GARY Player is backing Rory McIlroy to win the Masters this week – but wouldn’t be surprised if a young Englishman who started out on his local municipal course usurps him.
The Black Knight believes the Ulsterman can go on and become the sixth player in history to complete a career Grand Slam, but warns that the Augusta field includes plenty of potential challengers.
And the South African, now 83, name checks Southport golfer Tommy Fleetwood as one of those who could shine in Georgia come Sunday.
Fleetwood, who cut his golfing teeth on Southport municipal before going on to join the professional ranks and climb to number 13 in the world, is the highest ranked player in the field yet to win on the PGA Tour.
But there are plenty prepared to tip the Formby Hall player for greater things, and he carries good form into the 83rd Masters.
The 28-year-old finished tied third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and in a share of fifth at the Players.
Now it is just a case of Fleetwood – a four-time winner on the European Tour – converting the promising positions he creates for himself going into the weekend of tournaments into a winning conclusion to secure his breakthrough victory on American soil.
Says Player: “There are so many talented golfers who are playing very well. I wouldn’t be surprised if an Englishman like Justin Rose or Tommy Fleetwood or Matt Wallace won the Green Jacket.
“Tony Finau, Jon Rahm and Haotong Li are talented enough to win. I would love to see a player from Asia win. That would be great for global golf. The man with the best short game will win.”
McIlroy claimed his third different Major at the 2014 Open at Royal Liverpool – but has missed out on the Masters on four opportunities since.
Player, who won his third Green Jacket in 1978, said: “I’ve picked Rory the last few years and I’ll stick with him. Can he get to Sunday within reach and have the right mindset? – forget about the past? – that’s the question. He was in the final group last year, but Patrick Reed was like a bulldog, refusing to give up any ground.
“Rory is a tremendous player and has all the tools to win the Masters and complete the Grand Slam.”
Although McIlroy has finished in the top-ten at Augusta for the last five years, he famously blew a 54-hole lead in 2011 while last year the world No.3 shot a closing 74 playing alongside winner Reed.
“It gets tougher to block out the noise with each passing year,” Player added. “In today’s media world, it’s amplified for Rory with how connected we all are, and since he is trying to accomplish something in which Tiger was the last one to join our little Grand Slam club, maybe it’s even tougher.”