I grew up in South Africa. My mother died when I was nine and my father worked in a gold mine, going down 8,000 feet, making 100 pounds a month. My brother was at war at 17 and my sister was at boarding school. And my father said to me, “Play golf because it’s a sport that you can play forever, and you will travel the world if you are any good.”
I became a champion because I knew how to suffer. I came home to a dark house. Nobody there. At the age of nine, I had to iron my clothes, cook my food. I lay in bed at night crying because I was so lonely and scared of the dark at that age. Although not in every case, I believe the more adversity you go through, the better you can do in life. I didn’t feel sorry for myself; I accepted the challenge. I said to my father: “Dad, I am going to become a professional.” I was 17.
I was determined that hard work was the answer. There was no entitlement for me and I think that if you let your children have entitlement, you’re actually doing them harm. You’ve got to make them understand that life is not easy. And there’s no question that because I worked so hard, when I played, I never gave up. When you practise hard, you develop a hunger, you develop patience, you develop strength, your arms and your body get stronger. Invariably, people would say to me, “You’re practising too hard, you’re hitting too many balls, you’re going to break your body.” And I said, “To the contrary, the more balls I hit, the stronger I’m going to get.” If I had lived a life of luxury, I would never have become the world champion I did.
When my father, who was as I said, a very poor man, saw me practising so hard and having some success, he said, “You keep working hard like this and one day you might even buy yourself a Rolex.” He was just sort of joking because obviously Rolex had had such a name for all those years. Well, I did indeed buy my first Rolex after I won my first Grand Slam. It’s hard to go back 60 years in your career and remember everything exactly but I remember saying, “Dad, I’ve got the Rolex watch.”
Having bought my first Rolex, I’ll tell you how I felt. When you’re not entitled to anything in life and you get a gift or you purchase something of value, there’s a certain thing called gratitude. And I think in life gratitude is very important because people forget how they are living compared to other people. That’s something I learned from travelling around the world — it’s reinforced, it’s welded into my system, how fortunate I am.
The watch I’m wearing today, I acquired several years ago. It’s gold and reminds me of my first Rolex and of my father working in a gold mine. I think a watch is an emotional possession, depending on how you came about it and how it’s related. And in my case, it’s more than just a watch, it’s a story.
I still associate my father with a Rolex. I loved my father very dearly and he played a very important role in my life. He was a man of six foot two, extremely strong and yet when I won tournaments, he put his arms around me and cried. And it’s passed on to me; I’m quite a baby when it comes to being sentimental. Sometimes I’ll click the watch and say, “Dad, I’ve come a long way.”