The tears led to fears. As Rory McIlroy blubbed during an interview at the conclusion of the last Ryder Cup, speculation rose that one of the greatest golfers of all time was in a tailspin. Nobody in European colours impressed during a brutal 19-9 defeat by the US but the extent of McIlroy’s troubles until a final-day win against Xander Schauffele were especially stark.
As is often the case around McIlroy, it turned out the received wisdom was wrong. He won on his next tournament outing. Another quintet of titles have been added during the intervening period. The inability to claim a fifth major gnaws at the Northern Irishman but his level of consistency post‑Wisconsin has made a mockery of tales of woe.
Sunday at Whistling Straits was important. So was Saturday evening. Pádraig Harrington, in combination with the remainder of the European team, insisted McIlroy was to play in the opening match of the final session.
“It was a huge vote of confidence because I was pretty low that Saturday,” McIlroy says.
“I had sat out the morning and lost in the afternoon. It was the lowest I had felt at a Ryder Cup. I would rather have been hidden somewhere in the middle of the order but that gave me a purpose. It gave me something to really, really get up for. It refocused me and got me into a different mindset.
“There was a lot going on. The team standing up and wanting me to go out first, to lead them, after the week I had meant a lot to me. That was part of the reason I got emotional, I felt like the whole team had my back. I felt empowered and a responsibility to go out there and win a point.
“It didn’t end up mattering in the Ryder Cup but the whole thing meant a lot to me.
“That was a pretty big moment in my Ryder Cup career but think of the struggles I had leading up to that and what I did afterwards. The whole run from the end of 2021, all of 2022, this year as well … it all started from that last day at Whistling Straits.”
Luke Donald may inherit McIlroy at Rome’s Marco Simone in useful form; with a Ryder Cup point to prove. He is due an overwhelmingly positive experience in this domain. “I’d love that,” he admits.
When Europe won in Paris in 2018, for example, McIlroy was visibly stung after a singles loss to Justin Thomas. “I felt like I did what I needed to do for the team in France, won a few points,” McIlroy says. “Same thing at Hazeltine.” A pause and a rueful smile follows. “It was crap to lose to [Patrick] Reed but that’s life.” It appears no consolation that the McIlroy-Reed clash of 2016 was an all‑time epic.
McIlroy is now so immersed in the Ryder Cup that it seems incredible to think he once branded the biennial event an “exhibition”. He pretty quickly saw the folly in that sentiment. But what now appeals so much? Is it the connection to innocent times as a youngster on the European Tour?
“It is a world I once knew so well and it’s so simple,” McIlroy says. “You are in your little bubble for the week. No sponsor obligations; it’s commercial in terms of the platform but, for us, there is no being led around in any kind of show. You are in with the team and that is your little world. That is your family for the week. This is the purest form of the game. We don’t get paid a penny.”
This touches on the spirit of a European team. Players from different backgrounds and countries somehow pull together under one flag with stunning effect. Europe can lose Ryder Cups but this is never through, or the cause of, fallouts.
“It is the biggest platform that we have in golf, the biggest stage,” McIlroy says. “The Ryder Cup … there is something different about it. There is something about wanting to do yourself justice but also playing for other people. You get so close with the guys during Ryder Cup weeks.
“And especially on the European side there is a nice continuity there; I have played on three teams with Luke, I have played on teams with [the vice‑captain] Nicolas Colsaerts, the Molinaris, played with and [under] Thomas Bjørn as captain, Chema [José María Olazábal] was captain in 2012.
“We have these experiences together and nobody can ever take them away from us. I have said this before but I am always going to be proudest of my accomplishments in the game as an individual but my most enjoyable moments, by far, are as part of the Ryder Cup team.”
Italy’s capital has meaning beyond golf to the McIlroy family. Rory’s wife, Erica, studied there for nine months. “So she knows the city pretty well. We are looking forward to going back. It’s absolutely great.”
McIlroy and Donald are neighbours in Florida and good friends. McIlroy was unsurprised when Donald kept his own counsel after the Ryder Cup captaincy was originally handed to LIV-bound Henrik Stenson. “That’s Luke. He has always been that way. I don’t think he is a very emotional guy when it comes to golf. He is a logical, rational thinker. If it was me in that position and someone else got it, it would be very hard for me to say nothing. That’s the difference between Luke and I.”
Naturally, others in the European team room will look towards McIlroy. This will be his seventh Ryder Cup appearance but the 34-year-old is keen to let Donald call the shots. McIlroy has admired what he has seen so far.
“We live on the same street so we have had a few dinners and chatted about stuff but I am letting Luke be the captain,” McIlroy says. “If something is asked of me, I am certainly willing to help. I made a point of getting closer to a few of the guys I don’t know so well who I thought would probably make the team. Sepp Straka, for example. I wanted to make those guys feel more comfortable.
“Luke is meticulous. You can be pretty sure he isn’t going to miss anything. He is obviously a man of few words but the ones he does say are very considered and impactful. There is not a lot of fluff with Luke, it is very direct. He has been great with the whole process, bearing in mind what he inherited and all that went on. He has picked a nice blend of vice-captains, young and old.”
It is contrary to McIlroy’s personality to detest opponents. For one week every two years, he can adapt his mindset. “There are a lot of people on the other team who are my friends,” he says. “But as much as I want to win, it’s more visceral in the sense I don’t want them to win. The thought of losing to ‘them’ is a motivating factor. I don’t want to have to look at them spraying the champagne.”
The US are regarded as narrow favourites despite a failure to win in Europe dating back to 1993. As the dust settled on the last Ryder Cup, commentators waxed lyrical about the imperious nature of American players.
“It wasn’t necessarily wrong,” McIlroy says. “The US team is unbelievably strong. It was young at that time, it still is but looking at how some of our guys are playing and how their team has shaped up, I’m a little more confident in where we are now than maybe 12 months ago. Home advantage is a thing. The trend is there. Whoever breaks that will have delivered a huge accomplishment.” This time, McIlroy is determined to smile.