The real Rory McIlroy stood up in Rome

Mark McGowan

Rory McIlroy (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Mark McGowan

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After six previous outings in golf’s most prestigious team event, the Rory McIlroy we’ve all been waiting for finally turned up at Marco Simone.

And I’m not talking about the angry, combative Rory we saw in the car park on Saturday evening either, though that was extremely refreshing to see. I’m talking about the Rory on the golf course, the Rory who won four points for his side, and the Rory who reminded us exactly why we scratch our heads and wonder how it’s been almost a decade since he won a major championship.

The record books will show that a 4-1-0 performance in Rome was Rory’s best outing to date for Europe, but the record books never tell the full story. Rory was exceptional this week, especially on Sunday when beating Sam Burns 3&1. Burns may have come into the Ryder Cup as one of the supposed weaker players on the US side, and saw his stock fall lower still after a horror opening foursomes session with Scottie Scheffler, but lets not forget that he responded magnificently to take down Viktor Hovland and Ludvig Aberg alongside Collin Morikawa in the Saturday fourball matches, and was then played extremely well again on Sunday.

According to data golf, nobody was better than McIlroy in the singles, gaining 4.37 strokes overall, with Hovland, who got revenge on Morikawa, next best at 2.91.

But I’m not going to get too deep into the statistical weeds here, because this week was about much more than crunching the numbers. After his abysmal (by his standards) showing at Whistling Straits in 2021, no European was under more pressure to perform in Rome. Not Bob MacIntyre, not Shane Lowry, not even Nicolai Hojgaard.

Sure, everyone had their own crosses to bear, but McIlroy needed to stand up and be counted if Europe were going to win. Of course, he was never going to do it on his own. Viktor Hovland and Jon Rahm needed to be the players that they are, and the supporting cast were going to have to hold their own at the very least, but having the ability to put McIlroy out in all five sessions and know that it would require a partnership performing at close to the top of their capabilities to beat him, proved invaluable for Luke Donald.

And in the one match where McIlroy was defeated, Patrick Cantlay did exactly that. The scenes that followed Cantlay’s final putt and subsequently as McIlroy left the European team room and had to be ushered into the waiting car by Lowry, said a lot about Rory’s competitive spirit, his will to win, and perhaps, to a lesser extent, his frustration at seeing his hopes of going undefeated – or better yet, five-and-oh – go by the wayside.

Not that caddie Joe LaCava’s actions can be defended; there is a clear line between player and caddie and though the bagmen occasionally cross that line, never have we seen it happen so blatantly or in such circumstances. But McIlroy, by his own admission, let it fuel his flame and what we saw on Sunday was his best golf of the week.

What’s most heartening, perhaps, was how Rory handled the occasion. After what happened at Whistling Straits, what we saw in Portrush, and what we’ve often seen from him at Augusta when the career grand slam has seemed within reach, was Rory being guilty of wanting it too much. Letting the hype build to an extent where he becomes a prisoner of his own making.

It’s a reach to say that this performance means he’s now ready to exorcise the ghosts next April – for starters, there will be 90-odd players to beat, Rahm and Hovland included – but it gives renewed hope.

Now, if there’s any chance of Joe LaCava or a suitable stand in getting under Rory’s skin on the second Wednesday in April, we’d be much obliged.

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