It was 2009, and Rory McIlroy – two years away from winning his first Major and still to play in the Ryder Cup – was asked for his thoughts on the greatest match in golf.
His answer was to come back to haunt him. “The Ryder Cup is a great spectacle, but it’s an exhibition at the end of the day and it should be there to be enjoyed,” he said. “In the big scheme of things, it’s not that important to me.”
Dismissing the Ryder Cup as an exhibition was one thing; to claim it wasn’t important something else entirely.
McIlroy compounded the issue shortly before the 2010 Ryder Cup, when he flippantly said he was hoping to play against Tiger Woods in the singles because he wanted the chance to ‘take him down’. (Tiger’s cold reply when he heard the quote: “Me too.”)
It was clear that, back then, two Ryder Cups ago, the youngster did not take it seriously. The golfing world frowned. European fans questioned whether he really wanted to be there. Although he expressed contrition, it was not until he arrived at Celtic Manor that we could see the tension etched on his face. Indeed, his team-mates arrived for one practice morning all wearing curly black Rory wigs in a bid to get him to smile. It worked, and McIlroy, playing in tandem with Graeme McDowell, was a key factor as Colin Montgomerie’s team regained the Ryder Cup.
So, four years on, and with four Majors to his name, how does Rory feel about the Ryder Cup now? Sport asked him exactly that, along with a few other things.
So, what does the Ryder Cup mean to you now?
[Long exhalation] “Well, I guess you could put it this way: I’m glad the Ryder Cup is only every two years. I don’t think I could do it every year because it’s one of the most tiring, intense weeks of the year. It just means so much. To be able to win, or lose, with not just your team-mates but also the captain, the vice captains, everyone – it’s a real team effort. It’s not something we experience as golfers very often. We are individuals and compete against each other week in, week out, but we come together and to compete for one cause in the Ryder Cup. In 2012, I had a great year: I won five tournaments, but the best feeling I had was winning the Ryder Cup at Medinah, being part of that team.”
Winning the Ryder Cup was better than winning a Major?
“I was probably prouder of winning the PGA Championship, but winning the Ryder Cup was more enjoyable. The rush of winning as a team is very special, and for a golfer very rare.”
So will you – world number one, multiple Major winner – be nervous on the first tee at the Ryder Cup?
“Yes. Yes I will. Very nervous.”
Compare it to how you felt in July, in the last round at The Open...
“If I was coming down the stretch at the Ryder Cup and it was down to my point, I’d be more nervous. If you’re an individual trying to close out a Major, it only affects you. But when you’re playing and whatever you do affects other people, there’s more pressure. It’s easier to deal with if it’s just you, but if you lose your point…” [tails off]
So would you have wanted Martin Kaymer’s putt at Medinah?
[Broad smile] “Oh yeah! Absolutely! I think anyone would want to have a putt to win the Ryder Cup.”
Go back to 2010 and how you felt before your first Ryder Cup – did you ever imagine you’d feel this way about it?
“No, not at all. I wasn’t a fan of the Ryder Cup before I played in it. I was like: ‘I’m a golfer, I’m an individual.’ I wanted to win trophies as an individual. And then I played it for the first time in 2010 and I was like: ‘Okay, I kinda get what this is about now'. Everyone loved it. I just didn’t get it, but then I played in it. Now I understand. You get wrapped up in it. You’re not just playing for yourself, you’re playing for 11 other guys and you know any bad shot – or good shot – you hit will affect them too. It’s great. It’s grown on me a lot.”
Does that attitude and feeling of unity start in the locker room? What’s it like to be in there? You are a senior player now, after all…
“Yeah, I guess I am. This will be my third Ryder Cup. Everyone voices their opinion in the locker room; everyone has their say. Collectively, we just want to win. We just want to beat them. It’s nice that I’ve grown up with a few guys on the team – starting out on the European Tour, you get to know guys a bit better than on the US Tour. But, even then, most of the guys are travelling on their own, so you go for dinner and little cliques form on tour. I’d be close with G-Mac [Graeme McDowell] and Rosey [Justin Rose] and [Ian] Poulter, but at the Ryder Cup you all come together in one team.”
But you’ve got good friends on the US team as well…
“Oh, of course. It’s the same as the last day at The Open. I was playing with a good friend in Rickie [Fowler, who finished tied for second with Sergio Garcia] and it made it easier because it was a comfortable group – we could chat. But, at the end of the day, he was still trying his hardest to beat me and I was still trying my hardest to stay in front. It’s all about winning.”
So the Seve quote about wanting to ‘bury’ your opponent, does that hold true when you’re playing against someone who you would consider a real friend?
“Oh yeah, definitely. Exactly what he said. But they’re thinking the same, of course they are. But, you know what, I have a few good friends on the US team, and of course I’d love to see them play well. But I’m on a different team and, well, business is business. But it’s great – after it all, whoever wins comes into the other team room and we all have a good time together. That’s the nice thing.”
Talk to us about Ian Poulter. You were playing with him when he went crazy on the Saturday at Medinah [Poulter birdied the last five holes to steal an incredible point against Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson]...
“Poulter’s always crazy…”
Fair point. But what was it like to witness up close? You started him off with a birdie on 13...
“Yeah, everyone forgets my part in it! [Laughs]. But then he just went on a run. He had this look in his eye and he just holed putt after putt after putt. I was just, like: ‘I’m going to step aside and let this guy do his thing.’ You can see when someone is in the zone. It just flows. “On 18, I made my par and got out of the way, and he had a downhill putt, bit of right-to-left in it. He was reading it with his caddie Terry and I’m standing there beside my caddie JP and, as soon as he hit it, I said: ‘He’s pushed it, he’s gone too far right.’ And it goes, and it goes… and it drops right in the middle. That was a huge turning point. Those last two matches on Saturday evening were massive. We were still 10-6 down going into Sunday, but in the locker room it was as if we’d drawn level. There was so much positive energy. That’s what set us up for the Sunday.”
How is Poulter in the locker room?
“He’s a great guy in the team room. He’s not outspoken, but he voices his opinion and usually his opinion is spot on. Poulter is Mr Ryder Cup. As soon as qualification starts, it’s all he talks about. He just loves it. It just brings the best out of him.”