South African septuagenarian compares himself with the world No 1 and tells Lewine Mair how they both thrived in adversity and why the American is favourite to triumph once more at the British Open Gary Player, who is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his Open championship triumph at Muirfield, is not among those older players who, when asked who will win at Turnberry, replies with a weary: "Tiger Woods, I suppose."
The septuagenarian Player is no less in awe of Woods than he was when he saw him winning the Masters by a mind-boggling 12 shots at the age of 21. As far as he is concerned, the only weakness in the player, as man or golfer, lies in his driving. "If Tiger was a better driver of the ball, he would win every week. Even as it is, he is far superior to anyone else." In Player's eyes, Woods has more than enough attributes to make up for those errant tee shots: "He's a great chipper and he's great with the irons. I used to think Bobby Locke was the best putter, but today my vote would go to Tiger."
Player, who was at Archerfield recently for the latest of the Gary Player Pro-Ams he holds around the world to raise funds for underprivileged children, moved on to the mind of the man. To him, Tiger's mind is on a par with that of Jack Nicklaus and the late Ben Hogan. "It's about having sharp eyes, along with the ability to follow that Churchillian phrase, 'Trust the instinct to the end though you can render no reason'."
In Tiger, Player can see something of himself. "I used to do things differently, just as he does." The South African began with an account of how he started training and following a sensible diet in 1953 at a stage when not too many of his rivals were bothering on either front. "The others," he recalls, cheerfully enough, "used to ridicule me for it but I did it because I wanted to be the best." Player was no doubt thinking of Woods at last year's US Open - Tiger won it virtually on one leg - when he talked of how the American thrives on adversity. "You have got to learn to play the game in adversity and enjoy it," he says. "You hang in there and you see others fold. To be honest, I revelled in that situation."
Player recalls how his own strength in adversity was born of a tough childhood in which his mother died when he was eight. "I would get up at 5.30 to go to school, take the train and the bus into Johannesburg and come back at 7 in the evening to an empty house. My father loved me but he was working down the mines. I had to learn to fend for myself." In Woods's case, that quality would have had its origins in having to make his way in a white man's golfing world. To sometimes playing in tournaments as a junior in which his father, Earl, was not allowed to go in the clubhouse with other parents because he was black.
And to knowing how, for his first Masters' win in America's deep South, people left the course in droves because they did not want to watch him win. As Player sees it, too many of Tiger's rivals have had it far too easy. He points to how even relatively ordinary Tour professionals in the States will step away with US$10 million (Dh37m) in their pension funds - and to how they travel around in jets and courtesy cars.
For Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and himself, at least in the early days, there was no such thing as pension. Again, Player well remembers long days when he would travel around America on a Greyhound bus. "I'm not saying that all the professionals are affected by having it too easy," said Player, "but it definitely applies to some." At this juncture he mentions one player - Lee Westwood - whose attitude has come on in leaps and bounds. Player likes the way the Englishman goes about his business and suggests that if anyone is going to give Tiger a run for his money at Turnberry, it could be him.
There are 27 different nationalities competing at Turnberry this week and Player is among those who have played their part in helping to make that happen. His course design business takes him to all corners of the earth. He speaks of "an army of golfers" preparing to emerge from China any time now - and of an extraordinary surge of girl golfers in Poland. Among his 300 or so designs, he takes a special pride in his course on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, the first Ocean course to be built on the Arabian Gulf. Not for him a quick glimpse at the land before turning the latest project over to someone else. He really cares.
It helps that Player, like his great hero, Nelson Mandela, is convinced that sport can change the world. "You get one great role model after another. Take Roger Federer, take Tiger," he says. Player is no less caught up than anyone else in the argument of the day. Namely, whether Woods, on 14 majors, will overtake Nicklaus's haul of 18. In this connection, the only question exercising his mind concerns Nicklaus.
"Don't you think," he suggests, "that if Jack had known that Tiger was coming along, he'd have tried to add to the 18, just to give himself a better chance of not being caught?" email@example.com