Gary Player sparks Masters controversy as Saudis make presence felt at Augusta

Gary Player sparks Masters controversy as Saudis make presence felt at Augusta - AP / EPA
Gary Player sparks Masters controversy as Saudis make presence felt at Augusta - AP / EPA

Gary Player courted controversy by wearing a Saudi-branded sweater at the ceremonial start before the 86th Masters. The South African later revealed that he had spoken to Phil Mickelson, who is missing the tournament after making incendiary remarks concerning the Saudi’s Super Golf League, and told him to "Hold your head up high".

Player, 86, is an official ambassador for Golf Saudi who are linked with the rebel circuit. The row comes a year after Player’s son Wayne was banned by Augusta National for using the honourary drive off the first tee for “ambush marketing”.

Player’s decision to wear a Golf Saudi top as he teed off alongside Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, was bound to invite scrutiny. The Saudi attempt to disrupt the male professional game has been the elephant in the room here, with Augusta chairman Fred Ridley declining to address the issue at his Wednesday press conference.

Tom Watson (left to right), Jack Nicklaus, Fred Ridley and Gary Player - - REUTERS
Tom Watson (left to right), Jack Nicklaus, Fred Ridley and Gary Player - - REUTERS

Telegraph Sport exclusively reported that for the first time in years the top officials of the Asian Tour are absent after their acceptance of a $300 million investment from LivGolf, the entity set up to oversee the Saudi bid to become major players in the sport.

There is open enmity between the PGA and European Tours and the new enterprise with Greg Norman, LivGolf’s chief executive, accusing Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, of “bullying” players to turn down the SGL offers - some of which had stretched towards the $100 million mark - and has threatened to bring in the lawyers.

The bodies who run the majors have not publicly denounced the SGL, but they are known to be firmly on the side of the traditional tours. This week the Saudis have rented a house nearby Augusta National, where they have been entertaining players, agents as well as potential sponsors. It is unknown if Player has attended any of the functions. Members of the Saudi delegation have been seen on the grounds, but only with general tickets and not official accreditations.

Gary Player sparks Masters controversy as he tees off in Saudi-branded sweater and defends Phil Mickelson - AP
Gary Player sparks Masters controversy as he tees off in Saudi-branded sweater and defends Phil Mickelson - AP

Player’s far from subtle show of support for the Kingdom will not have been welcomed in the clubhouse. Neither will his comments on Mickelson. The 51-year-old called the Saudis “scary motherf------ to deal with” in an interview published in February and admitted using the SGL as leverage in a row with the PGA Tour over players’ commercial rights.

In the outcry that saw the majority of Mickelson’s sponsors walking away, the reigning US PGA champion announced that he was taking an indefinite leave from the game. Player expressed sympathy for the left-hander.

“I think it's pitiful,” Player said about the treatment meted out to Mickelson “It's amazing. From the epitome of perfection, he's down there being crucified. It's not right.

“The greatest PR man on the golf Tour in the last five or X amount of years has been Phil Mickelson. He has been the ideal man for a sponsor, for professional golf, for the public, the way he's handled the public, with dignity and with love. And he said he's sorry. I’ve told him, ‘Hold your head up high. You've made a mistake. Everybody makes a mistake. He should go on with his life.”

It is fair to say the Player family have history when it comes to creating a stir at the ceremonial start. At the 85th Masters, Wayne Player, who was caddying for his father, was slammed for displaying a box of OnCore balls in the background of the shot as TV cameras focused on Lee Elder. Player has been an OnCore ambassador since 2019. Elder, 86, was the first black golfer to play in The Masters in 1975 and had been invited to join Player and Nicklaus. He died later last year.

Player also raised eyebrows with remarks about Indian women. “I was really charmed,” he said of a recent trip to the country. “I love India, the intelligence, the technology, the manners, so humble. The women dress so nicely. I'm so used to seeing women with damn dresses up their bum, and you don't see anything like that in India.”