The respected veteran golfer stopped by to talk to Fortune about business after sports, philanthropy, and fitness.
FORTUNE — Gary Player is still going strong. The South African golfer is a legend not only for his victories — at 29 he completed a Grand Slam, only the third player to do so and still today the only non-American to do it — but also for his class and style. These days the “man in black” flies around the world to promote fitness and raise money for education. He has endorsement deals with companies like Humana HUM , Callaway ELY , and Rolex. He also has a startling number of companies or foundations that bear his name, such as Gary Player Design, Player Real Estate, and The Player Foundation.
Player (along with his son Marc, CEO of Black Knight International, the holding company for all the Player ventures) sat down with Fortune last week to talk about everything from his upbringing to philanthropy to sports endorsement contracts. Most interestingly, he sees a change in the way pro athletes carry themselves and laments what he perceives as a loss of decorum on and off the field of play.
What follows is an edited transcript from Player’s visit:
Fortune: You’re doing such a wide range off the course. Which other retired athletes do you think are doing it right in terms of their business ventures?
Player: Actually, I wouldn’t classify myself as a person who’s retired. I’m way more busy now than I was in my prime, but obviously in different directions. I still play in some golf tournaments — still can shoot, on a normal golf course, an average of 70. Jack Nicklaus and I played in the Legends [Liberty Mutual’s Legends of Golf tournament in April 2013] and I shot a 67, so I beat my age by 10 shots.
We do not believe in the word “retirement” because it’s a known fact you retire and … you go back into oblivion, you’re depressed, you watch TV, and you die within three years. So it’s a matter of channeling your energies in the right new directions. I want to try to contribute. And I have been, for a long time, in being the first to really do weight training and exercise in the fields of golf.
Right, and going beyond your own fitness, why has it been such a priority of yours to advocate that others do it?
One of the great frustrations of my life is to see this great country, a polished diamond in my lifetime, becoming dull. There’s too much a sense of entitlement. Nobody’s entitled to a damn thing! What made this country great was hard work, great education, and people wanting to contribute and build the greatest country in the world, which was successfully done. Now 30% of the youth are obese. [Fact check: that is true in just over half of the 50 states, not all.] And far worse, there are going to be 100 million Americans with diabetes in 40 years’ time if there is not a better cure than insulin. What is a better cure? Exercise and diet and work ethic. But how do you re-instill that? I don’t know how.
Athletes, in my humble opinion, should be role models. They should all say, “Listen, we got blessed, man! We make $100 million.” Who makes a million dollars for winning a golf tournament? Certainly never happened to us. They owe something. At my age of 77, I tell you, very few 40-year-olds would beat me in a fitness contest. Unless he’s a gym jock. So, how do we get it all back? The Chinese are coming at us like it’s an army and do the young guys really care? No one’s really worried about it. There’s this carefree attitude.
[Player’s son, Marc, relates a story about a pro golfer in his fifties who is currently pondering retirement and told Gary he’d like to create a strong brand around himself, modeled after the success of golfers like Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Greg Norman, but he “doesn’t really want to have to work that hard.” Gary commented to Marc, “I’m nearly 80, and I’m making more money than I ever made before, but I’m working harder than I ever worked before. If he thinks he can go hunting and fishing and build a global brand, he’s a dreamer.”]
Well, the name brand alone does get you to a certain point, but then it takes work, too.
Right. You either have this work ethic or you don’t. And where does it come from? I suppose nobody really knows. My life was very tough as a youngster. It was a blessing. It gave me a sense of gratitude and respect. It comes from a foundation, a good education — I knew the Great Lakes of the U.S. at 9 years old; a kid today in America doesn’t even know South Africa exists. And it comes from having a passion. You can’t just say, “I want to be a businessman, but I don’t want to work.”
Marc Player: My dad has kept his work ethic going, and it’s 30-odd years since he played the regular tour. Look at this month alone: he left his ranch in South Africa about eight days ago. He’s been on the East Coast of the U.S. for a week, he’s going to the West Coast the day after tomorrow for four days, then it’s Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, India where we’re opening a golf course. Then it’s Abu Dhabi, to Johannesburg, back to his farm where he won’t have been in 32 days. You ask Phil Mickelson if he’d like to do that.
Well, that’s definitely what the majority of guys do, they leave the sport and go hang out on the ranch. So, why run yourself ragged?
