Gary Player to return to Olympics, 60 years after meeting Jesse Owens at Melbourne Games

Gary Player
Gary Player Invitational
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BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y. — Gary Player plans to be in Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics next year as the South Africa golf team captain, and although his sport returns to the Games after a 112-year absence, it won’t be a foreign experience.

Player, who turns 80 on Nov. 1, attended the Melbourne 1956 Olympics when he was 21 years old.

There, he met Jesse Owens, the four-time Berlin 1936 Olympic champion who was at the 1956 Games as a representative of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, according to Owens biographies.

“I was aware that Hitler would not shake his hand, which is hard to believe,” Player recalled Monday while hosting the Gary Player Invitational at GlenArbor Club, an hour outside of New York City. “But with a man like Hitler, anything was beyond one’s comprehension. I remember that, and I remember [Owens] winning, and I saw videos of him winning, and I spoke to him about these things. I was very proud to meet him and to see what he did as a start for change for the black man around the world.”

What did Owens say to Player?

“He said he tried to behave well and to show Hitler the opposite of the thoughts that he had of him, that he just tried to show him that he was well-behaved, he was a good competitor and that he had appreciation for people, which, obviously, Hitler did not have,” Player said.

In 1956, Player was embarking on one of the most impressive golf careers. He won his first professional tournament one year earlier. He played in his first Masters four months after attending the Melbourne Olympics.

“I’ve always held the Olympics in high esteem,” Player said. “It brings people of the world together. My great president, Nelson Mandela, said sport can help change the world, and that’s absolutely true. You’re getting nations that are having wars against each other suddenly competing against each other and realizing, why are we fighting each other? We should all be enjoying each other’s different systems of government and beliefs. So the Olympics are significant in my life.”

MORE: Nelson Mandela’s ties to the Olympics

Player’s role as South Africa Olympic golf team captain won’t be as burdensome as, say, when he was Presidents Cup captain. The South African golf team in Rio will likely consist of no more than four golfers — two men and two women.

“I suppose watching them practice and helping them tune-up a little bit with tiny little things,” Player said. “I’m not a believer in what takes place today, making significant changes in golf swings. We’ve seen how that’s hurt Tiger Woods.”

Woods dropped to No. 321 in the Official World Golf Ranking this week and is extremely unlikely to qualify for the Olympics. He would likely need to be ranked in the world top 15 on the ranking cutoff date July 11 for a shot at Rio.

Woods’ niece, Cheyenne Woods, is No. 311 in the women’s rankings this week, marking the first time she’s ranked higher than her uncle in equivalent.

“If Tiger Woods had never had a lesson after he won the U.S. Open by 15 shots [in 2000], Tiger Woods would have broken every conceivable record that ever lived,” Player said. “We need Tiger Woods to come back. Will he come back? It’s debatable. He got so mixed up with all the different coaches, and so that’s the last thing I would ever do is try and make any changes in my team. We just have discussions of being positive and having patience and enjoying the moment and being honored and grateful to be at the Olympic Games. It’s the mental, psychological help, mainly.”

Player, at 80, could become one of the oldest people to march in an Opening Ceremony, should he be allowed.

“I don’t know, what your role, if you’re entitled to do that,” Player said. “I would imagine you are. So, it’s something to look forward to.”

The rules for who may participate in the Parade of Nations have not been finalized yet, but they will likely follow the models from previous Olympics, according to the International Olympic Committee.

In London, one coach per discipline was allowed to march. In previous Olympics, six officials were allowed to march per delegation.

In either of those cases, South Africa’s Olympic Committee would decide if Player will be given the opportunity to march in the Opening Ceremony on Aug. 5.

PHOTOS: Check out the first Olympic golf course in 112 years

Noah Lyles runs personal best and is coming for Usain Bolt’s world record

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Noah Lyles ran a personal-best time in the 60m on Saturday, then reaffirmed record-breaking intentions for the 100m and, especially, the 200m, where Usain Bolt holds the fastest times in history.

Lyles, the world 200m champion, won the 60m sprint in 6.51 seconds at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston, clipping Trayvon Bromell by two thousandths in his first top-level meet of the year. Bromell, the world 100m bronze medalist, is a past world indoor 60m champion and has a better start than Lyles, which is crucial in a six-second race.

But on Saturday, Lyles ran down Bromell and shaved four hundredths off his personal best. It bodes well for Lyles’ prospects come the spring and summer outdoor season in his better distances — the 100m and 200m.

