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Best golfer ever? That's Rory McIlroy, says veteran Des Smyth

By Steven Beacom

Irish golfing veteran Des Smyth has described Rory McIlroy as the greatest player he has ever seen.

It's quite a statement from the popular Drogheda man, especially when you consider McIlroy is still only 25, and even more so given that Smyth, since turning professional in 1974, has watched, marvelled at and played with the sport's iconic figures ranging from Jack Nicklaus to Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros to Tiger Woods.

Smyth is an ambassador for this year's Irish Open at the Royal County Down course in Newcastle, which will be hosted by McIlroy's charitable Foundation.

And when the subject of the Holywood star and World No 1 crops up, 62-year-old Smyth is glowing in his praise.

"I would go as far to say that he is the best player I've ever seen. I've played with them all and I do feel he's the best I've seen. Rory really is amazing," says Des in our interview, making the point twice.

Asked what sets McIlroy apart from the rest, Smyth replied: "It's his talent and I love his attitude towards the game. He is an aggressive player. He will drive his fans mad at times because he just goes for his shots. Golf being the difficult game it is, you are not going to pull it off every time so there will be disappointment, but there is going to be so much success, as he showed last year when he went on a roll and won three huge tournaments in the space of just six weeks."

Two of those successes were The Open and US PGA Championship - the WGC Bridgestone Invitational was claimed in between - taking McIlroy's Major tally to four.

He will hope to make it five at Augusta next month at the Masters, which, of course, would complete a career Grand Slam of all the Major titles.

The question that keeps being asked is if Rory can kick on and overtake the record of 18 Major wins held by the legendary Nicklaus.

Many thought Woods would break it, but he's been stuck on 14 since winning the 2008 US Open, and is currently out of action trying to recover from back problems and rediscover some form.

Now the baton has passed to McIlroy, who yesterday played his opening round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational tournament in Florida.

"There is a long way to go to 18," says Smyth, a winner of 25 tournaments in his career.

"I wouldn't want to be putting that sort of pressure on Rory by saying he'll get there.

"When I was playing the Champions Tour, I had a conversation with Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson and they were talking about Tiger Woods saying, 'this kid's gonna do it', but you have to remember injuries can happen, which can slow your success rate down, and with golf it's also how you age. The competition is getting tougher on tour every year as well.

"I wouldn't put that type of pressure on Rory about going past Jack's total. He is doing fantastic, so let him keep doing it. When he gets up to double figures in Majors, he can start thinking about 18 then."

Another Ulster golfer under the microscope at the moment is Darren Clarke, Europe's new Ryder Cup captain.

Clarke follows in the footsteps of Dubliner Paul McGinley, who led the continent to success against Team USA at Gleneagles last year, with McIlroy and other players saying he was the best leader they had ever worked under.

Smyth was one of McGinley's vice-captains and is confident Clarke can deliver next year at Hazeltine when Europe plan to retain the trophy.

He says: "I think Darren is ready for it. He is at the right time of his life psychologically and he ticks all the boxes. He'll do a good job and I'm sure he'll enjoy it. The Ryder Cup is a wonderful event to be part of and the memories are for life," said Smyth, who played on the European team in 1979 and 1981.

"Irish golf really is on a roll when you think about it. We didn't have a Major champion after Fred Daly for years and then Padraig Harrington opened the box, winning three Majors, and Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke followed suit and with Rory now on four we have piled them on.

"Until Paul came along we never had a Ryder Cup captain. Now we've two in a short space of time with Darren taking the job. We punch well above our weight in golf, that's for sure."

The feelgood factor will no doubt continue at the 2015 Irish Open, which recently acquired Dubai Duty Free as its title sponsor.

While Smyth won't be playing at the event he will be around from May 28-31 in his role as a tournament ambassador.

He said: "It is fantastic that the Irish Open is at Royal County Down, one of the great golf courses. We have a super field, the event is being hosted by the World No 1 golfer and is now sponsored by a very progressive company in Dubai Duty Free. The mix is very, very good. It's going to be a special week."

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