Gary Player is praying and hoping for both Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth to win the elusive major missing from their collections in 2018 so that both men can join him in an illustrious club of golfers who have achieved a career Grand Slam.
Player is one of only five players in the sport’s history to have won all four major titles – the Masters, US Open, The Open Championship and PGA Championship.
The 82-year-old South African is also the only non-American in the group of five, along with the legendary Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen.
Spieth, 24, would be the fifth American to enter the sacred circle were he to win the PGA title, the final major of the year, in August. Northern Irishman McIlroy, 28, needs to win April’s Masters to become the first British or Irishman to enter.
And Player admits the famous five are in need of some more company.
Ahead of McIlroy’s return to action at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in Abu Dhabi following a three-month break, Player told Sport360°: “I always have high expectations for Rory. He has a magnificent swing and I like him so much. I’m pulling for him or Jordan Spieth to win a major this year and join the five of us on a Grand Slam.”
In his press conference on Tuesday, McIlroy had spoken of the hope his extended lay-off would set him up for the next 10 years of his career, having already played 10 since turning professional in 2007.
And Player, who completed the career Grand Slam inside seven years after winning the 1965 US Open, believes the break will have done the four-time major winner the world of good.
“He’s got tremendous talent and I’m absolutely convinced he’ll win the grand slam,” added Player, a nine-time major winner.
“I can’t answer that (how many he can win). The world is at his feet, it just depends on him.
“But he has the talent to get back to winning majors and being among the most elite golfers in the world, no question. He’s a tremendous talent. It’s all up to him now, and how he applies himself. We’re all pulling for him.”
As one star returns to action following injury in Abu Dhabi this week, a living legend of the game is also once again on lips of every golf fan and pundit.
Woods returned to action at the Hero World Challenge last month, causing a stir as he finished in a tie for ninth in the Bahamas. He is also expected to feature in his first PGA Tour event in a year at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines next month.
And Player still believes golf needs its fallen, former hero.
“He was swinging much better in the Bahamas than I’ve seen him swinging for years, and again I think we’re all pulling for him to come back and win a tournament and hopefully a major,” said Player of a man who is second to Nicklaus’ 18 major wins, with 14.
“We all need him in the game because, well, he was on his way to being the best golfer that’s ever lived.
“Nobody playing golf today can play like Tiger did at his best. He was on his way to being the best ever, I don’t know if that will happen now, but he was certainly on the way. He brought golf to another level.
“I don’t know if he can win another major, let alone getting near Jack’s record. These are very difficult questions to answer. All I can say is we’re pulling for him, he has the ability, he’s swinging better and the game needs him.”
Rory McIlroy comes bounding down the 18th fairway at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, flashes a wink here and there, and looking like that bustling, irreplaceable titan we’re so used to seeing come Major Sundays.
The former World No.1 may not have won a major in nearly four years, but after a three-month sabbatical from the game due to a rib injury, he cuts a confident and rejuvenated figure as he gears up for his first tournament since October 8.
With three top-3 finishes in the UAE capital since 2014, expectations are high for McIlroy as he bids to start his year on a positive note and win his maiden Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship crown.
With all the talk about Tiger Woods’ comeback, the 28-year-old is making a mini-comeback of his own and needs to re-establish himself among the game’s elite – slipping down to 11th in the world rankings since his time out of the game.
During his 104 day break from the greens, the Northern Irishman underwent a period of self-analysis, range practice and physical training – with much of it completed in Dubai – where he packed on 2kgs of lean muscle and altered parts of his short game.
In his press conference on Tuesday, McIlroy paid reference to the fact that the break could set him up for the next 10 years at the summit of the sport.
Competing in over 25 tournaments during the calendar year is certain to wear any sports star down, and this was perhaps the mental break he needed to rediscover his passion for golf and bite to win trophies.
Despite not even yet being 30, he looks to have a spring in his step again and has already targeted competing in 30 tournaments in 2018, which would be a record in his 11-year professional career to date.
From a technical perspective, his decision to opt for the TaylorMade M4 instead of the Callaway Epic Driver looks to have paid off – and has him rediscovering the sort of distance achieved at the Scottish Open back in 2014 when he hit a staggering 436-yard tee shot.
High expectations are always going to fall on marquee sports stars, and as he steps out on the first tee alongside Dustin Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood on Thursday, the most significant question will be how quickly it takes him to return to the top.
