VIRGINIA WATER, ENGLAND | We like Rory McIlroy. He is not only one of our favourite men in golf – quotable, thoughtful, likable, unboastful and friendly – but he is also among our favourite golfers. You like Rory, too. Come on. Admit it. You do.
Consider him on this mid-September day, when he is competing in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, one of the most important tournaments on the DP World Tour’s schedule and the penultimate one before the Ryder Cup next week. On a day of drenching sunshine, McIlroy, in dark blue shirt matching the colour of his baseball cap shirt, is jauntily bouncing down the fairways of Wentworth’s historic West course on his way to a ho-hum level-par 72 in his opening round.
Few have the fluency in their golf swings that McIlroy has; it’s oily in its smoothness. Few hit the ball as far as he does; so many yards with so little effort. Few golfers are listened to as McIlroy is; so much influence conveyed in a voice that is rarely raised. He may not be the world No. 1 (that position is held by Scottie Scheffler) but McIlroy, 34, currently world No. 2 and a multimillionaire, has victories this year in the Hero Dubai Desert Classic and the Genesis Scottish Open in Europe as well as top-10 finishes in the PGA (seventh) U.S. Open (second) and Open (sixth). He missed the cut at the Masters.
Starting today, he will attend a close friend’s stag party in Mykonos, Greece, for two days before returning to Britain ready to leave for Rome next Monday. He will be one of the most senior members of a young European team in the Ryder Cup.
“It's a transitional time for the Europe team,” McIlroy said. “There’s guys that have been amazing Ryder Cuppers for two decades and … unfortunately things move on and you need to bring in some fresh talent. We certainly have that this year …”
“It’s exciting, and I think it has been refreshing,” McIlroy continued. “You start with Rosey [Justin Rose], Shane [Lowry] and myself. We are the three oldest on the team. I remember the 2012 Ryder Cup [at Medinah, Chicago]. I went in there as the No. 1 player in the world. I had won two majors in the past two years, and still I didn’t feel like I could speak up in the team room. This [year] doesn’t feel like that, which is good. There is no hierarchy on the team. I feel like the 12 of us in the team are on the same level. Just making the new guys as comfortable as possible. To me that’s the really cool thing …”
At his seventh appearance in the biennial competition, McIlroy will expect and be expected to light up the course outside the Eternal City with some vintage play: thunderous driving, pin-sharp iron play and the holing of a few putts. If McIlroy plays like this, those of a European persuasion believe he will be instrumental in regaining the trophy for his team and ensuring that the U.S. will not have won away from home for more than 30 years.
There will be extra oomph in McIlroy’s effort in Rome because he has a score to settle. He has to make amends for his poor performance at the last Ryder Cup, in 2021 at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, when he lost his foursomes and four-balls matches on the first day as well as a four-balls match on Saturday afternoon. So bad was his form that for the second day’s foursomes he was dropped for the first time. When much was expected of him, he delivered little, scoring only one point, a 3-and-2 victory over Xander Schauffele in the Sunday singles. Afterwards, he cried at his performance and his frustration.
At Wentworth last week, two years almost to the day after his disappointing performance in Wisconsin, the hurt that McIlroy felt was as evident as ever. Time had passed, but if anything, the memory of his poor golf was increased, not diminished. “I felt like I didn’t give a good account of myself,” McIlroy said. “I felt that someone should go out there and win points for the team, and I didn’t do that. It was the first time I had been dropped in a session in the Ryder Cup, and it stung and the scoreline stung.
“We are not used to playing for other people in this game, and you go out there and you’re playing for your teammates and you want to do well for them. I felt like I didn’t do that. I felt like I didn’t give a good account of myself.”
“[The Ryder Cup] is by far the best experience in sport, and standing shoulder to shoulder with your teammates in an environment like that is, I think, the epitome of what competition and what sport is.”
McIlroy’s mea culpa after that U.S. victory and the obvious discomfort he has endured since then is all the more intense because he once described the Ryder Cup as an “exhibition.” In 2009 he said: “The Ryder Cup was not that important. ... It’s not a huge goal of mine. It’s an exhibition, at the end of the day.” The words, spoken when he was just past his 20th birthday, were those of a young man, words he swiftly recanted.
This is what he says about the Ryder Cup now: “It is by far the best experience in sport, and standing shoulder to shoulder with your teammates in an environment like that is, I think, the epitome of what competition and what sport is. It’s about competing at the highest level. I feel like this Ryder Cup is [going to be] a bit like the 150th Open at St Andrews last year where all that noise went away for the four days that we were playing.”
Look out for McIlroy in Rome. He will be hell bent on a personal mission to redeem himself for his performance in 2021. Remember the vivid words he used. They say a lot about how strongly he feels. He said that being dropped for the first time ever “stung” him, and the size of the scoreline “stung” him. It’s not as if the Ryder Cup needs any more excitement or interest, but watching McIlroy next week will bring even more drama to an already enthralling competition.
TOP: JARED C. TILTON, GETTY IMAGES