Rory McIlroy once called Ryder Cup an exhibition – he knows better now
By DOUG FERGUSON AP Golf Writer
GUIDONIA MONTECELIO, Italy — Rory McIlroy was willing to read his words about the Ryder Cup before happily eating them.
He qualified for his first team in 2010, when he was a 21-year-old known as “Boy Wonder” with curly locks that spilled out from under his cap and already painted as Europe’s rising star. He referred to the Ryder Cup as an exhibition, nothing for him to get excited about.
McIlroy sat down to read comments from 2009 for a post on social media, and he couldn’t get through it without laughing, mainly at himself.
“It’s not that important an event for me. It’s an exhibition at the end of the day,” McIlroy said, reading from the script. “Obviously, I’ll try my best for the team. But I’m not going to go running around and fist-pumping.”
And then he added after he stopped laughing, “Who said that?”
It didn’t take long for him to realize the Ryder Cup meant so much more – a pivotal halve he earned against Stewart Cink in Wales in 2010, his fist-pumping, decibel-raising shouts against Patrick Reed at Hazeltine in 2016, the tears during the loss at Whistling Straits in 2021.
He went 1-3 for the week in an American rout and felt responsible. In a live interview with NBC when he won his singles match, McIlroy called his Ryder Cup appearances “the greatest experiences of my career.”
“I’ve never really cried or gotten emotional over what I’ve done as an individual. I couldn’t give a (crap),” McIlroy said, by then a player who had been ranked No. 1 in the world and had three legs of the Grand Slam.
Yes, he said that.
It’s far different now. McIlroy is the heart of a European team that tries to protect its home turf at Marco Simone, for no other reason than he has played in more Ryder Cups than any player on either team.
“In 2009, I was just so focused on myself and trying to get my career off the ground that I felt like I had bigger and better things to achieve for my individual goals,” McIlroy said Wednesday.
“I’m still very, very proud and probably proudest of the things I’ve done as an individual,” he said. “But nothing – nothing – beats this week. It’s an amazing experience and I want to be a part of it for as long as I can.”
Wednesday brought another toasty day outside Rome, nine-hole practice rounds before the course was taken over by a celebrity match that included Novak Djokovic, Wales soccer star Gareth Bale and former New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz.
Pairings for the first session of matches will be announced during the opening ceremony on Thursday afternoon. The Ryder Cup is relentless action once a ball is in the air Friday morning. It just feels like forever to get to that point.
“I’m just ready for Friday to get here,” Scottie Scheffler said.
European captain Luke Donald seems to be striking the right tone for a European team that is eager to erase memories from a 19-9 loss – the biggest loss for a European team – at Whistling Straits two years ago.
Justin Rose is the oldest player at age 43 and he is thrilled to be back after being left off the last team. Jon Rahm has the Spanish passion for the Ryder Cup and has been Europe’s top player over the last two years.
But there’s something about McIlroy that led Rose to refer to him as “a leader of the team.”
“He’s been one of the players that’s kept the momentum going that was started a generation or two before us and before him,” Rose said. “And I think he has a really good appreciation of history and the guys that have come before him.
“I think that he will have a huge role in this team for the next decade-plus.”
McIlroy sees his role as no different from that of Rose or Rahm. A mentor to the rookies? Sure. But all he wants to do is win points and make sure that the 17-inch gold trophy does not head back across the Atlantic.
“I don’t want anyone looking up to me,” he said. “I want them looking over to me. I want them to see me like I’m on their level. And there’s no hierarchy on our team. We are all one part of a 12-man team and we all go forward together. I guess that’s the one message I’ve tried to relay to some of the younger guys on the team.”
McIlroy wasn’t in the best of form for the last Ryder Cup. He lost the No. 1 ranking not long after golf returned after a three-month pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He didn’t contend in any of the four majors in 2021 and had only one victory in the previous two years.
He extended his winless streak in the majors to nine years in 2023, finishing one shot behind Wyndham Clark at the U.S. Open. But he has two wins this year and has finished in the top 10 in 12 of his last 14 tournaments.
After the last Ryder Cup, McIlroy won in his next start, which got him back into the top 10 in the world, and now he is No. 2 behind Scheffler.
“I just went back to really trying to be myself and trying to express myself the best way that I can on the golf course,” McIlroy said. “I think the last two years have proved that’s the way that I’m going to play my best golf.
“So I certainly feel a lot better about things coming into this Ryder Cup and feel like I’m more than capable of contributing more than one point this time around.”
He’s capable of running around in celebration, throwing a few fist-pumps. Maybe even tears. For McIlroy, this is no exhibition.
McILROY ON LIV DEFECTORS
LIV Golf defections have cut off European stalwarts from the Ryder Cup, some of them for the first time in three decades. McIlroy said Wednesday they are missing the Ryder Cup more than Team Europe is missing them.
Nowhere to be found at Marco Simone are Lee Westwood, who has been part of every Ryder Cup since his debut in 1997. Sergio Garcia, who began his seamless Ryder Cup career in 1999, attempted a last-ditch attempt to make good with the European tour and get to Rome.