In some respects, this event is the start of a seminal year for McIlroy as he targets the Masters – the one title that has eluded him from achieving a coveted career Grand Slam.
He may not have won a competition in nearly 16 months, but watching one of the greatest golfer’s of this decade practice this week – it looks like he has found the formula to help him challenge for major honours again over the next 12 months.
It’s too early to say he’ll be up topping the scoreboards on a weekly basis, but the break – at this point – looks to have done him the world of good.
Now, McIlroy must embark on his dream to win more titles and regain the world No.1 spot.
Ahead of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship that starts on Thursday, we look at six star players set to shine.
Who do you think will win?
World Ranking: 1
2017 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship result: T2
Best results in 2017: Winner (Genesis Open, WGC – Mexico Championship, WGC – Dell Technologies Match Play, The Northern Trust)
Last five tournaments: T33-T17-T2-T14-1
Last five years at Abu Dhabi: DNP-DNP-DNP-DNP-T2
The battle between Johnson and Justin Rose will have most golf fans licking their lips, with the American looking in solid form of late.
Known for making a fast start to his season, the Abu Dhabi course should definitely suit the World No1’s style of power golf.
His win at the Tournament of Champions two weeks ago will certainly add confidence ahead of his return to the capital where he finished T2 in 2017.
World Ranking: 6
2017 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship result: DNP
Best results in 2017: Winner (WGC – HSBC Championships, Turkish Airlines Open, Indonesian Masters)
Last five tournaments: 1-T4-T10-T5-1
Last five years at Abu Dhabi: T2-DNP-T12-DNP-DNP
The rock-solid Englishman was denied a second major after losing a play-off to Sergio Garcia at The Masters in April, but went on to have his most successful season with ten consecutive top-10 finishes and three tournament victories.
Undoubtedly the most in-form player in the world at present, Rose is sure to be in around the leading pack come Sunday.
World Ranking: 9
2017 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship result: T8
Best results in 2017: Winner (Wyndham Championship)
Last five tournaments: T17-T51-T2-T35-17
Last five years at Abu Dhabi: T23-T80-MC-T3-T8
Stenson has always had a reputation as a player who prospers on tough courses and has reiterated his desire to clinch the Falcon Trophy – the one Middle East trophy missing from his mantlepiece.
The former UAE resident has had to contend with fitness issues in the first few weeks of the season over the years, but he looks sharp and will be bidding to gather some early momentum at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
Could this be the year everything falls into place for the Swede?
World Ranking: 11
2017 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship result: DNP
Best results in 2017: Runner-up (BMW SA Open, British Masters)
Last five tournaments: T34-MC-T58-2-T63
Last five years at Abu Dhabi: MC-T2-2-T3-DNP
An obvious choice given his remarkable form at this venue over the years – despite not yet adding the Falcon trophy to his impressive collection.
The Northern Irishman trained in Dubai in the off-season and loves conditions here, but his matchplay is no doubt a little rusty as he still feels his way back.
Few would bet against McIlroy starting his campaign off on the front foot in Abu Dhabi.
World Ranking: 15
2017 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship result: DNP
Best results in 2017: Runner-up (Open Championship)
Last five tournaments: T10-T31-T31-T29-T9
Last five years at Abu Dhabi: DNP-DNP-DNP-DNP-DNP
The American’s debut in Abu Dhabi will surely add to the excitement as he tees off alongside Rose and Stenson today
Although he has not tasted victory since the Fiji International in October 2015, Kuchar has been compiling some consistent results, with four top-10 finishes since sealing a runner-up spot at the Open Championship in July.
A seven-time PGA Tour winner, he may struggle to adapt to the desert conditions, but expect the 39-year-old to be a top-20 finisher.
World Ranking: 18
2017 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship result: Winner
Best results in 2017: Winner (Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, HNA Open de France)
Last five tournaments: T23-T10-T21-6-T3
Last five years at Abu Dhabi: MC-T19-MC-MC-1
Not only is the defending champion and European No.1 super-motivated to have a positive start to the season, he is also in decent form with a sixth and third place finish in Hong Kong and the Bahamas last month.
More importantly, the Englishman seems to love the UAE conditions of late, with his driving a huge advantage.