Rory McIlroy on Ryder Cup tears and team spirit: ‘It’s the purest form of the game’

TThe tears led to fears. As Rory McIlroy broke during an interview at the end of the last Ryder Cup, speculation arose that one of the greatest golfers of all time was on a downward spiral. No one in European colors impressed in a brutal 19-9 defeat to the USA, but the extent of McIlroy’s problems until a final day win against Xander Schauffele was particularly significant.

As is often the case around McIlroy, the received wisdom turned out to be wrong. He won in his next tournament outing. In the intervening period, five more titles have been added. The inability to claim a fifth major is gnawing at the Northern Irishman, but his consistency after Wisconsin has made the tales of woe ridiculous.

Sunday in Whistling Straits was important. That’s how it was Saturday night. Pádraig Harrington, in conjunction with the rest of the European team, insisted that McIlroy play in the opening match of the final session.

“It was a huge vote of confidence because I was quite low that Saturday,” McIlroy said.

“I sat out the morning and lost the afternoon. It was the lowest I had felt during a Ryder Cup. I would have preferred to be hidden somewhere in the middle of the order, but that gave me purpose. It gave me something to really stand up for. It refocused me and put me in a different mindset.

“A lot happened. The team that stood up and wanted me to go out first and lead them, after a week I had meant a lot to me. That was part of the reason I got emotional, I felt like the whole team was behind me. I felt empowered and a responsibility to go out and win a point.

“It didn’t matter in the Ryder Cup in the end, but the whole thing meant a lot to me.

Rory McIlroy becomes emotional after Europe’s heavy defeat in Whistling Straits. Photo: Sky Sports

“That was a pretty big moment in my Ryder Cup career, but think about the problems I had before that and what I did afterwards. The entire run at the end of 2021, all of 2022, this year too… it all started from that last day in Whistling Straits.

Luke Donald could inherit McIlroy from Marco Simone in Rome in useful form; with a Ryder Cup point to prove. He has an overwhelmingly positive experience in this field to thank. “I would love that,” he admits.

For example, when Europe won in Paris in 2018, McIlroy was visibly stung after a singles defeat to Justin Thomas. “I felt like I did what I had to do for the team in France, won a few points,” said McIlroy. “Same with Hazeltine.” There is silence and a sad smile. “It was bullshit to lose to (Patrick) Reed, but that’s life.” It seems no consolation that the 2016 McIlroy-Reed clash was an all-time epic.

McIlroy is now so immersed in the Ryder Cup that it seems incredible to think he ever called the biennial event an “exhibition.” He quickly saw the folly of that feeling. But what is so appealing? Is it the connection to innocent times as a youngster on the European Tour?

Rory McIlroy (left) endured a torrid time during Europe's emphatic defeat by the US in 2021.
McIlroy had a torrid time against the USA in 2021. Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images

“It’s a world I once knew so well and it’s so simple,” McIlroy says. “You’re in your little bubble this week. No sponsorship obligations; it’s commercial in terms of the platform, but for us there’s no touring of any show. You’re on the team and that’s your little world. That’s your family for this week. This is the purest form of the game. We don’t get paid a cent.”

This touches on the spirit of a European team. Players from different backgrounds and countries somehow come together under one flag, to stunning effect. Europe can lose the Ryder Cups, but this is never the cause of the consequences.

“It’s the biggest platform we have in golf, the biggest stage,” McIlroy said. “The Ryder Cup… there’s something different about it. There is something about wanting to do justice to yourself, but also wanting to play for others. You get so close to the boys during Ryder Cup weeks.

“And there is a nice continuity, especially on the European side; I have played in three teams with Luke, I have played in teams with (the vice-captain) Nicolas Colsaerts, de Molinaris, played with and (under) Thomas Bjørn as captain, Chema (José María Olazábal) was captain in 2012.

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“We have these experiences together and no one can ever take them away from us. I’ve said this before, I will always be most proud of my achievements in the game as an individual, but my favorite moments by far have been as part of the Ryder Cup team.

The capital of Italy has a meaning for the McIlroy family that goes beyond golf. Rory’s wife, Erica, studied there for nine months. ‘So she knows the city quite well. We look forward to going back. It’s absolutely amazing.”

McIlroy and Donald are neighbors in Florida and good friends. McIlroy was not surprised when Donald kept his own council after the Ryder Cup captaincy was originally handed to LIV-bound Henrik Stenson. ‘That’s Lucas. That’s how he’s always been. I don’t think he’s a very emotional guy when it comes to golf. He is a logical, rational thinker. If I was in that position and someone else got it, it would be very difficult for me not to say anything. That’s the difference between Luke and me.”

Naturally, others in the European team room will be watching McIlroy. This will be his seventh Ryder Cup appearance, but the 34-year-old is keen to let Donald take the lead. McIlroy admires what he has seen so far.

Rory McIlroy makes a putt at the recent PGA Championship at Wentworth.
Rory McIlroy makes a putt at the recent PGA Championship at Wentworth. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

“We live on the same street, so we’ve had a few dinners and talked about things, but I’m letting Luke be the captain,” says McIlroy. “If anything is asked of me, I am certainly willing to help. I made it a point to get closer to a few guys that I don’t know very well and thought would probably make the team. Sepp Straka for example. I wanted to make those guys feel more comfortable.

“Lucas is meticulous. You can be pretty sure he won’t miss anything. He is clearly a man of few words, but the words he says are very thoughtful and impactful. There’s not a lot of fluff with Luke, it’s very direct. He’s been great through the whole process, considering what he inherited and everything that’s happened. He has picked a nice mix of vice-captains, young and old.”

It goes against McIlroy’s personality to despise opponents. He can adjust his mindset one week every two years. “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 that I don’t want them to win. The thought of losing to ‘them’ is a motivating factor. I don’t want to have to watch them spray the champagne.”

The US is considered a slight favourite, despite the fact that Europe failed to win in 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 American team is incredibly strong. It was young then and it still is, but looking at how some of our guys are playing and how their team has developed, I’m a little more confident about where we are now than maybe 12 months ago. Home field advantage is one thing. The trend is there. Anyone who violates that has achieved an enormous achievement.” This time, McIlroy is determined to smile.