A life less ordinary

Legendary golfer Gary Player is the only player to win the Open in three different decades. Now, his game comes second to his giving

Gary Player needs little introduction. The legendary South African golfer has 18 majors and 167 tournaments to his name, was Open champion in three decades, and has designed more than 400 golf courses worldwide. Off the course, he is the driving force behind the Player Foundation, which has to date raised more than $62m to expand educational opportunities for children in need around the world. The nonprofit - which seeks to raise $100m by 2025 – is funded in part by the Gary Player Invitational golf tour, staged annually in cities around the world.

This year’s six-country series kicks off in Abu Dhabi on February 6. Proceeds from the event will be donated to the UAE-based Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care and Special Needs. Ahead of his visit, Player talks sport, his upbringing, and using golf to give back.

Philanthropy isn’t a new focus for me. It’s been a central part of my golfing career, and I’ve been doing this a long time. But I wanted to do something more than win major championships and tournaments, something more than most athletes.

My son Marc was instrumental in getting the Player Foundation started. He knew how hard it was for me as a young boy. My family was poor. My mother died when I was 8-years-old, my brother was fighting in a war at 17, and my sister was at boarding school. I went to a marvellous school, but I came home every day to a dark house, cooked my own food and washed my own clothes. It’s such a thrill for me, having struggled, to help other people find their place in the sun.

"Educating our youth is critical to our future"We started the foundation 30 years ago, and we’ve raised more than $60m in funding to help impoverished children around the world.

Our great aim is to raise $100m by 2025 and I think there’s a good chance we will. I’m 81-years-old now and I’ll be 90 then, and hopefully still travelling and working.

Education is our main theme. For me, coming from Africa where people have not had access to higher education across the board, I see it as a priority. Educating our youth is critical to our future, and to reversing poverty.

The schools we’ve built in South Africa have educated thousands of children. It has given me one of the greatest thrills to be able to go to a poor area and build a school. We also work with Wings & Wishes to help critically ill children access medical care. In London, we joined with the Depaul Charity, which works to support young homeless people, to give them a place to sleep and live. I’ve visited a Depaul hostel, and it’s changed lives. I said: “We’ve got to try and add to this.”

In China, we helped build homes for children who have been orphaned by AIDs. In Japan, we helped the victims of the 2011 tsunami: imagine a child seeing their whole life washed away. We raised funds to help rebuild Tohoku, which is where the earthquake struck that caused the tsunami. These are lasting joys that will go on long after the Masters, the US Open and the PGA Championship.

In Abu Dhabi, the event’s beneficiary is the Zayed Higher Organisation. The funds will be used to build a gymnasium for children with disabilities – another form of education. What a wonderful thing to be able to do in Abu Dhabi, in a country I am crazy about.

I believe in physical education – as an athlete, it’s very close to my heart. I see a tremendous amount of diabetes in the UAE. It’s very important to convey to young people the need for a good diet and exercise: it should be taught in schools. My message to young people is not to smoke, or drink, and to keep in good shape.

"I would say to anyone, don’t delay your philanthropy"I don’t measure the impact of my philanthropy. I visit the schools, the projects we support, and I see the children and that is enough. I do have a committee of people who help to decide how we use our funds, and which charity to join with. Being successful means surrounding yourself with the right people, for maximum impact.

I remember walking down the street in Cape Town, and I heard someone shout: ‘Gary Player!’ There in the building across the road was a young man who said: ‘You gave me a chance. I got a bursary through you, and today I’m making a good living. Thank you.’ I said: “Great. You can come down and buy me lunch then."

I would say to anyone, don’t delay your philanthropy. Those of us in the position to help change people’s lives are in the 1 per cent of people. We are so lucky. I’ve been blessed in my life; blessed by god. If you are in that 1 per cent, give something back. Don’t delay – get on your way.