McIlroy is up for the ultimate test

Rory McIlroy’s Ryder Cup journey has been a colourful, sometimes turbulent one. There have been a few bumps and bruises. There was almost an unmitigated disaster, two years ago at Medinah, when McIlroy needed the assistance of a state trooper to turn up for his singles tee time.

It is a snapshot of McIlroy’s youth that his introduction to the event was at a time when he idolised a golfer he has gone on to rival. “I was a huge Tiger Woods fan growing up, so even though I was cheering for Europe, I was always cheering for him, too,” the now 25-year-old McIlroy says.

“The first Ryder Cup I remember getting really up for was Brookline in 1999, Sergio [Garcia] was on the team, I remember him playing with [Jesper] Parnevik and everything that happened there. It didn’t turn out a good Ryder Cup for Europe but that was the first one I really followed.

“The first Ryder Cup I went to was in 2004 at Oakland Hills. I played the Junior Ryder Cup and was all excited for that. That was a great Ryder Cup for Europe, they won by a record margin. I got to meet some of the players and walk inside the ropes on one of the practice days. That was when I figured out this Ryder Cup was sort of a big deal.”

There have been a few twists and turns during the intervening decade.

McIlroy is bashful when asked if he has ever been reacquainted with Pat Rollins, the police officer who sped him to Medinah – just – in time.

“I haven’t seen him since that day but obviously I’m still very grateful for what he did for me,” says McIlroy. “I don’t think about it that much and it’s not something I dare to think about either. I’d have felt terrible letting down the team, especially as it was so close anyway. Had it come down to a point … I’m just lucky it worked out and I was able to get to the tee and win my match.

“I don’t really want to think about what would have happened if everything went pear-shaped that morning.”

No commute
A smile and nod towards the proximity of the Gleneagles Hotel to the PGA Centenary Course, where McIlroy will lead the European charge against the United States from Friday, follows. “It’s not something that’s ever going to happen again. I could roll out of bed on to the 1st tee this time so it’s not like there’s any sort of commute to go on. I should be OK.”

McIlroy’s attachment to the Ryder Cup has clearly deepened. He infamously dubbed the event an “exhibition” in 2009. A year later, standard comments about Woods were spun into supposed criticism of Woods on the eve of the Ryder Cup; McIlroy was thereby targeted for the first time by Americans.

McIlroy’s European team-mates duly donned curly wigs during a practice session to show their support for the Northern Irishman.

“At that point, I guess I was naive and innocent enough not to let it really affect me,” McIlroy recalls. “That’s just the gamesmanship we play at the Ryder Cup. I knew exactly what they were doing. It was fine. I think G-Mac [Graeme McDowell] sat up with me one night and then all the boys came out with the wigs the next day to give me a little bit of a group huddle and make me feel really a part of the team.”

A notable link this time is between McIlroy and Europe’s captain, Paul McGinley. McIlroy was a key supporter of the McGinley cause during a period of backroom politics which at one stage looked like denying the Irishman his dream role. Nobody knows better than McIlroy what victory in Perthshire would mean to McGinley. “I’ve played under Paul and know what a great captain he is,” McIlroy says. “That’s why I was so supportive; because I knew he could do a great job.

“Nowadays the captain only gets one chance at this. It wouldn’t be right if he didn’t end up winning because he has such a fantastic Ryder Cup record and history at the event. The Ryder Cup has meant so much to him, so it would be a bitter-sweet ending if it wasn’t to work out for us.

Trying extra hard
“I’m going to be trying extra hard not just for the team but for Paul as well because I’m a huge fan of him as a man, a golfer and a captain and he has been very good to me over the years on the European Tour, reaching out to me. I’m really looking forward to playing under him and I think he’ll do a fantastic job.”

McIlroy regards it as fair comment that he has yet to display his finest touch in a Ryder Cup. That is despite his successful Saturday afternoon partnership with Ian Poulter two years ago that kick-started a remarkable European recovery.

In this, the season of his life so far, McIlroy wants to carry winning momentum into the team format he once struggled to fully comprehend.

“It definitely is the ultimate buzz,” he adds. “I don’t think you can replicate that atmosphere at any other tournament, it is completely unique, the Ryder Cup. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with it.

“The big thing for me, which is the ultimate test, is that when you’re playing for yourself, it starts and ends with you. If you don’t win, there’s a few people around you that might be disappointed as well. But if you don’t play well at the Ryder Cup, you’re not just letting down yourself, you’re letting down your mates, your captain, everyone involved with the team and everyone supporting. There’s some big responsibilities there.

“I think that’s the challenge I like the most. You don’t play well, it’s not just you, you’re responsible for everyone else’s success and happiness as well and that’s the sort of thing I find most challenging and feel the most pressure.” – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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