The Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award bestowed by the President of the United States, is given to those being honored for “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural, or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Gary Player and Annika Sörenstam were selected to receive the medal on Monday, March 23, however the ceremony has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Player is only one of five to have won achieved a “grand slam” in golf, winning The Masters, The U.S. Open, The PGA Championship, and The Open Championship. He’s also credited with nine Major championships, nine senior Major championships, 24 PGA Tour wins, and 19 PGA Tour championship titles.
Player talked to The Independent about the honor.
As a young man growing up in South Africa, how did you get introduced to golf?
My father worked in a gold mine, 8000 feet underground, made £100 (about $130) per month, and he loved golf. I was busy playing football and other sports, and thought golf was for “sissies.” Anyway, I did go play, and thank goodness I did, because I love it so much. Golf is a passport to the world. At 84 years old, I’m averaging 72 shots per round, I’ve beaten my age well over 2000 times in a row, I’ve made friends all over, and I’ve been able to travel more miles than any human being in the world.
It’s given me the greatest education that’s obtainable. I’m so grateful for what golf’s done for me, the friends I’ve made, and the amount of money I’ve been able to raise for charity and the changes I’ve made to the lives of thousands of people. What a thrill!
When was the first time you realized you had a special talent with golf?
When I was 17, I told my dad I wanted to play golf. He said, “No, there’s no money in that.” He wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor or something of that nature. But I said I was going to become the world champion, that I was going to work harder than anyone else had ever worked, and that by traveling, I was going to get the best education anyone could get.
Well, you certainly picked the right path. What was it like when you came to the U.S. for the first time to play golf?
I left South Africa and came on my own, and, oh my goodness. I arrived in New York City, this massive city, and I went up to about the 30th floor of my hotel, looked out, and was amazed to see I was only a third of the way up. I wanted to get a hold of my wife to tell her about it, but in those days, you had to “book” a phone call — book it one day and make it the next.
But I came to this great country, the greatest country in the world, and I tell people every day that if they should wake up in the morning, because not everyone does wake up every day, just kiss the ground and realize how lucky you are to be in America with a wonderful free enterprise system and the freedom that my brother and others had to fight for, and to cherish it.
What are your thoughts on receiving this Presidential Medal of Freedom?
It is the greatest honor ever bestowed on me. The President of America, the greatest country in the world. You know, I’ve been given many awards over the 70 years I’ve been playing golf, and most have been for my golfing prowess. But I like to feel I’ve done more for freedom and for human beings than I did for golf.
You know, you had your segregation when I arrived in the states, and I think back to Charlie Sifford, who wasn’t allowed to play the tournaments. I went to bat for him with the PGA and I went up to Cleveland and helped him with his club, and he never forgot that. One of the greatest thrills I had was when he asked me, a white South African, to induct him into the World Golf Hall of Fame. That was such a great honor.
Only a handful of golfers have ever received the Presidential Medal of Freedom . . . Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Charlie Sifford, Tiger Woods, and now you and Annika Sörenstam. I can only imagine the pride you feel being recognized at this level.
Absolutely! I am so excited! I like to feel that I am a great ambassador for the United States. I just love this country and am grateful for what this country has done for me. My goodness, what a country America is.
I have known Gary Player for many years and he is the ultimate gentleman. Giving the time to help him celebrate this award was quite significant even for me, but having Gary Player as a friend will always be the bigger honor.