Legend Gary Player slams McIlroy critics for 'height of ignorance'
Black Knight throws weight behind Rory's fitness regime and hits back at 'experts' who claim it's bad for his game
It's not by accident that Gary Player, at the age of 79, still swings his driver like a man 25 years younger.
That the sprightly South African is reaping the benefits of a life devoted to full fitness and good health was clear on the first tee at Augusta National yesterday as he joined Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer to strike the opening shots of the Masters
Each year, legendary former Masters champions are invited back to Augusta to act as honorary starters, leading in recent years to the establishment of another tradition, in which Player invariably hits the ball further down the first fairway than his two venerable friends.
Quite apart from his 85 years, Palmer is recovering from a dislocated shoulder, so he did well to make a swing, never mind propel his ball forward.
Yet Nicklaus, at 75, is four years younger than Player, and a good 10 yards shorter off the tee.
Still committed to a rigorous daily fitness regime, South Africa's Black Knight was the pioneer and remains the champion of golfers who also take pride in being athletes.
So it came as no surprise when he sprang angrily to the defence of Rory McIlroy following recent criticism of the 25-year-old's intensive gym workouts from a coterie of Major champions and other talking heads.
"It's the height of ignorance," said Player, making no effort to pull his punches. Nick Faldo and Paul Azinger figure large among those who warned McIlroy to beware the perils of bulking up too much in the gym, even though the Ulsterman's regime is scrupulously planned by leading sports physiologist Dr Steve McGregor.
"Throwing 200lb and 300lb weights around is not going to be good for your golf swing," said six-times Major winner Faldo.
"The heaviest weight I would ever lift was my body weight. You can play some pretty good golf when you have just got some decent shoulders on you and a strong neck and a strong pair of hands."
Azinger went even further, alluding to Tiger Woods, whose multiple injuries have been, at least in part, Azinger believes, down to his renowned tough sessions in the gym.
"I am concerned about one thing," Azinger said in his role as ESPN analyst. "It is not a requirement to get in the Hall of Fame or to win all four Majors to be as fit as (McIlroy) seems to be striving to be.
"His body has changed since I saw him at the Open (last year). His arms have gotten a lot bigger and I have recently seen pictures where he is pressing all these giant weights.
"I am wondering what's the motivation behind that. I just hope that he's not changing his body to his own detriment, because his body has changed since July last year."
Their words infuriated Player, who endured similar if not more widespread criticism as he took the revolutionary path (for a golfer) to the gym in the 1950s and '60s.
"It is only because of ignorance," he fumed. "They used to condemn me and said I would never last. Well, here I am, outlasting them all."
As he was being swept away to a media conference, Player regretted not having more time to discuss the issue, saying: "We've got to sit down and do this properly because that's important, what you're talking about."
Minutes later, sitting alongside Nicklaus and Palmer in the press centre, Player still felt obliged to go into bat for McIlroy in his opening remarks.
Saying he'd heartily welcome "such a wonderful golfer and wonderful young man" into the company of golf's career Grand Slam-winners, Player complimented McIlroy for "working out extremely hard" and being "very fit".
He nominated "fitness and patience" as McIlroy's greatest assets at the Masters (the latter would all to soon be severely tested on the course).
Last year, when defending Woods from similar barbs, Player said: "The night before I won the (career) Grand Slam (in 1965), I was exercising profusely, struggling with 325lb.
"Everybody said, 'You can't do that and then play golf. You're finished, you'll never have a long career.'
"Well, I won a tournament at 63, so anybody who says that Tiger's working out too hard talks absolute nonsense."
The proof was plain to see on Augusta's first tee shortly after dawn yesterday.