It is finally official. Wayne Player was immediately banned for life from The Masters following his shameful marketing plot when Lee Elder was being honoured last year.
Augusta National has, and is remaining, tight-lipped on its reaction to the son of Gary Player holding up a packet of balls as the lenses focused and cameras clicked during the 2021 ceremonial start to the Georgia major.
As the first African-American to play in the Masters, the greenjackets invited Elder to join Player and Jack Nicklaus to drive off and although poor health precluded Elder from playing a shot – he passed away six months later – the 86-year-old was on that first tee and chairman Fred Ridley delivered an impassioned speech.
However, what is a tearjerker to some is a promotional opportunity for others and Player Jnr saw it as the perfect time to publicise the unfashionable make of ball that sponsors his father. The incident overshadowed Elder’s moment and for that, Augusta took action, taking Player Jr’s badge for the week and, for what is believed to be the first time in their history, issuing a veto on a member of a former champion.
After initially compounding the disgrace and insisting that he was merely trying to show fans which ball his father was using, Player Jr kept his own counsel for more than a year.
But now the 58-year-old – once himself a Tour pro – has broken his silence in an interview with Golf Digest which is hardly primed to bring a respectful end to this tawdry business. Instead it will fan the flames of golf’s Saudi saga after his father managed to produce his own controversy at this year’s Masters.
“Well, they say there’s no such thing as bad publicity – I found out that that’s not quite true,” Player told the American magazine. “I don’t mind letting people know. To be completely transparent I think it is a cool story because you know, the National never really came out formally and said, ‘Oh, we’re, you know, not allowing Wayne Player to come back to the Masters.’ They never ever said that to the media. That’s just the way they do it. They don’t say much.”
Player Jr reveals that he sent a written apology to Augusta National, but their response confirmed there was no prospect of clemency. “It said thanks but no thanks,” Player says. “It said, you know, we appreciate you reaching out and apologizing, we accept your apology, but we are not changing our position, we are not going to allow you back. You ruined a special moment in the history of the game of golf.”
In truth, the Masters probably already had their eye on Player Jr. Two years before, he was arrested for fraud in 2019 over an incident involving a house rental at the 2018 Masters. The cheque he wrote to the homeowners bounced and he failed to follow through with a payment. He spent what he described as “five nights of hell” in a Georgia jail, although later claims the charges were dropped.
Regardless of Nicklaus admonishing him for the stunt, as well as his own brother Marc, who called it “a shame and an embarrassment”, Player Jr says his father, the nine-time major-winner, “doesn’t want to take sides”.
But then, Player Snr attracted negative headlines to the ceremonial start, himself, at last month’s Masters when wearing a Golf Saudi logo and then, in the subsequent press conference, by defending Phil Mickelson, who was missing his first Augusta major in 38 years following his incendiary confession that he was using the Kingdom’s breakaway circuit as leverage against the PGA Tour, despite calling the Saudis “scary motherf—–s to deal with”. Player Jr believes his father should escape censure.
“We can judge, you know, the Arab nation for traditions that they have. I mean, where women are not allowed to walk around like we know women can walk around, they’ve gotta have a cloak over their head. I mean, I don’t know, it’s not for me to criticise them, you know?” Player said. “I mean, look, they’re very tough on law and order, you know, and they do all the stuff that would be considered barbaric there, right. That’s what [Phil Mickelson] basically said.
“I just know that my dad was excited about, you know, being part of growing the game of golf in Saudi Arabia. I mean he loves golf course design. He’s always enjoyed that. He’s designed over 170 golf clubs and he’s a statesman. He’s always trying to help everybody, so nobody should be criticising Gary Player ever.»
Indeed, Player actually feels that his father has been poorly treated by The Masters and pleaded with the committee to extend the same privilege to the 86-year-old South African as it has to fellow ceremonial starters.
“If I’m actually honest, it hurts me and you can print this, it hurts me that Augusta National have not invited my dad to be a full member at the club,” Player says. “I mean, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were invited to be full members. And we know there’s a lot of criteria around there, but nobody’s represented the game of golf better than Gary Player. Why they haven’t is a shame.”
As ever, Augusta National is refusing to comment.