Playing in the Rough

Why won’t Gary Player answer my questions about apartheid and evictions?

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 16th October 2007

Most human differences can be overcome, but there is one unbridgeable divide. The world is split between people who play golf and people who don’t. Each faction regards the other as an alien lifeform. One is astonished that any human fails to see that life without golf is not worth living. The other watches grown men in two-tone shoes dragging a bag of sticks round Tellytubbyland, and shakes its collective head with incredulity.

I regret that I must compound the incomprehension on the other side of the golf gulf by confessing that until three weeks ago I did not know who Gary Player is. And I am sure that – with much greater reason – he had never heard of me either. But now we are tangled up in one of South Africa’s messiest controversies.

I came across him while researching the column I wrote about Burma a fortnight ago. In trying to discover which western companies have been operating there, I stumbled upon a list of the country’s recent golf course developments. He was named as the designer of the Pun Hliang course in Rangoon(1). His website boasted that he had turned “a 650-acre rice paddy into The Pride of Myanmar.”(2)

I asked his company who owned the land on which the course was constructed. How many people were evicted in order to build it? Was forced labour used in its construction? As his company is based in Florida, did this work break US sanctions?(3) It refused to answer my questions(4). I suggested in my column that Nelson Mandela should remove his name from the charity golf tournament Player is due to host next month(5).

My call was taken up by Desmond Tutu(6,7) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu)(8). The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, which claims to own the event, asked Mr Player to stand down as the tournament’s guest of honour(9). Player’s company responded by claiming that it was in fact the joint owner of the event; he has refused to stand aside(10). The controversy is still raging. Cosatu has promised to turn up and protest if Player does not withdraw(11).

One result of the fuss is that the Gary Player Group was obliged to issue a statement about its involvement in Burma. It maintained that “The company’s decision to design the course in Burma was actually humanitarian in that it took no profit from the endeavor, but rather encouraged the developer to put the money toward creating jobs, as well as the establishment of a caddy & agronomy program. … the company was paid expenses only.”(12) Converting 650 acres of rice paddy in a country suffering from malnutrition into a golf course likely to be used by the generals looks to me like an unusual object for charity, so I asked Player’s company to provide some evidence for these claims(13).

The same statement maintained that “Gary Player has always been a great supporter of human rights” and has “a solid record of campaigning for democracy around the world”(14). To test this claim, I ordered the book he wrote in 1966, when he was 30 years old and at the peak of his remarkable career. Grand Slam Golf is well-written and strangely compelling: it makes the game seem almost interesting even to me. But Chapter Two contains the following statements.

“I must say now, and clearly, that I am of the South Africa of Verwoerd and apartheid … a nation which is the result of an African graft on European stock and which is the product of its instinct and ability to maintain civilised values and standards amongst the alien barbarians … The African may well believe in witchcraft and primitive magic, practise ritual murder and polygamy; his wealth is in cattle. More money and he will have no sense of parental or individual responsibility, no understanding of reverence for life or the human soul which is the basis of Christian and other civilised societies. … A good deal of nonsense is talked of, and indeed thought about ‘segregation’. Segregation of one kind or another is practised everywhere in the world.”(15)

Journalists in South Africa pointed me to allegations that Gary Player was used as a kind of global ambassador by the apartheid government(16,17). In 1975 he collaborated with the Committee for Fairness in Sport, which was set up by the government to try to overcome the global sporting boycott(18). In 1981 he featured on the UN’s blacklist of sports people breaking the boycott(19). So I asked Player’s company questions about these incidents as well(20).

All this is a long time ago, and Gary Player’s attitude towards the apartheid regime is very different today. But another human rights issue is still current. There is a real problem with golf, and it is not confined to the dress sense of the participants. All over the world, the construction of golf courses is associated with dispossession and environmental destruction. You’ll find a flavour of the controversies it stirs up in Aberdeenshire at the moment, where Donald Trump is promoting a project to create the “world’s greatest golf course” on a site of special scientific interest(21).

One study suggests that an 18-hole course requires, on average, 22 tonnes of chemical treatments (mostly pesticides) every year: seven times the rate per hectare for industrial farming(22). Another shows higher rates of some cancers, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (which has been associated with certain pesticides(23)), among golf course superintendents(24). Courses consume staggering amounts of water(25). Many of them are built on diverse and important habitats, such as rainforests or wetlands. In some countries people have been violently evicted to make way for them.

