LONDON (Reuters) - Gary Player spent much of his career in the shadow of record 18-times major winner Jack Nicklaus and the South African believes young Briton Rory McIlroy has as much natural talent as any golfer he has seen.
“Rory’s swing is so magnificent,” purred Player, slowing down his voice for emphasis.
“He’s got as much talent as anybody I’ve ever seen,” the 76-year-old told Reuters in an interview at a Laureus sports awards event at Championship (second division) soccer club Millwall in south London.
Player said the only imponderable about U.S. Open champion McIlroy, 22, was his desire.
“Nobody knows what’s inside of the man, how much passion he has,” said the nine-times major winner. “Is he prepared to go through the pain barrier?”.
Judging by McIlroy’s performance at the 2011 U.S. PGA Championship, where he injured his wrist on his third hole but plugged away to complete all four rounds, the world number two is a fighter.
The Northern Irishman also showed his battling qualities by winning the U.S. Open by a record eight-shot margin, just two months after suffering the heartbreak of letting slip a four-stroke lead in the final round of the U.S. Masters.
Player, nicknamed the ‘Black Knight’ for his all-black outfits, was hugely impressed by McIlroy’s victory in the second major of the year.
“I have travelled probably more miles than any human being that ever lived playing golf so I’ve seen a lot of things happen in the sport,” he said.
”Tony Jacklin lost the 1972 British Open to Lee Trevino in a similar fashion to Jean Van de Velde losing (the 1999 British Open) and Jacklin never came back.
“People like Ian Baker-Finch never came back. With a lot of golfers something happens in their career and they never come back.”
Briton Jacklin, who won the 1969 British Open and 1970 U.S. Open, never won another major after his 1972 heartbreak while Frenchman Van de Velde blew a three-shot lead on the 72nd hole at Carnoustie and has never managed a major victory.
Australian Baker-Finch lifted the 1991 British Open title but then went into decline, missing 32 straight cuts on the U.S. PGA Tour between 1994-97.
“What Rory did, after making a hash of the Masters and winning the U.S. Open, that shows what a great champion he is,” said Player.
“The hallmark of a champion is consistency and he’s always there.”
Player feels lucky he played in an era when prestige rather than money inspired the players.
“I think it boils down to great passion and you’re prepared to make the sacrifice,” he replied when asked what it takes to become a multiple major champion.
The last 13 majors have been won by 13 different golfers and Player said that was down to the huge prize money available in the modern game.
“It’s very hard for people when you’re playing for a million dollars every week to make big sacrifices,” he explained.
”We didn’t have much money to play for so it was such a big opportunity for us to go to the next major and participate. We looked upon it in a different light.
“I can’t speak on behalf of other people but when I played the money wasn’t the criteria for me. I wanted to try and be the best in the world and win majors.”
Player believes 14-times major champion Tiger Woods, now 18th in the world rankings after spending a record 623 weeks at number one, will soon be back to his best.
“Do I think he’ll come back and play well? Yes I do,” said the South African great.
“It’s imperative he comes back, he brings the people in and he gets the TV ratings.”