“This is the moment I’ve been working, like, seven years for,” he said. “We’re not just coming for the 200m world record. We’re coming for all the world records.”

Last July, Lyles broke Michael Johnson‘s 26-year-old American record in the 200m, winning the world title in 19.31 seconds. Only Bolt (19.19) and fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake (19.26) have run faster.

Lyles has since spoken openly about targeting Bolt’s world record from 2009.

How does an indoor 60m time play into that? Well, Lyles said that his success last year sprung from a strong indoor season, when he lowered his personal best in the 60m from 6.57 to 6.56 and then 6.55. He followed that by lowering his personal best in the 200m from 19.50 to 19.31.

He believes that slicing an even greater chunk off his 60m best on Saturday means special things are on the horizon come the major summer meets — the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in July (on the same Oregon track where he ran the American 200m record) and the world championships in Budapest in August.

After focusing on the 200m last year, Lyles plans to race both the 100m and the 200m this year. He has a bye into the 200m at world championships, so expect him to race the 100m at USATF Outdoors, where the top three are in line to join world champ Fred Kerley on the world team.

Lyles’ personal best in the 100m is 9.86, a tenth off the best times from Kerley, Bromell and 2019 World 100m champ Christian Coleman. Bolt is in his own tier at 9.58.

Also Saturday, Grant Holloway extended a near-nine-year, 50-plus-race win streak in the 60m hurdles, clocking 7.38 seconds, nine hundredths off his world record. Olympic teammate Daniel Roberts was second in 7.46. Trey Cunningham, who took silver behind Holloway in the 110m hurdles at last July’s world outdoor championships, was fifth in 7.67.

Aleia Hobbs won the women’s 60m in 7.02 seconds, one week after clocking a personal-best 6.98 to become the third-fastest American in history after Gail Devers and Marion Jones (both 6.95). Hobbs, 26, placed sixth in the 100m at last July’s world championships.

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, the Olympic and world 400m hurdles champion competing for the first time since August, and Jamaican Shericka Jackson, the world 200m champion, were ninth and 10th in the 60m heats, just missing the eight-woman final.

In the women’s pole vault, Bridget Williams, seventh at last year’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, upset the last two Olympic champions — American Katie Moon and Greek Katerina Stefanidi. Williams won with a 4.63-meter clearance (and then cleared 4.71 and a personal-best 4.77). Stefanidi missed three attempts at 4.63, while Moon went out at 4.55.

The indoor track and field season continues with the Millrose Games in New York City next Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app and Peacock.

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Birk Irving, last man on Olympic team, extends breakout season with Mammoth win

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One year ago, Birk Irving was the last man to make the four-man U.S. Olympic ski halfpipe team. Since, he continued to climb the ranks in arguably the nation’s strongest discipline across skiing and snowboarding.

Irving earned his second World Cup win this season, taking the U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain, California, on Friday.

Irving posted a 94-point final run, edging Canadian Brendan Mackay by one point. David Wise, the two-time Olympic champion who won his fifth X Games Aspen title last Sunday, was third.

A tribute was held to 2015 World champion Kyle Smaine, a U.S. halfpipe skier who died in an avalanche in Japan last Sunday.

“We’re all skiing the best we have because we’re all skiing with Kyle in our hearts,” Irving said, according to U.S. Ski and Snowboard. “We’re skiing for him, and we know he’s looking down on us. We miss you Kyle. We love you. Thank you for keeping us safe in the pipe today.”

Irving also won the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, Colorado, on Dec. 17. Plus, the 23-year-old from Colorado had his best career X Games Aspen finish last Sunday, taking second.

The next major event is the world championships in Georgia (the country, not the state) in early March. Irving was third at the last worlds in 2021, then fifth at the Olympics last February.

The U.S. has been the strongest nation in men’s ski halfpipe since it debuted at the Olympics in 2014. Wise won the first two gold medals. Alex Ferreira won silver and bronze at the last two Olympics. Aaron Blunck is a world champion and X Games champion.

Irving is younger than all of them and has beaten all of them at multiple competitions this season.

New Zealand’s Nico Porteous, the reigning Olympic gold medalist, hasn’t competed since the Games after undergoing offseason knee surgery.

In snowboarding events at Mammoth, Americans Julia Marino and Lyon Farrell earned slopestyle wins by posting the top qualification scores. The finals were canceled due to wind.

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