The problem is particularly acute in South East and East Asia, where golf is big business, and land rights and the environment are often ignored by governments. There are hundreds of accounts of battles between peasant farmers or indigenous people and golf course developers. In one case in the Philippines in 2000, two farmers resisting a course planned for their lands were mutilated and dismembered then shot dead(26).

Player’s companies, which have a turnover of hundreds of millions of dollars, have designed eight golf courses in China, one in Taiwan, nine in the Philippines, one in Malaysia, seven in Indonesia and one in Burma(27). At least two of the courses in Indonesia were built during the Suharto dictatorship(28), when the ruling family was alleged to have had a commercial interest in most golf course development(29,30). So I asked the Gary Player Group whether Suharto or his relatives had a stake in any of the projects he designed. As I was unable to find any position statements about environmental policy or land rights on the group’s website, I asked whether it had produced such policies, and if so, how they are enforced(31). For the second time, the group has refused to answer any of my questions(32,33).

I realise that in writing this article I might have made the great golf gulf even wider. I am sorry about that. But I did try hard to get the other side to state its case. I don’t want to start a new golf war, but I do want some answers.



2. Gary Player Design, 21st November 2002. Design Excellence Revealed at Grand Opening of Gary Player Signature Course in Myanmar.

3. I emailed and phoned Player’s companies in both Florida and South Africa.

4. Duncan Cruickshank, 30th September 2007.


6. Eg Michael Schmidt, 6th October 2007. Tutu calls for boycott of Gary Player.

7. SABC News, 13th October 2007. Tutu adamant on Gary Player/Myanmar issue,2172,157419,00.html

8. Marthe van der Wolf, 12th October 2007. COSATU says Player should be dropped as host.

9. Oupa Ngwenya, Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. 9th October 2007. Press Release – untitled.

10. Marc Player, 10th October 2007. Black Knight International CEO Marc Player Responds to Recent Statement by the NMCF.

11. Marthe van der Wolf, ibid.

12. Gary Player Group, 8th October 2007. Statement from the Player Group on Burma.

13. Email to Gida Campbell, Gary Player Group, 1501, 11th October 2007.

14. ibid.

15. Gary Player, 1968. Grand Slam Golf. Paperback edition. Corgi Books, London.

16. Eg David Denison, 6th November 2002. Dispatch Online.

17. John Barton, November 2007. Golf In The Days Of Black & White.

18. Eg

19. Neil Amdur, 16th May 1981. Anti-Apartheid Unit Publishes Sports List. The New York Times.

20. Email to Gida Campbell, Gary Player Group, 13.40 BST, 15th October 2007.

21. Severin Carrell, 9th October 2007. Trump says golf plans will save Scots dunes. The Guardian.

22. S.Chamberlain, 1995. Golf Endangers Hawaiian Ecology and Culture. Earth Island Journal, cited by Kit Wheeler & John Nauright, July 2006. Global Perspective on the Environmental Impact of Golf. Sport in Society, Vol 9, No 3 , pp. 427–443

23. Lennart Hardell and Mikael Eriksson, 15th March 1999. A Case-Control Study of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and Exposure to Pesticides, Cancer, Vol. 85, No.6.

24. B. C. Kross et al., May 1996. Proportionate Mortality Study of Golf Course Superintendents. American Journal of Industrial Medicine 29, no. 5, pp 501–6, cited by Kit Wheeler & John Nauright, July 2006. Global Perspective on the Environmental Impact of Golf. Sport in Society, Vol 9, No 3 , pp. 427–443.

25. eg Timothy Hildebrandt, 16th July 2003. Environmentalists cry ‘fore!’ in China. Christian Science Monitor.

26. Eg Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Peasant Movement of the Philippines), 11th March 2000. Murdered anti-golf farmers buried.


28. The Ria Bintan Golf Club, (see and and the Graha Helvetia Golf & Country Club (see

29. Fred Pearce, 4th June 1994. Golf wars break out in Bali. New Scientist.

30. Philip Shenon, 22nd October 1994. FORE! Golf in Asia Hits Enironmental Rough

31. Email to Gida Campbell, Gary Player Group, 13.40 BST, 15th October 2007.

32. Email from Gida Campbell, Gary Player Group, 18.37 BST, 11th October 2007.

33. I phoned Gida Campbell at 14.25 BST 15th October 2007, and left a message to say she had until 11.00 EST (16.00 BST) to answer any of the questions if she wished to.