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Legend keeps himself busy and in great shape

Published Feb. 23, 2006

Moments after Gary Player arrived at the 18th hole Wednesday afternoon, a familiar Tampa Bay figure trotted from the gallery to the green to shake his hand.

Golf's legendary Player and the Bucs' Hall of Fame player Lee Roy Selmon enjoyed chatting for a few minutes in the warm breeze.

"I used to watch him play, and it was a thrill to finally meet him," Selmon said. "He's a very caring individual who displays a lot of kindness to humanity. And I have to take my hat off to him for some of the things he's doing."

Such as operating the Player Foundation, a program in Player's native South Africa that promotes education for underprivileged children. The Johannesburg organization helps more than 500 youngsters from kindergarten through eighth grade and supports other educational programs worldwide.

But that's just one of the many things keeping Player - one of only five golfers to win the career Grand Slam - busy these days. He's a respected golf course architect with more than 200 projects designed around the world. His Black Knight International makes everything from golf videos to apparel and equipment. And he breeds race horses on his 12,500-acre ranch in South Africa.

"I feel great," Player, 70, said. "Never felt better in my life. You've got to keep enthusiastic and you've got to keep happy if you want to live a long time."

Longevity is Player's hallmark - and he's actually one of only two never to miss this tournament in its 19 years (Dale Douglass is the other).

"The course is immaculate, and really it's a great format," he said.

Player exudes energy when he talks and looks remarkably fit, still sporting the lean and mean 5-foot-7, 150-pound frame from his prime as a pioneer in the realm of golf fitness and strength training.

"They called me a kook for a long time," he said. "And I'm going to be called a kook when I'm dead and gone because now I'm going to tell the world to try to get the youth of America to be in good shape."

It's a cause Player preaches at every opportunity "because 23 percent of (children) are obese already, and in 40 years time, there are going to be 100-million Americans with diabetes. It's a very serious thing and now we have to teach them to eat properly."

Player touts a new book he has read called The China Study, which examines why cholesterol counts in China are considerably lower than for average Americans.

"Lay off animal protein," he said with conviction.

"It's making us a fat nation."

What about his slim physique?

"Since 1970," he said, "I haven't varied 2 pounds."

Then he swatted his stomach and smiled - still a Player to be reckoned with after all these years.

MISCELLANY: The team of pro Walter Hall and amateurs Ted Starkey, Ken Rossburg, John Templeton and Steve Hasley shot 18-under 53 to win the Jose Cuervo Challenge Wednesday. Jim Colbert and D.A. Weibring dropped out Wednesday due to injuries and were replaced by Gibby Gilbert and John Harris. Gilbert earned three PGA Tour victories and collected more than $1-million in earnings on the PGA Tour from 1967-85. Harris was 34th on the Champions Tour money list in 2005.

- DAVE SCHEIBER, Times staff writer