Li Haotong of China plays a shot during the Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club Image Credit: AFP

Abu Dhabi: South African golf legend Gary Player was elated to see Li Haotong overcome the challenge from Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy to clinch Omega Dubai Desert Classic by one stroke at the Emirates Golf Club on Sunday.

One of the main reasons for him being ecstatic was because he had tipped the youngster to be one who could put China on the golfing map.

The 82-year-old wasted no time in sending a congratulatory message to Li. “I had played with Li in China two years ago and had told him ‘Mr Li you are going to be a champion’,” said Player, who was at the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club for his fund raiser — The Gary Player Invitational golf tournament. So yesterday I sent him an email saying: ‘My Champion well done.’”

Player was of the view that golf needs to see more players such as Li coming from different parts of the globe and winning to keep it moving forward.

“We need a black man, we need a Chinese man, we need players of different colours, nationalities and culture to be out there and become a champion,” he said.

“This Li from China who won, the first time I saw him I felt he had the potential to be a champion. How much of a champion I don’t know. I don’t know how much is inside him. The commentators yesterday had already given the trophy to Rory and this fellow came up with birdies at crucial juncture and won it, which shows his class.”

Booster

Player was quick to point out that Tiger Woods’ comeback is another boost for the sport this season.

“Imagine getting Tiger Woods to play here, it will be huge,” he said.

“He was the best golfer in the planet when he was winning all those tournaments. I’m very encouraged with him coming back. We all, anybody with any sense will hope that he comes and he wins. He has a big challenge ahead of him but everything is a challenge in golf anyway.

“When Woods and Singh came along as black competitors we needed a black man. In South Africa, there were young black kids rooted to the television believing I can do something. That’s what we need a face for everyone to follow.”

Player also said he thinks UAE-born Rayhan Thomas, the Mena Tour prodigy, could be a face for the future.

“I have heard about this Rayhan a lot and can’t wait to see him in swing during this invitational tournament,” he said.

“I want to see with my own eyes if he has a chance to be a champion. If we can get players like Rayhan to get going it will be great for UAE golf.”

Player is also hoping for another vital push for his sport, someone to go on to win all four majors.

“Jordan Spieth or Rory McIlroy winning a Grand Slam will be an extra boost,” he said. “These two men can do that, according to me. That would be huge and perfect push that golf will need. I remember when I did it and then Jack Nicklaus and Tiger, things changed drastically.”

Player has raised funds for charity work across the globe since 1983. The proceeds of Monday’s event went to the Children with Special Needs in UAE.

“Retirement is a death warrant because once you retire you get complacent and you don’t work hard and that draws all sorts of problems,” he said. “I travel all the time and talk to a lot of people and make them aware about the importance of staying fit. I’m 82 and want to keep going as long as I can. I want to raise funds for people and change their lives but I don’t know how many years are left for me.”