Gary Player: Rory McIlroy will be the talisman for the European Ryder Cup team
It has been a brilliant year of golf by Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, in which he has won two Major Championships – The Open and the US PGA – plus the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. Now the Ryder Cup is just days away, with the whole world of golf expecting more McIlroy magic.
In an exclusive interview with Laureus.com, Laureus World Sports Academy Member Gary Player, one of only five men to achieve golf’s coveted Grand Slam, by winning all four Major Championships, assesses Rory’s achievements in 2014 and predicts he will soon become the sixth member of the Grand Slam club and a strong contender for the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award.
How can you assess Rory McIlroy’s success this year?
Gary Player: To win two Majors with a World Golf Championships event back-to-back is an incredible achievement. When you add the flagship event on the European Tour, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, it’s been an outstanding season so far for McIlroy. Am I surprised at his recent success? No, but incredibly happy for him. I’ve always said that Rory has got the most beautiful swing in the game. If he can continue to stay happy and healthy he’ll be the next Grand Slam winner – he’s only got the Masters tournament to add to his growing collection. He’s on top of the world right now, with tons of confidence to boot and quickly on his way to become a talisman for the European Ryder Cup team later this month. It is his time right now.
Which of his Major wins impressed you more – Royal Liverpool or Valhalla?
Gary Player: I think that his Open Championship at Hoylake was incredible, but the win at Valhalla truly showed great poise and determination. Rory was coming off two great weeks and wins from The Open then the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. To then carry on and win at Valhalla was incredible. Everyone knew that he was the player to beat at the PGA Championship and he did not let the pressure get to him. His mind-set and mental strength was what impressed me the most at Valhalla. His sheer determination to win was evident even as he finished in the dark in Louisville.
What kind of mental strength does that require?
Gary Player: It takes incredible mental strength to win back-to-back Majors and that fact that Rory was able to accomplish that really speaks volumes to what he is going to accomplish in his career from now forward. He has the game, but more importantly he has a strong mind. The mind is more important to win championships than sheer talent.
If he wins the Masters in April, he will become only the sixth golfer (including you) to win all four Major Championships, how great an achievement is that?
Gary Player: I told him the day after his first Major that I for one truly believe that he can do it. Now he only has The Masters left to achieve that feat. I am a huge supporter and I hope that he will join me as the only other International player to win the Grand Slam. I won the Grand Slam at age 29 when I won the US Open at Bellerive Country Club in 1965. That will be fifty years ago next year. It would truly be a treat to see Rory complete his Grand Slam on the 50th anniversary of mine. He can do it too. We already know that he knows how to play well in Augusta. He had a superb four-shot lead going into the final round of the 2011 Masters. He collapsed in that final round, but he learned from that experience. If he does not win The Masters in 2015, I believe it will only be a matter of time.
What makes Rory so good?
Gary Player: Rory has theoretically a perfect swing, if there is such a thing. More so, I have always felt that he has the “it” factor that champions are made of. In my career, I truly loved the game and wanted to become a world champion. That was the key for me, deciding that I wanted to be the best. It is a mind-set, it is a belief in oneself, a burning desire and passion to win. Rory has that. He has “it”.
This year he has said he is working harder than ever in the gym – you believed in the importance of physical fitness, why is this so important?
Gary Player: Rory McIlroy has to be one of the best examples of the importance of being fit in golf right now. Just look at photos of him. Over the past two years or so he has completely changed his physique. He is truly in the best shape I have ever seen him in and I am sure that it is helping lift his game to the incredible state that it has been this year. You cannot argue with how he is playing right now. He has clearly found a trainer who has truly gotten him into great golf shape and that is the key for all players today.
Would you put other winning golfers like Bubba Watson, Martin Kaymer, Adam Scott and Ricky Fowler on the same level as McIlroy, or is he pulling away from them?
Gary Player: Rory McIlroy is in top form right now and you would be hard-pressed to find a better swing than Rory’s. All those guys are at the top of the game. Right now I would say that Rory is starting to pull away from them. At only 25, he has won four Majors and his future is so bright. That does not take anything away from the others, but Rory is going to have a special place in golf’s history before his career is over.
Do you think we have seen the end of the Phil Mickelson / Tiger Woods era now? Can they still win a Major?
Gary Player: I certainly do not think we have seen the end of the Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods era. Let us not forget that Phil won The Open just last year and Tiger accumulated an impressive five win season last year as well. Those are incredible feats, but more importantly I do not think there is ever a tournament with Phil and Tiger that we can count them out. Tiger has been facing injury this year, but when he gets healthy, which it seems that he is focused on doing right now, he could win tournaments into his 50s. That is the beauty of golf. I won my final Major at age 42.
Would you say that Rory is likely to be a certainty for Nomination for the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award?
Gary Player: Rory has done fantastic things for our sport this year and I think that with him winning two Majors as well as a WGC and the European Tour’s flagship event that there is a great case for him to be nominated for the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award. He was a dominant force in the game over the summer and I am looking forward to see what he can do in the Ryder Cup. There is no doubt that I would love to see him nominated.
The last men’s Laureus Sportsman of the Year winner from golf was Tiger Woods in 2001, do you think Rory may have a good chance to win in Shanghai in 2015?
Gary Player: Certainly you cannot argue against the year that Rory has had. Though what Tiger did was extraordinary and unmatched in the game’s history when he became the first player to hold all Major Championship titles at the same time. I think Rory could have a good chance to win Sportsman of the Year, but myself and all the other Laureus Academy Members will be looking to see how he closes out the year. I am hoping for the best because Rory is a great talent in the game and I would love to see him win the 2015 award.
Everyone is expecting Rory to be the winning talisman for the European Ryder Cup team. Do you see it that way?
Gary Player: With his level of confidence and the way Rory is playing right now, I certainly think that he will be the talisman for the European Ryder Cup team. This should be a huge boost to the European Team because he is the current World No.1 player and the most dominant player in the game right now.
Does the presence of Rory and US Open winner Martin Kaymer in the European team give them a psychological edge?
Gary Player: I certainly think Rory and Martin will provide an edge to the European team. Everyone knows that their games are primed right now and they are playing confidently. Martin has the US Open and Players Championship under his belt this year and everyone sees how well Rory is playing after the fantastic summer he had. I think that anyone going up against those two will certainly be an underdog. Both teams are extremely talented though, so only time will tell who will be victorious in Gleneagles, Scotland.
How do you see it going?
Gary Player: As with any Ryder Cup, Gleneagles will witness a magnificent spectacle of golf and sportsmanship. The Ryder Cup is going to be a serious challenge between two closely matched teams that has become one of the world’s great sporting events. It’s a wonderful showcase for golf and a fantastic advertisement for the game. With both team now decided after Keegan Bradley, Hunter Mahan, and Webb Simpson, as well as Stephen Gallacher, Ian Poulter, and Lee Westwood were selected by their respective Captains Tom Watson and Paul McGinley, it is undeniable that both of these teams are full of talent. When you gather the best players in the world together for a team competition, it is difficult to say who will have the edge come September 28. Anything can happen. May the best team win.
Will Gleneagles suit either of the teams better?
Gary Player: I think with the global nature of the game that the course is less of a factor, but Gleneagles in Scotland is going to be a fantastic course to watch these teams duel for the Cup. The PGA Centenary Course will prove a tough test for both teams, especially if the weather gets nasty. Historically, the home team is usually favoured in the Ryder Cup and this might hold true for the competition at Gleneagles, but you can never know.