One of the greatest experiences an amateur golfer can have is to play a round with a professional. Most never get to do it and thus have no idea just how good these guys are.

Watching on TV is just not the same because on the screen we get no comparison with ourselves. In our own minds, we think we all hit it like that. It is only when you play with a pro you realise the extent of their talent.

Last Tuesday I arrived at Glendower to learn that our designated pro was Darren Clarke, the former Open winner. He is great fun, irreverent in the extreme, a raconteur of note and still one of the finest iron players around. He is not quite as long off the tee as he was and he lipped out most birdie putts but he’s still special.

Despite years of coming to South Africa, he had never played the Ekurhuleni course and he was effusive about its lay-out and condition. He loves it and he loves South Africa and is hugely optimistic. He told me that he wrote to Paul McGinley and they have made up after their sad Ryder Cup captaincy row and that was good to hear. What a day.

However, this year it was all very different to the normal SA Open. The crowds, even at the pro-am, were larger. The parking arrangements were more extensive. There was a palpable upping of excitement. You could feel it everywhere.

There was only one name on people’s lips: Rory McIlroy. His presence at the event elevated it to a new level. His effort in the tournament was total and sincere and he wanted to win. He nearly did, too. Well done to Ernie for inviting him. The whole Rory experience says so much about many aspects of sport that can and must be applied in so many places to ensure success and growth.

Sport is about heroes and magic and heroes are the magic ones. You can tell kids until you’re blue in the face that worthiness, diligence and conservatism are things to support, but excitement and glamour, success and wealth will trump that every time.

Don’t get me wrong. Rory had the former as well as the latter, but what they call the X-factor is what makes people play, watch, get involved and support financially. The heroes and superstars take us out of ourselves and make us forget the bad things in life. They hook us.

Rory being there forced the event to punch above its weight. I bet millions more than usual watched on TV and online. I bet mini-club sales spike.

At the cricket last Saturday it was the same with Kagiso Rabada. Every time he had the ball you could feel the crowd sit up as he delivered yet again. Young kids from all backgrounds will look at playing cricket because they watched him and felt his charisma. That’s the way sport is: Emotional first and then sometimes, logical. You don’t decide to become a fan; you just do.

That’s why, if our sport is to thrive, develop and transform, the magic has to be retained, encouraged and sustained. Our superstars must be honoured as such and if our showcase sports are not performing properly, then it must be treated seriously and the situation addressed as a matter of urgency.

Our absence from the Afcon is not just sad but also a serious crisis. With such a successful domestic league here, despite poor attendances at many games, it is not acceptable to see our national side repeatedly doing so badly.

For us not to be in Gabon is a disgrace. That’s why the decision to exclude our hockey teams from the Olympics, despite qualifying, was so ridiculous. Watching our players on the world stage against the best is what would have inspired a whole new generation. Instead many would not even have watched.

Sports excellence starts with inspiration and that’s what we need to nurture. We need to get our players onto the world stage, not hold them back.

As I walked to the tee last week from the putting green, I met a caddie from Wanderers. His name is Jeffrey Nkonyane and we’ve been friends for years. He told me he had a bag with a visiting professional and we chatted briefly. What a great joy to learn that his pro was Graeme Storm and together they won the SA Open. It proves we have some of the best caddies in the world. Let’s hope this inspires all in golf here to look at ways to improve the lot of these professionals without pricing them out of jobs. Surely advertising is the answer?

* Robbie is a former British Lions, Ireland and Transvaal scrumhalf

Saturday Star