Considering the scrutiny Rory McIlroy’s game has been under over the last 18-months and beyond, it’s a testament to his talent that even an off-form McIlroy will still hold-sway in determining the fate of this year’s Ryder Cup.
Still striving to find the golf swing that elevated him to world number one, the four-time Major winner has shown glimpses of great golf over the past number of weeks but he’ll be hell-bent on bringing all facets of his game together in time for Friday’s first tee shot at Whistling Straits, where the 32-year old will hope to continue his love affair with the iconic competition.
Since regrettably labelling the Ryder Cup as an “exhibition” prior to making his debut at the age of 21 in 2010, McIlroy has been an ever-present in European blue, becoming the first player to win four Ryder Cups before the age of 30 when helping Europe to a famous victory at Le Golf National.
“From an event I didn’t really get, then you are a part of it and realise you are playing for something bigger than yourself. We don’t get to do much of that. It means something else,” McIlroy says.
“My proudest moments in golf have definitely been my Major championships but my best experiences, by far, have been Ryder Cups. It’s the most fun I have had playing in a golf tournament. That started at Celtic Manor in 2010 and has not wavered the whole way through.”
Indeed it was Celtic Manor that got the ball rolling for McIlroy in the Ryder Cup arena, banking two points for Team Europe – with one and a half of those coming alongside Graeme McDowell – as Europe edged a narrow 14½ – 13½ tussle over Team USA.
Next up was 2012 and the Miracle at Medinah; McIlroy teaming with Europe’s ‘Postman’, Ian Poulter over the first two days before staring into Sunday’s singles on a forlorn looking European team trailing 10-5 to the USA.
To make the task all the tougher, McIlroy would infamously endure a mix-up with his alarm that morning, availing of a police escort and forgoing a warm-up, oh-so-close to missing his tee-time against Keegan Bradley. Undeterred, however, McIlroy would see-off his American rival 2&1 as Europe turned the points’ table blue to collect a historic comeback win.
In 2014 at Gleneagles, McIlroy, clearly motivated after an opening day defeat alongside Sergio Garcia, went on to win three points from his next four matches to help Paul McGinley’s Europe to a resounding 16½ – 11½ success. It was a watershed moment for McIlroy. No longer the kid, he was a four-time Major winner, defying his age to take on a leadership role within the team.
“Gleneagles was the first one where I felt like I was experienced enough – it was my third one – that I wanted to stand up and lead by example. I wanted to lead from the front and was really comfortable doing that. Paul McGinley helped me to evolve into playing that role,” McIlroy said.
Defeat would finally follow for McIlroy at the 2016 renewal, but not before McIlroy and Captain America himself, Patrick Reed duelled in an epic singles encounter at Hazeltine National.
No longer an “exhibition”, McIlroy was bleeding blue, trading blows with Reed as the contest reached fever-pitch on the eighth green. After holing a raking 55 footer across the putting surface, McIlroy erupted, letting out a roar before cupping his ears and goading the American fans with cries of “I can’t hear you”; McIlroy’s riposte to a week of taunting from the home crowd.
Unfortunately Reed would have the last laugh, responding with a rattle of his own, halving the hole before drawing his finger to his lips. America would taste victory, but McIlroy demonstrated a passion previously unseen in his play – a hat-tip to the unique competition that is the Ryder Cup and the emotion it evokes from its participants – a pure drug of raw adrenaline that makes its bipartisan setting a unique one in the world of golf.
If added motivation was needed, McIlroy and co got it from Reed, taking to Le Golf National in 2018 with a score to settle. McIlroy would again prove key to victory, picking up two points from five matches with his 4&2 victory against Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson, alongside Poulter, being the standout result.
All-up, it means McIlroy boasts a Ryder Cup record so far of some 13 points from a possible 24 and although he might not be firing on all cylinders like he has done coming into the competition in previous years, he’ll once again prove key to Europe’s chances.
Not just that, but McIlroy’s experience will be a major asset to Captain Harrington, and given how he and Shane Lowry gelled for Team Ireland in Tokyo, McIlroy might just be the perfect partner for a new boy in blue.
“I wouldn’t mind that,” McIlroy said. “Shane and I would both like that. This is going to be my sixth Ryder Cup, and it’ll be Shane’s first. If Pádraig is looking for someone to take a rookie around, I wouldn’t mind pairing up with Shane!”