McIlroy the top attraction at Nedbank Challenge

South African golf legend Gary Player has placed a “most exciting young player in the world” label on Irishman Rory McIlroy

And the 20-year-old native of Hollywood in Northern Ireland responded by accepting an invitation to the 12-man Nedbank Golf Challenge that starts Thursday at a par-72, 7 981-yard Sun City course named after Player.

The presence of the world number 10 with a distinctive mob of dark hair is a massive boost for a tournament hit hard by a date clash with the Tiger Woods-backed Chevron World Challenge in Los Angeles.

Whereas many past fields in the 29-year event staged at an entertainment resort north-west of Johannesburg read like a who’s who of golf, the 2009 line-up contains only four of the world top 20.

Defending champion Swede Hendrik Stenson (seven), local Retief Goosen (19) and Englishman Ross Fisher (20) are the other members of the exclusive club although another contender can lay claim to considerable fame.

Argentine Angel Cabrera, a cigarette smoker with a figure that suggests a fondness for the good life, won the 2009 US Masters after a three-way play-off and also lifted the US Open trophy two years ago.

Child prodigy McIlroy—he could hit a ball 30 metres by two, claimed his first hole-in-one at nine and broke par by 12—holds fond teenage memories of an event popularly labelled the ‘African major’.

“I grew up watching a lot of golf on TV and really looked forward to the end-of-year Sun City tournament. So many great golfers have played and won there,” he told the South African media in a video link-up.

“From what I remember it looks quite a demanding course with thick rough and not much room for error off the fairways and then there is the heat—I gather it gets pretty hot.”

His approach to the game is hot too.

“I like to swing with no fear. I am a grip-it-and-rip-it guy and over the ball I think of nothing other than the target.”

Tagged “boy wonder” by the Irish media, McIlroy played down comparisons with Woods although many golf experts consider the 1,75-metre, 70-kilogramme Irishman heir apparent to a throne occupied by the American winner of 14 ‘majors’.

“What Tiger achieved in the past 10 or 12 years has been incredible and I would be happy to win half the titles he has,”
said McIlroy, who already has one to his credit after capturing the Dubai Desert Classic last February.

Completing the field are Americans Hunter Mahan and Nick Watney, Swede Robert Karlsson, Englishman Luke Donald, Australian Robert Allenby and locals Tim Clark and Richard Sterne, the sole competitor not in the world top 40.

A notable absentee is the best known current South African golfer Ernie Els, who after 16 appearances, three titles and almost
$8-million prize money has opted to holiday with his family.—Sapa-AFP


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