Ian Poulter and his passion. Graeme McDowell and his heroics. All are with Saudi-funded LIV Golf, all of them are ineligible to take any role in this Ryder Cup. That includes Henrik Stenson, appointed European captain for this team until choosing to sign with LIV last summer.
“It’s certainly a little strange not having them around,” McIlroy said. “But I think this week of all weeks, it’s going to hit home with them that they are not here. I think they are going to miss being here more than we’re missing them.”
McIlroy caught himself briefly, aware his comments would be interpreted as another dig at the defectors, especially given the combative tone he has taken against LIV Golf since the rival league started up a year ago in June.
“I’m not saying that’s like … it’s just more I think this week is a realization that the decision that they made has led to not being a part of this week,” he said. “And that’s tough.”
Still to be determined is whether they are ever invited back. The European tour and PGA Tour have entered a partnership with the Saudi Arabian national wealth fund that pays for LIV Golf. The proposed commercial entity still has to be finalized and approved.
Among the discussions is how to integrate LIV players with their tours.
“The landscape of golf is everchanging and more dynamic, and we’ll see what happens and whether they will be part of it in the future,” McIlroy said. “I always thought leading up to this week is when it’s going to hit home that they are not going to be here.”
The Americans have already gone through the LIV effect, having played the Presidents Cup last year without Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed being eligible to qualify or having Phil Mickelson available as a vice captain.
Brooks Koepka made it back to the Ryder Cup, though only through an extraordinary performance in the majors, his only access to Ryder Cup points. He was runner-up at the Masters and won the PGA Championship.
“I feel like I’m representing the USA. That’s what I’ve got on the front of my hat this week,” Koepka said. “It’s not a group of individuals in that locker room. We’re just all one team, and that’s the way we think.”
Team Europe had eight players at Whistling Straits at the last Ryder Cup who have since gone over to LIV Golf. Westwood, Garcia, Poulter, Paul Casey and Bernd Wiesberger played in the matches. McDowell, Stenson and Martin Kaymer were vice captains.
How many would have returned to compete is debatable because four of them were in their 40s and sliding toward the end of their careers.
When it comes to Europe and the winning culture it has created over the last four decades, the experience is equally valuable from leadership in the team room.
“We have some legends of the game that won’t be there that would have been a huge presence in the team room,” Tommy Fleetwood said before arriving at Marco Simone. “Being in the team room with Poulter, Sergio, Henrik, GMac … until you’ve been with them at a Ryder Cup, you don’t know what they bring.
“It doesn’t mean we’re any less confident,” he said. “We do have plenty of experience. We have natural leaders. It means people are stepping into a role a lot sooner.”
McIlroy is ready to move on, openly supportive of captain’s picks used on newcomers like 22-year-old Nicolai Hojgaard and 23-year-old Ludvig Aberg, who only finished his college career at Texas Tech four months ago.
He felt it was best for them to start a Ryder Cup before a home crowd, especially since they are projected to play in the matches for years to come.
Donald, close friends with Garcia from the daunting partnership they formed in the Ryder Cup, has made a point of keeping the focus on his 12 players, his back room, this version of Team Europe instead of who isn’t at Marco Simone.
Rahm has been outspoken about wanting Garcia to be part of the team, to make the Ryder Cup more about golf and less about politics. He keeps in touch with his fellow Spaniard, saying he spoke to him as recently as Monday, and with Poulter before that.
For now, it’s about moving forward. Europe has a template of success – the continent has captured the cup 12 of the last 18 times – that it is not short on leadership from the old guard – Thomas Bjorn, Paul McGinley, Jose Maria Olazabal, Colin Montgomerie, Sam Torrance as examples.
“People that are still connected to the European team, and I would say invested in the European team. There’s still a lot of winning culture around what we do,” Justin Rose said.
“In life and in business and everything, there’s obviously transition phases where you need to look to new leaders, and what would be great is if you can kind of slip through that period of transition unaffected,” he said.
Still, there was no denying the absence of so many who have been part of Team Europe for so long, whether that’s Westwood or Garcia, Poulter or McDowell, all of whom would have been in line to be captains. And maybe there’s still a chance.
“But the more we can blood the younger generation coming through, the quicker you’re going to kind of skip through that transition phase,” Rose said.
SCHEFFLER BELIEVES PUTTING IS BACK ON TRACK
Scottie Scheffler is the No. 1 player in the world and played the best golf of anyone this year, at least until he got onto the green. His putting was becoming a liability, and Scheffler wasted no time after the PGA Tour postseason getting it fixed.
He sent a text the Sunday night after the Tour Championship to Phil Kenyon in England, regarded as among the best teachers when it comes to putting.
Kenyon agreed to come to Dallas a few days later, and they went to work.
“It was something I was thinking about towards the end of the year, and Phil was a guy that I had watched. He teaches a lot of really good putters, and he didn’t seem like a method guy. So he was the first phone call that I wanted to make,” Scheffler said.
