Oral History: The Players
Nearing 80, South African golfer Gary Player—three-time Masters champion and winner of 165 professional tournaments—is one of the world’s most iconic athletes, but he depends on his 54-year-old son, Marc, to transform fame into fortune.
Their company, Black Knight International, designs golf courses, sells branded apparel and coordinates Gary’s appearances and endorsements. Here’s how they work together to build a legend’s legacy.
Marc: In the late 1950s and early ’60s, my dad was managed by Mark McCormack, the founder of IMG, who really created golf’s Big Three—Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Mark and various executives from IMG would bring opportunities to my dad, and that led to my interest in business. When my dad was getting towards age 50, the senior tour was really just starting. My dad was in such great shape that he was able to extend his playing period—he was still winning senior majors in his mid-60s. I’d spent most of my life around the golf industry, so I was in a position to say, “If Gary Player keeps playing well, I can parlay that into a real business.”
Gary: I always wanted to be different from other athletes. I was interested in being better educated—I believed in speaking well, I tried to increase my vocabulary. But my business acumen was never much to write home about. It would have been wrong of me to try to tell Mark McCormack or my son what to do. But I could bring along common sense and a lot of experience in life.
Marc: In the early years, when we were getting the business going, it was difficult. I was about 24. I went to Dad and said, “Help me get a line of credit at the bank.” And he said, “Forget it.”
Gary: Marc has always had, like me, a very strong work ethic. He relieves me—it’s very difficult for an athlete to perform his tasks if he’s worried about what’s going to happen to his money. You’ve got to have a clear mind.
Marc: I went to McCormack and IMG. They said, “Your father has his name and his reputation and his time, and we don’t think he should be funding a business for you. If you want to do it, you should own it and fund it and take the risk.”
Gary: I get my share off the top. If anything goes wrong, he’s in trouble, so it’s his problem.
Marc: The entire business—ownership, management, the hiring the firing—it’s all done by me and my executive team. If we do a $1 million endorsement deal, my dad gets a certain percentage off the top. And the rest of us have to manage and operate the business with whatever’s left over. As long as you don’t do anything to embarrass him, and you pay him his royalty, there’s no problem.
Gary: It fascinates me how big companies sign up an athlete and pay him an awful lot of money simply to have their name on his sleeve. Amazing exposure, yes. But I can give a better service and more value to companies because I’m able to meet and entertain their guests, which is very difficult to do while you’re playing.
Marc: The weakness is that we rely on my dad to turn up for these things. So the next few years, while he’s fit enough and composmentis, we need to align ourselves with a capital source that will allow us to build our vision of a luxury lifestyle brand. How do I take Gary Player and turn that brand into a business that’ll last 100 years, that our great-grandchildren will still benefit from? Can I go to Richemont or Kering or LVMH and say, “I think there’s value in that brand that you can build into an international luxury business”? We have 50 or 60 billionaires that we’ve built golf courses for—should I go to them and say, “Would you be an angel investor?”
Gary: We’ve got to do something substantial when we pass on. A lot of people forget. If you speak to a young boy coming up in college today, he doesn’t know the name Ben Hogan, who was the best player who ever lived—but he didn’t have anyone to carry on that legacy, not just in name but also in business.
Marc: What my dad did very well, and I hope I can do, is distinguish clearly between what is business and what is family. So I would come home for a family dinner, and I was just one of his six children.
Gary: I don’t think working with Marc has changed our father-son relationship in the slightest. Like your wife—you don’t agree with everything she does and says, but then you talk about it and you come to a conclusion.
Marc: I agree and I disagree. When I look at our larger family, I think that they all have benefited from the association that my dad and I have, and they by and large appreciate that. There is a way, with good communication, to sustain family businesses if everyone feels included, as opposed to feeling jealous.
Gary: You’ve got to be very careful because a father, or in my case Marc and me, we do well, we leave our children X amount, they live on it—but then they leave it to their children, who blow the whole damn thing. And also, don’t take it for granted that I’m going to leave you any money, because you might die before me.
Marc: My father is comfortable talking about these issues. I’ll say, “Dad how long do you think you’re going to live?” And he’ll say, “I’ll be disappointed if I don’t live to be 100, but let’s look at it in five-year increments.” Retirement? I don’t think that’s something that enters into my dad’s lexicon.
Gary: If you retire, you die. Here I am, enjoying life due to the fact that I’m so fit—the average guy of 40 couldn’t stand a chance against me in the gym. I really believe that rest is rust. When you start sitting down and resting you’re getting ready to go into the grave. You’ve got to get out of that chair and start living.