Golf legend Gary Player has backed Rory McIlroy to take over from Tiger Woods as the world’s number one golfer.
The nine-time Major winner has been hugely impressed with what he has seen of the 20-year-old from Holywood.
And with Woods out of action in a self-imposed exile, Player reckons it won’t be long before McIlroy is officially the best in the world.
“‘He has a great team behind him, bags of talent and one of the best swings in golf,” the veteran South African said yesterday as he prepared to host the inaugural Saadiyat Beach Classic in Abu Dhabi where McIlroy was playing.
“If he continues the way he is going I have no doubt Rory has the potential to be the next world number one.
McIlroy finished third at last week’s Abu Dhabi championship behind Martin Kaymer and Ian Poulter, in his first tournament of 2010.
He is fulfiling commitments to sponsors in the Middle East, but will of course defend his Dubai Desert Classic title next week.
The Saadiyat Beach Classic welcomed a host of stars from the world of golf and sport. With the likes of McIlroy, Darren Clarke and former Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrence all taking part, the international appeal of the destination is becoming more apparent.
“We start our season in Abu
Dhabi and have a three week swing in the Middle East,” said McIlroy.
“The UAE has become a great destination and with facilities like Saadiyat Beach Golf Club I can only see more and more golfers coming to play here.
“It is ideal for practicing and the facilities are all world class.”
McIlroy and Clarke were playing after opting to give the Commercialbank Qatar Masters a miss this week and that looked a good call as the field struggled in blustery conditions on the first day.
England’s Oliver Wilson led the way with an excellent five under 67 in the circumstances.
Gareth Maybin was the leading Ulster player, in with a one under round of 71 in joint 15th place overnight.
Graeme McDowell birdied two of the opening three holes, but in the end had to settle for a one over 73.
Michael Hoey fought back from dropping three shots in four holes around the turn, birdieing the last to be one shot further back.
Wilson, as one of the later starters, had the best of the conditions as the wind eased later in the day.
Swede Robert Karlsson had set the early clubhouse lead at four under, his 68 made in the worst of the weather.
“The course is set up very difficult so I am happy with the round especially given the conditions,” said Karlsson.
“I hit all the greens and had a lot of long putts, but that's what you have to when's it's windy so I am very happy.
“The weather makes it harder, not the course; it is set up very fair and it is in a great condition.”
Four other men came in with 68s, Swede Alexander Noren, German Marcel Siem, England’s Lee Westwood and Welshman Bradley Dredge.
Australian Brett Rumford was alone in third after a 69.
Spain’s Sergio Garcia was amongst a seven-strong group on two under.