James Lawton: A generation inspired by Tiger takes centre stage

Gary Player tells McIlroy and his young contenders that now is the time to step up.

When you see the new lion cubs of golf – boys like Rory McIlroy, Danny Lee and Ryo Ishikawa – on the kind of morning here which seems to have been fashioned meticulously by the gods, there are many reasons for envy.

Most of all, it is the time they have to make their careers and their lives as they measure themselves against Tiger Woods. But then at the dawn of a Masters that has rarely if ever promised such a level of competition and intrigue and new horizons, the point is being made, by a man of impeccable authority, that maybe they don't have nearly as much time as they may think. This, anyway, is the view of Gary Player, playing here for the last time at the age of 73.

Player, who stands joint fourth with Ben Hogan on the all-time list of major winners (only Jack Nicklaus, Woods and Walter Hagen have done better), is saying that living with the Tiger, and all the demands he has created in the extraordinary 12 years since he engulfed both this tournament and the entire golfing planet, will take so much more than the natural talent which is spilling so astoundingly out of McIlroy, 19, Korean-born Kiwi Lee, 18, and 17-year-old Japanese sensation Ishikawa.

Player has always been a quirky blend of the visionary and the cantankerous and his latest proclamation can only heighten the pressure on the most precocious trio ever to show up here at Augusta National.

The target he has set for them is the winning of all four major titles by the age of 22. On other lips it is a statement that might provoke a call to the men in the white coats. But Player has nine majors to his name and long ago he proved himself almost as much a seer as an achiever.

He said that the massively talented British pair Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood were, for all their gifts, spinning their wheels when Tiger started his march in 1997. Now he is applying his whip to the back of the boys who have been attracting huge galleries here this week.

"I played with a young boy, Louis Oosthuizen, today and, wow, I was impressed with the quality of his play," Player says, "but I told him what I'm telling Rory and the other young guys. You're playing well enough to win, but that brings a responsibility to achieve success much sooner than later, because if you don't you can wake up one morning and see it has passed you by. Rory is saying that he has come here just for experience but he should want more – he should want to make an impact now, because the trouble with potential is that sometimes it never gets to be more than that.

"Mark O'Meara [Tiger's confidant and a winner of the Masters and the Open] told me that Rory is as good at his age as Tiger was. I was quite shocked by this before I saw Rory play but now I see that he has a truly beautiful swing.

"But none of this quality is any good if you don't take the steps the Tiger did to push his career – and the game – forward. When I look back at my own milestones, I can see clearly how the pressure has mounted – and where it has left coming generations of younger golfers. As I see it, today's young player can sink or swim in the course of just one year. It all depends on how he sees his place in the game.

"Tiger could only see himself as a winner. If the new boys want to emulate him they have to adopt everything he does as their own. They have to go to the gym when it is the last thing they really want to do. They have to push weights. They have to make sure their diets are perfect for an athlete. When I completed the Grand Slam titles at the age 29 I thought, 'Wow, I'm so delighted to beat Jack Nicklaus to this.' And then Jack responded by winning all four by the age of 26. Tiger did it when he was 24. Do you see the pattern?

"Actually, I think that's probably the greatest feat that's ever been accomplished in world sport, to win the Grand Slam at 24, because everyone knows what a tough challenge that is."

"So Rory must say to himself, 'Look, I must use Tiger as a role model and someone raising the bar every time he goes out to play. He won the Grand Slam at 24 so I've got to move and I've got the game'. To be ranked in the top 20 at his age is quite remarkable."

The intensity of Player has often carried him into extreme attitudes and positions, but then when you re-trace the history of the game to which he has brought so much distinction – and bare-knuckle fighting desire – there is rarely a lack of supporting evidence, even in his most contentious statements. He conjures the time in 1980 when Jack Nicklaus, who then owned five Green Jackets, came in to the clubhouse a mile behind the young Seve Ballesteros, who was still out on the course, making the last of a winning chemistry that had both stunned and charmed the galleries.

"This kid," announced the Golden Bear, "is going to wipe out my records. When it is all over I will not be able to see him for dust." Ballesteros did win another Masters, but then so did Nicklaus at the age of 46, and the Spanish phenomenon never reached within the vaguest touching distance of the major mark of 18 wins. Greg Norman terrified golf with the force of his game in the 80s, had the longest standing run of being number one in pre-Tiger days, but he could glean only two majors.

"So much effort is required if you're going to get the best out of your talent and I just have to say to boys like Rory, 'Hey, kid, the future starts now'," added Player.

If the voice has at times been eccentric, and rarely less than preachy, it has also tended to be both consistent and more rigorous than any in golfing history – at least in the days before the coming of the Tiger.

He certainly gave a harsher version of this week's speech to the British prodigies Clarke and Westwood when they were crushed by the authority of Tiger's first win.

"These boys are overweight and taking too much for granted from their talent," Player announced. "They should have been with me this morning when I went to the gym and saw Tiger Woods at work. Now here is an athlete, a player who knows that the time has gone when you could just ride along on your ability to hit the ball. Now you have to practically breathe the game."

At 73, Player is plainly consumed by all of the old passions – and an unbreakable conviction that golf, like life, only makes full returns on the greatest of effort. "Yes," he says, "I envy these young men all they have before them, but I also have a little fear for them too. There is nothing worse than reaching a certain age and knowing that you could have done more."

For Rory McIlroy such a fate may seem impossibly remote as he drives down Magnolia Lane this morning but then, as Gary Player has always said, early success has always carried the same old danger. It can nudge you from the fact that it is maybe much later than you think.

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