Thursday 23 March 2017

Nicklaus and Player ready to welcome McIlroy to legends list of Slam winners

Arnie, Jack, and Gary hailed by thousands as they signal green for go in the 80th staging of the Masters

Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Jack Nicklaus plays his shot from the first tee during the ceremonial tee off to start the first round of the 2016 Masters Tournament at Augusta (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
Jack Nicklaus plays his shot from the first tee during the ceremonial tee off to start the first round of the 2016 Masters Tournament at Augusta (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, two of the greatest golfers of all time, have different opinions on the relevance of achieving a career Grand Slam which Rory McIlroy faces in the Masters over the next few days.

Nicklaus harked back to his first bank of winning the four Majors which he achieved between 1962 and 1966, starting with the US Open, and completing the quartet with the Open Championship.

For him, it was no big deal, largely due to the almost negligible publicity his version of the Slam generated in the media.

Player, the first to win a career Slam since Ben Hogan, thought it was something special. Indeed, he felt it was so special, that he couldn't see it being repeated.

The South African powerhouse started with the 1959 Open Championship, and when he nailed the 1965 US Open, he was delighted.

The pressure for McIlroy is, Nicklaus believes, enhanced by the modern publicity machine, and the worldwide popularity of professional golf.

"When I finished the career Grand Slam, I don't think there was one word even written about it.

"It was never publicised. I never even thought about it. I still haven't thought much about it.," said Nicklaus.

Player was unequivocal about his view of the Slam.

"I was very much aware of it, because Ben Hogan was my golf idol as a young man growing up and I followed his record and I watched what he had done.

"And Gene Sarazen, I had played golf with him in 1955, and he was telling me about it, so I was aware of it.

" But the thing is, I won the Grand Slam, and you're correct in saying in our twenties.

"I won it at 29, and I said to my wife, I said, 'Nobody will ever do that again.

"Jack came along and won it at 26. Now here is the greatest feat ever accomplished in golf: Tiger won it at 24. How many pros have played in the four Majors at 24? I mean, it's phenomenal," said Player.

The two legends of golf would happily welcome McIlroy, 26, to the exclusive 'Slam Club' they inhabit with Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, and Tiger Woods.

Impressed

Nicklaus and Player entertained, informed, and impressed the watching media at their conference following the ceremonial drive off the first tee shortly after 8.0am.

Around 2,000 early arrivals gathered around the tee-box and lined the fairways to share in a special moment. Player, 80, Nicklaus, 76, were joined by the great Arnold Palmer, 86, and received a huge ovation.

Palmer declined to play a shot, leaving the stage to Player to hit first. On Wednesday, the fitness of Palmer was evident as he swung a weighed club as part of his preparations.

His drive was long, straight and true, and with a touch of draw, his ball landed in the middle of the fairway to thunderous applause.

Nicklaus' shot finished on the left side and shorter than Player's. Advantage Gary.

"Gary out‑drives me every year now, which is okay. He keeps himself fit and he practises hard for the first tee-shot (laughter).

"He brought out a yellow ball today that was marked a little differently. I think it probably said 'illegal'," said Nicklaus with a wry smile.

Player believes his fitness at 80 should send a message to young people around the world to get in shape, and keep in shape.

"Yes, I go to the gym, and yesterday I did 1,300 sit‑ups and crunches, I pushed 400 pounds with my legs and I ran on the treadmill flat out, because I do want to get on that first tee, because there are a billion people watching it around the world," he said.

Palmer, older than the other two giants of the game, is not as healthy as Player or Nicklaus but they were delighted to have him alongside them on the tee.

Said Nicklaus: "Well, I think that everybody was happy to see Arnold out on the tee. I think Arnold was happy to be on the tee.

"I think both Gary and I felt it was more about Arnold this morning than anything else, and I think that was just fine."

From their lofty perspective, with nine Green Jackets between them, and 27 Majors - 18 for Nicklaus, nine for Player, the great men are happy with their legacy, and they hope that the younger brigade can match their feats.

"Professional golf is so healthy and such wonderful guys playing, and so talented and so many of them, I wouldn't condense it down to three.

"It's very, very close and any one of them could come through and eventually become one of the big three. And will they win as many tournaments as we did? I sincerely hope so.

"It would be wonderful if Rory McIlroy could win the Grand Slam this week to join us," said Player.

Nicklaus, Player, and Palmer had some quality opposition in their day, but Nicklaus said: "The game today has got more good players in it than it's ever had."

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