Golf’s Big Three should be called the Big Six: Gary and Vivienne Player, Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, Arnold and Winnie Palmer. The wives of the three legends were essential to success on and off the golf course. They deserve credit for all the triumphs that will live on in history forever.
South African Gulf First Lady Vivienne Player died on August 18 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer with her family at the bedside, her husband’s arms hugging his beloved. She was married to South Africa’s greatest sportsman, but was also quite the athlete herself, including specializing in the backstroke at competitive swimming during her youth.
Daughter of Jock Verwey, a golf professional at Virginia Park Golf Club in Johannesburg, had a smooth swing and made two hole-in-ones. Not just in her career, in one round. As the story goes, she nearly had three hole-in-ones that day, but a flagstick prevented the ball from falling into the hole. She probably had the talent to pursue her own professional golf dreams, but her family came first.
Known by many names – Mom, Grandma, Viv, Mrs. Player – she was able to break down a golf swing as a professional instructor, and was the only person the Black Knight really listened to on swing advice. Well, except Ben Hogan. But cracking the Hawk’s code was a challenge in itself.
The two South Africans fell for each other as teenagers when the future Grand Slam champion saw his fate as he peered over a fence – doing something other than hitting golf balls. Was it this love at first sight that led the prospector’s son to wander away from the rugby and cricket fields to focus on golf?
They wanted to have a big family and they got it. The Player clan matriarch is survived by her husband, six children, 22 grandchildren, (currently) two great-grandchildren, countless members of extended family and millions around the world she has touched. From many different backgrounds, the extended Player family forms a United Nations.
Mr. Player asked for her hand in marriage when he was just 14, but suggested waiting until he had enough money to support a family. That day came in 1956 after his win in Australia at the Ampol Tournament. The winning prize was $5,000 and he sent her a telegram that read, “Buy the dress!” The players tied the knot in 1957 and had their first child, Jennifer, in 1959.
Their lives changed forever when he won his first major championship at The Open the same year. Mrs. Player was there, away from their newborn daughter. A black-and-white video from the R&A shows her arms around her distraught husband walking off the 18th green. He made a double bogey on the last hole and nearly lost the tournament. But he triumphed and would meet their three-month-old daughter for the first time as champion golfer of the year days later. More than 160 tournament victories were to follow, but the life of a Tour woman wasn’t always glamorous, especially in those days. It took patience, dedication, faith in her husband and an indescribable amount of love between the two. There were many months apart and phone calls had to be scheduled well in advance.
Within six years, the Players had five children: Jennifer, Marc, Wayne, Michele and Theresa. The family temporarily stopped growing, but in 1973 their last child, Amanda-Leigh, was born. One of the most impressive things Ms Player accomplished as a mother was perfecting the art of international travel with young children. Golfers traveling in private jets and premium seats were still years away.
Mr. Player often tells stories about washing her hands from (dirty) diapers on the plane en route from South Africa to the United States. That’s a lot to swap for just one baby on a 40+ hour trip. And unfortunately, something you have to learn through experience. Add multiple mouths to the mix, and that’s a whole different animal.
In later life her air miles undoubtedly ran into the tens of millions. Fitting the wife of the world’s most traveled athlete. Together, she lived in hotels and flew across country borders for years to support her husband’s goals while taking care of their family. A life full of true altruistic deeds that captured the heart of an angel.
The little things she cared about were so noticeable, like packing Mr. Player well into his eighties. Never lose a crucial piece of clothing he had to wear because of sponsors, another task he didn’t have to think about when preparing for a tournament or a trip.
She found comfort in good books, the Christian faith, and was a proud member of the Church of Latter-day Saints. It was common for her to read literature for hours on end while her husband practiced late into the night. A hobby he was thankful she enjoyed. Her sharp and witty personality brought an exciting yet soothing presence to any room. Conversations were reassuring.
Her thick skin easily wiped out his constant teasing, an underappreciated trait for any marriage. But the smart woman had her own tricks. When a newspaper article came out quoting the golfer saying, “I would leave my wife for this driver,” he entered his hotel the next day and found the trusty club wrapped in a negligee with a note attached. Moments later, she burst out of the closet and laughter filled the room.
Her life’s charitable endeavors should also be celebrated. She effectively helped change the lives of countless underprivileged children around the world. A few years ago, even getting her hands dirty while cleaning up trash in a rural South African town. Perhaps one of the most traveled people of all time, her grace was felt all over the world.
In a heartfelt, tear-jerking message, Mr. Player their life together best together:
The unthinkable has happened. My 64-year-old wife, my childhood sweetheart, my rock and my soul mate Vivienne has lost her battle with pancreatic cancer. I cannot describe the deep sense of sadness I feel at the loss of the one person who has always meant the world to me.
Vivienne has been a constant in my life from the time I first saw her when I was 14.
She fully supported my career, raising our six children almost single-handedly while I golfed around the world. She was a devoted wife, a loving mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and a wonderful person who cared so much about others and lived her life in the service of others.
Vivienne taught me the value of love, faith and trust. She taught our children the same values, and they were blessed to have a mother who lived by those values every day.
When we first met, I had no doubts that it was love at first sight and it turned out to be a love story of a lifetime. I think it will be when we finally get back together.
Until then, I will miss my Viv very much.