.
Player, 83, who was recently honored with the title of World Golf Course Designer of the Year, is best known for the nine Major titles he won in an illustrious playing career that included 165 professional victories.
He has been key in the rejuvenation of the Soweto Country Club, a sea of green among the sprawling township, and says it is so much more than a place to enjoy a round of golf.
“We originally designed this course in the 1970s, but this new course we have been working on for two years now,” Player tells FORBES AFRICA.
“It’s a miracle, it’s the greatest community golf course we have done and we’ve done hundreds around the world.
“I have never seen anything to compare to Soweto Country Club. There is a vibe here that is unmatched anywhere in the world.”
Player says a big part of the project has been to include locals in the development and running of the course, to help them feel part ownership of the project and provide a needed sanctuary for many in the community.
“We had young guys here in Soweto with no jobs and we have brought them in and trained them to cut greens. We have incentivised people,” Player says.
“We have old ladies that are lonely and suffering from neglect, we bring them here to have a cup of tea and give them some love in their lives.
“We want to get elderly gentlemen to come and make a seniors division and play a bit, even if it is only three holes. We want to include everyone.
“We want to create something for the community that benefits everybody. Even the houses along the road next to the golf course, they are painting them and rebuilding because they are going up in value.
“What we can do through golf is amazing. It is not just the elitist sport that people used to say it is.”
Player, whose views on the game are sought all over the world, feels that the threat to golf in the future does not come at the top of the sport in the professional game, but rather that it becomes inaccessible to amateur players.
“In professional golf, they have never played for such fantastic amounts of money. These days, in two tournaments, some of the pros earn what I managed to win in all my life,” Player says.
“Professional golf is so popular, especially with Tiger Woods coming back now. But what we need is to build golf courses for the average man, the pros are not so important.
“Because it is the average man that comes here to enjoy the game and have fun. Amateur player numbers are down because firstly, it is too expensive and secondly, the game is too slow. We need to change that.”
Woods has been an icon for golf for two decades, despite injuries that kept him out of the game for long periods.
His attacking style of play and immense ability have drawn a huge fan base, including many people who would not be considered traditional golf fans.
Player believes that somewhere out there is South Africa’s own Tiger Woods and that it is only through facilities like the Soweto Country Club that they can be found.
“It depends if a person has got what I call ‘it’ and very few do have that. In the history of golf, there have probably been about 14 superstars, which are players that have won at least six Majors in my opinion. They had something that was different to others.
“Clubs around the country should tell aspiring young players from poor backgrounds that they can come play early in the morning, or late in the evenings, whatever the case may be, to help them improve.
“And with the right coaching, I am very hopeful that we can produce a champion.”
South African golfers have won 22 Major titles, the fourth highest of any nation behind the United States (270), Scotland (55) and England(35).
Player heads the list with his nine triumphs, followed by Bobby Locke and Ernie Els with four each, Retief Goosen (two), Trevor Immelman, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel are the other winners.
The Soweto Country Club may be the best chance yet to produce a first black champion.