Scheffler has had only Randy Smith as an instructor, and Smith thought it was a good idea to bring in someone like Kenyon who specializes in putting. Scheffler said Smith attended their sessions so he could be a set of eyes when Kenyon is not there.
“I had a feeling what I was doing wrong,” Scheffler said. “It was just I was trying to fix it in the completely wrong way.”
The short version of the problem is that the toe of the putter kept rising as he stroked the golf ball, causing him to hit a little on the heel. To keep the putter low, he would lower his hands. But that actually caused the toe to rise even higher.
“So as the year went on, my hands are getting lower and lower, and the problem is getting worse and worse,” Scheffler said. “It was something I couldn’t figure out, and it was preventing me from hitting as many putts on line as I should have.”
Scheffler’s consistency was astonishing this year. He won twice, including The Players Championship, and had a stretch of 16 consecutive tournaments against strong fields when he didn’t finish outside the top 12. He had chances in the PGA Championship and U.S. Open, all without making many putts.
After his work with Kenyon, Scheffler said he is more consistent hitting the starting line on his putts. He’s seeing the golf ball roll properly, more than it did a month ago.
“And it’s exciting. It’s good for me to have a little direction,” he said.
Exciting for Europe? Maybe not. Among the players Kenyon works with is Tommy Fleetwood of England. So the English coach is splitting time between Team Europe and Team USA.
Kenyon also was working with Gary Woodland when he nearly won the 2018 PGA Championship and went on to capture the U.S. Open a year later. He has many clients from all over the world.
“I would never wish poorly on anybody, and I’m glad that Phil has the opportunity to work with someone like Scottie and help him along in his career,” Fleetwood said, before smiling to add, “Hopefully, his putting takes another week to really get hot.”
And if Scheffler gets back to putting the way he did when he won the Masters a year ago during his steady rise to No. 1 in the world?
“When he came to Dallas, I was joking with him,” Scheffler said. “I told him his stuff is going to work so well he’s not going to be welcome back at his home club when he gets home after the Ryder Cup.”
HARMAN AND NATURE
The European media is still fascinated with the lifestyle of British Open champion Brian Harman, who regaled them with tales at Royal Liverpool about his love of hunting, his new tractor for his 1,000-acre property in Georgia and living off the land.
He was asked Wednesday about his impressions of Rome.
“I’m a big flora fauna guy, so I think they call them the Scot pine, the pines that have the canopy, they’re beautiful,” Harman said. “I think there’s a few Linden trees hanging around downtown.”
Not to let a few trees get in the way, he also has been overwhelmed by the history of Rome. The team hotel looks out over the eternal city.
Back to the trees. One writer showed him a phone of an app and Harman knew where he was going. The app is “PictureThis,” which allows users to take a photo of a plant or tree and then identifies what it is.
“I use it at the farm because I’m like, ‘Well, damn, I saw the deer eating that weed or whatever,’ and I take a picture of it. All the herbs, they have the most incredible names. It’s great.”
His favorite tree. Again, no hesitation.
“The swamp chestnut tree,” he said. “You guys aren’t familiar with swamp chestnuts? They call them cow oaks, too, because when we used to graze cattle, they would graze them through the swamps and they’d eat these giant acorns, so they call them cow oaks or swamp chestnuts.”
He also has been pretty good at golf this year.
CLARK AND RORY
U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark served up what could be interpreted as bulletin board material for Team Europe when he said recently he wouldn’t mind playing against McIlroy because he’d like to think he’s better than him.
Clark did finish one shot ahead of McIlroy at Los Angeles Country Club to win the U.S. Open. His point was that players want to prove themselves against the best – McIlroy, Rahm, FedEx Cup champion Viktor Hovland – and any player should feel they are capable.
So he didn’t back away from his comment Wednesday. He just tried to explain it.
“If I don’t think I’m better than every player out here, then what am I doing?” Clark said. “If I’m trying to be the best player in the world, which is what I’m trying to be, I’ve got to believe that. Right now, maybe I’m not. He’s had a way better career than me, that’s obvious. But I also have to have that self-belief that I can beat anyone out here.
“It is kind of funny to me that people took it that way because they kind of saw that I’m better than him and I want to beat him. Well, of course I want to beat him and of course I believe that I can beat him,” he said. “It’s interesting how things get taken out of context.”
Then again, it’s the Ryder Cup.
THE TEAM ROOM
The favorite spot among players at the Ryder Cup is their team room, with its food and drinks, plenty of laughter, motivational moments and for the Americans, epic tales of Ping-Pong.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Lanny Wadkins recalls his first Ryder Cup in 1977 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, with the late Dow Finsterwald as the captain.
“Finsterwald had a bar that would have made any Ritz-Carlton envious,” Wadkins said. “Finsty did good. The next team room, I was really looking forward to it.”
That was 1979 at The Greenbrier. The U.S. team was led that year by Billy Casper, a Mormon.
“We had milk and cookies in the team room,” Wadkins said. “We didn’t even have Coca-Cola. Went from one extreme to the other.”
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