South African golfer Gary Player and Swedish golfer Annika Sörenstam will become the first international athletes to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House, where United States President Donald Trump will present them with their awards on 23 March.
Player had an extremely successful golfing career, but a number of books published in the 1980s shine a light on the role he played in the 1970s as a global ambassador for the apartheid regime. This brings into question the appropriateness of Trump’s decision to recognise Player with a prestigious award that is given “to individuals who have made exceptional contributions to the security or national interests of America, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavours”, according to the White House website.
Player’s relationship with the US president goes back a number of years. In 2014, Player joined Trump for a ribbon-cutting event at the Gary Player Villa, part of the renovation of the Trump National Doral Miami golf resort. At the time, Trump said, “I have been a longtime fan of Gary and am thrilled to honour him with our first villa dedication and celebrate his legendary career”.
Player is one of only five golfers to have won the career Grand Slam. He won 24 titles on the professional PGA Tour and 19 on the senior PGA Tour Champions during his career, with nine Major titles and nine senior Major titles.
Trump, by then the president of the US, took to Twitter in 2017 to wish Player happy birthday, calling him “a truly great champion and person”. The admiration appeared to be mutual. In an interview with publisher Media24 that same year, Player said of Trump, “He’s trying to bring back the disciplines that America used to have, I’m very impressed”.
Trump and Player teamed up in September last year to play a round at the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia. Their opponents on the day were Sörenstam and Republican senator Lindsey Graham.
Support for segregation
In his 1966 book Grand Slam Golf, Player wrote at the age of 30, “I must say now, and clearly, that I am of the South Africa of Verwoerd and apartheid”. He later declared that “a good deal of nonsense is talked of and indeed thought about ‘segregation’, segregation of one kind or another is practised everywhere in the world”.
Player describes South Africa as “a nation which is the result of an African graft on European stock and which is the product of its instinct to maintain civilised values and standards among the alien barbarians”. He goes on to write about black South Africans with the vocabulary of a white supremacist, espousing the colonial framework of the uncivilised natives and the civilised Christian settlers.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, several activist groups began to protest against Player’s participation in golf tournaments because of his support for the apartheid regime. However, in a 2014 article from the South China Morning Post newspaper, Player simplified these protests against him as being “because he was South African” rather than because of his views and support for apartheid.
“For years they wanted to kill me,” he told the Hong Kong newspaper. “I lost the 1969 PGA Championship to Raymond Floyd at Dayton Ohio – they threw ice in my eyes, they charged me on the green, they threw telephone books in my back when I was swinging, and they screamed at me when I had a short putt. I lost the PGA title by one shot. Those are the conditions I had to play golf under – no golfers played under the same conditions I had to endure.”
Fighting the apartheid sports boycott
Player’s 1966 book makes it clear that he was in complete support of segregation. By the early 1970s, he had graduated to allowing the National Party government’s information department to use him to hide behind.
Former National Party propagandist Les de Villiers details the setting up of the Committee for Fairness in Sport (CFS) in his book Secret Information, published in 1980. The story begins with the Springbok rugby tour to New Zealand of 1973, which was facing the very real prospect of being cancelled amid intense pressure from anti-racism groups.
De Villiers was tasked with drafting an advertisement to counter the sports boycott movement.
When he discussed the draft advert with his boss, then secretary of information Eschel Rhoodie, they decided to set up a front through which to place it in New Zealand and British newspapers. The idea was that the department could then use this front to distribute all sporting propaganda. Former sports writer Gert Wolmarans ran the CFS and former rugby administrator and businessman Louis Luyt was its chairperson.
De Villiers writes that the advert was a big success abroad, but there was “speculation” in the South African media about who was funding the CFS. “Within days, [Wolmarans] announced that golf star Gary Player had become a director of the CFS; then the name of cricket personality Wilf Isaacs was added,” he writes. “The press seemed satisfied, no one hinted even vaguely that the government might be involved.”
The CFS was “extremely active” in countries such as the US, Britain and Australia, with whom South Africa had close sporting ties, according to Rhoodie’s 1983 book, The Real Information Scandal.
The National Party government spent R520 000 (almost R14 million in 2020) on the CFS, according to Rhoodie. This funded trips to the UK, US, Australia and Japan, and paid for a series of adverts in foreign newspapers aimed at combating the boycott of South African athletes. In 1981, the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid listed Player among the more than 250 athletes from 22 countries who had taken part in activities that violated the boycott of apartheid sport.
Ambassador for apartheid
Rhoodie writes that Player’s involvement with the information department was a lot more involved than simply serving as a director of the CFS. “Between 1975 and 1978, when we were struggling to prevent American investors taking their money out of South Africa, Player played a most important role.
“At our request, he wrote letters to carefully selected top executives of major companies in the United States … inviting them to visit South Africa and play golf with him for a whole week. They were all keen golf players, and a private invitation from a bank for a week’s golf with Gary Player is easily accepted,” he writes. “Ten invitations from [then South African minister of foreign affairs] Pik Botha would carry no weight.”
By day, the executives would play golf with Player. By night, they’d meet with South African business and political stakeholders, writes Rhoodie. The Cabinet compensated Player for this work to replace the money he “would otherwise have won had he been away on the professional circuit”.
Player was not the only one to benefit from this arrangement. Rhoodie writes that his brother, Ian Player, received funds for 15 bursaries every year for his Wilderness Leadership School, so that “children from prominent families in the USA could visit South Africa”.
Luyt and Player would pop up again in another information scandal front, The Citizen newspaper, which was launched in 1976. Journalists Mervyn Rees and Chris Day write in their 1980 book Muldergate that Player was a director of The Citizen when it launched, alongside Beurt SerVaas, an American newspaper editor and politician who had worked as an agent for the US Central Intelligence Agency and was alleged to have maintained a relationship with the agency after he left.
The safe house
Another curious anecdote from Apartheid Guns and Money, written by non-profit research group Open Secrets’ Hennie van Vuuren and published in 2017, details how the Gary Player estate in Johannesburg was used as a “safe house” for meetings between foreign intelligence officials and South African military officials. Player no longer owned the mansion; the new owner was TGS International, a company set up by former CIA agent Ted Shackley.
With these stories from Player’s history as context, perhaps the fact that an American president who has been accused of being a “racist” and “white supremacist” is giving Player this award shouldn’t shock us. But to South Africans who suffered under apartheid, a system that a number of books suggest was enabled by Player’s global brand and golfing abilities, this award is hurtful, inappropriate and unnecessary.