It’s like a tree. If you don’t water it, it dies. You’ve got to keep that body moving. Otherwise you’re going to die early. And I want to live a long time. I have 6 children, 23 grandchildren, a great wife, a great ranch, and I love golf and love people. And it’s the greatest education in the world that you can attain by traveling.
Marc Player: We’ve had the Player Foundation for 30 years, and we’ve raised over $50 million, mostly for underprivileged education. He said to me 30 years ago, ‘if we can get to $15 or $25 million, then I’ll know I’ve done my part.’ Now we’ve doubled that. I asked him, now what? He said, ‘Now we go for $100 million.’ So he keeps creating new targets for himself, whether it’s in our business, or on his ranch, or trying to grow the game of golf internationally.
Gary, what was the culture in which you grew up? What was in the air, what was unspoken?
It was a time after the war and what was unsaid was: hard work, you get what you put in, no one hands you anything. And that doesn’t exist today — you can talk about America but even in South Africa, too, that doesn’t exist.
I went to visit a school and here’s a guy with a backwards hat and an earring, sitting back in his chair, and he yelled out, ‘So, what are you going to tell us today, rich man?’ I said, ‘You little punk! You don’t know what it is to struggle.’ And I went to visit my grandson’s school in Philadelphia and I talked to some 16-year-old young guys and I said, ‘You should kiss the ground every day if you’re lucky enough to wake up in America. You’ve got a coach and a golf course, take the advantage, practice your damn arse off, become a champion. And if you’re not a champion it’ll still help you in business.’ Golf is an education in itself. You’ve got to be on time, you’ve got to have respect, be a good loser, a good winner, you’ve got to dress neatly.
It all comes back to education. And your Mr. Bloomberg is very interested in it, he’s very vociferous about it. But he’s not coming up with the answer. We’ve got to be doers. America has to be doers. I see things not being done. I get very frustrated …
This sounds like someone who wants to get into politics.
I would have loved to get into politics. But they’d shoot me.
We talked about Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus and it does seem like golfers, in particular, find real success in business. Do you think golf as a sport is more conducive to that because the pro career lasts so long?
Well, to be in someone like Cal Ripken’s position [the baseball star who had great success in business post-retirement] … He lasted a long time in his sport, he was disciplined. It’s about discipline. Greg Norman got hammered — he should have won far more Majors. But he learned a lot from loss. It all boils down to good fundamentals, and class is always in style.
Tell us anyone else you’ve taken a page from, other pro athletes who have done well outside the sport, either in business or otherwise.
Well, Nicklaus has always been a great family man, a tremendous champion, a tremendous loser. He doesn’t like me to say he’s a good loser, but it’s a fact. One thing about golf: you lose way more than you win. I admired Ben Hogan for his work ethic. Sam Snead was the greatest athlete ever. I played with DiMaggio in South Africa, he was a wonderful guy. But my main man is [Rafael] Nadal. Of all the athletes I met in my life, he was the most humble, charming guy.
You keep talking about commitment and hard work but also decorum, on and off the field. Do you feel that’s been lost a little bit in pro sports? Has the meticulous attention to attire, and behavior, gone away?
You’ve hit the nail. It doesn’t matter so much to them these days, because we’ve got a different world. You don’t have to have the dress code that you had before. These guys go to accept the jacket and they’re unshaven! They don’t have to adhere to the same image anymore.
Now you talk about performance enhancing drugs — it’s got to be far more people than we even think. These guys in baseball take no heat, or very little heat, when they get caught. It’s hard to envisage what it’ll be in the future. But what I envision is the endorsement contracts will be around incentives. The company will say, ‘We’ll give you $5 million, but if you win.’ I mean, I wouldn’t sign many people up now. It’s got to be incentivized on performance.
I’m with Callaway, and we went to a dinner with 50 guests. And someone asked me, ‘Gary would you sign 50 books?’ I said, ‘With pleasure. As many as you like.’ He said, ‘Would you say a few words? I said, ‘Absolutely, how long would you like me to talk?’ This other guy, who has made a hell of a lot more money than I have, he wouldn’t sign the 50 books, and wouldn’t speak, but he said I’ll go to the dinner and sit at the front table. But companies kowtow to the athletes. Whereas former President Clinton, at the Humana Challenge [a golf tournament Clinton co-hosts], he stays there until everybody’s out of the room, he signs every autograph.