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Ryder Cup Icons: Rory McIlroy

"The Ryder Cup is a great spectacle but an exhibition at the end of the day. In the big scheme of things it's not that important to me."

The words of a 20-year-old Rory McIlroy, who had just one major tournament as a professional under his belt, a T20 finish at the 2009 Masters

Despite his inexperience and tender age, the ceiling for McIlroy was extremely high, and even at this early stage, he knew his career would be defined by majors, not Ryder Cups.

As we know, over the next decade, he’d develop a love for the Ryder Cup that exceeded everything else in the sport.

"The more and more I play in this event, I realise it’s the best event in golf. Bar none. I’ve never really cried or got emotional over what I’ve done as an individual."

The teary, emotional words of an older, wiser McIlroy, after notching his first point of the week on Sunday in Europe’s 19-9 defeat to the USA at the 2020 Ryder Cup.

At this point, McIlroy had won four majors; he’d collapsed in the 2011 Masters that he should’ve won and had plenty more near misses, but it was the Ryder Cup that had reduced him to tears. 

Across the Ryder Cup’s history, the United States have had the best players. Between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, they have 21 majors and have played 84 Ryder Cup matches, yet only amassed 36 points. 

The overriding feeling is that in having the better golfers, the United States had teams of individuals, more focussed on majors, while their European counterparts didn’t have that same talent, and the Ryder Cup would be the pinnacle of their career.

McIlroy was perhaps one of the European exceptions, more closely aligned with the American mentality.

But the tears on that Sunday at Whistling Straits in 2021 suggested it had been quite the journey from the man who 12 years previous wrote the Ryder Cup off as no more than an exhibition.

McIlroy retracted his words a year later, prior to the 2010 edition where he picked up two points from four matches as Europe narrowly regained the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor. 

In 2012, more was expected of McIlroy, now the best player in the world at just 23 years of age. His partnership with Graeme McDowell produced mixed results, while he was little more than a bystander as Ian Poulter reeled off five straight birdies to win the final four-ball match of Saturday.

‘Drama’ is perhaps the word that best sums up the Ryder Cup, and for McIlroy, on the Sunday of the 2012 Ryder Cup, the drama at Medinah before he did.

Not accounting for the time difference in Chicago, McIlroy left his hotel 25 minutes before his tee time. There’d be no warm up, no planning, no real preparation. He arrived in the back of a police car having been escorted to the course.

Arriving at the tee with arms outstretched, as if he had all the time in the world, McIlroy was greeted with chants of ‘Central Time Zone’. 

McIlroy’s plan was to ‘keep things tight’ for the first six holes; that would be his warm-up, in the third match – a vital match – of Sunday’s singles.

He was up against Keegan Bradley no less, who’d won all three matches playing with Phil Mickelson – including a 2&1 victory over McIlroy in Friday’s four-ball – to become an unlikely talisman for the Americans.

McIlroy would chip in on the sixth prompting a fist pump and a roar as he would go 2 up thru 6. Without doing anything too spectacular, McIlroy found himself dormie 2, going on to win 2&1, securing a crucial point as Europe staged the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history.

Two years later at Gleneagles, on the back of consecutive major wins, McIlroy took two more points from the first four matches, being sent out third again to take on Rickie Fowler. 

It was immediately apparent that McIlroy and Fowler were playing two different games. In the blink of an eye, McIlroy was 5 up thru 7, giving a big psychological boost to his team-mates going out after him that his point was already in the bag, and only three more were needed.

Europe were big underdogs in 2016 fielding their weakest side in a number of years, and while McIlroy – paired with big-hitting rookie Thomas Pieters – took three points from four, capping his first of the week with a bow to the home fans, it was his singles match with the USA’s newly crowned Captain America Patrick Reed that would go down in history.

Reed had taken 5.5 points from a possible eight in his nascent Ryder Cup career, to the envy of many a modern American, setting up a mouth-watering clash with McIlroy.

"Let’s have a good game, Patrick," said McIlroy prior to the off. It would transpire to be one of the greatest singles matches ever played at the Ryder Cup.

A nervy start saw neither man find the green, but a terrific bunker shot from McIlroy assured him of a par meaning Reed would have around 20 feet for a half. The putt was holed and the touch paper was lit. 

McIlroy was first to take the lead with a seven-foot birdie putt on 3, but in driving the fifth green, Reed hit back with eagle.

With Reed in close for birdie on 8, McIlroy got in first with a terrific putt before Reed followed in, greeting the crowd with a bow, and waving his finger and McIlroy.

The seventh would see Reed pour in another birdie from 15 feet with McIlroy following up with a birdie of his own, shushing Reed, as Reed did to the European crowd in 2014.

And so to the eighth. The greatest hole in the greatest match. Both found the par-3 green; Reed left with 25 feet, McIlroy left with a distance best measured in miles. A bogey more likely than birdie at this point.

Somehow, McIlroy found the bottom of the cup, prompting a wild, untethered celebration. Taunts to the fans, deafening roars of “I can’t hear you!”, even another bow; it had the lot.

With a response that would’ve been deemed too unrealistic for fiction, Reed made a birdie of his own. In almost disbelief, Reed wagged his finger once again, as the pair, after exchanging haymaker blows, exchanged a fist bump and a pat on the back. 

The result at this stage was almost secondary; Reed and McIlroy were now playing a game of golf that transcended the Ryder Cup; that transcended the sport itself. 

The ninth was halved in bogeys – of course – as McIlroy missed from little more than six feet with neither man able to get their nose in front, still perhaps on a comedown from the eighth, but Reed’s par on 12 was enough to go 1 up with six to play.

The putts dried up for both men, and while McIlroy took the match down to the 18th hole, he would lose 1 up to Reed. A halved match would’ve perhaps been a fair result, but sport – and certainly golf – isn’t always fair.

McIlroy would lose his first singles match, but what we’d seen from the Northern Irishman showed just how much the Ryder Cup meant to him.

McIlroy would add two more points to his record at Le Golf National in 2018, before his lowest ebb brought about his finest hour. 

Woefully out of form, McIlroy was left out of Saturday’s foursomes match, the first match he’d missed since 2010 at Celtic Manor having played all five in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018. 

Europe were 6-2, 9-3 and 11-5 down, when McIlroy was sent out first for Sunday’s singles.

It’s commonplace to send your strongest players out early in Sunday’s singles, and from 2010 onwards, McIlroy has gone out 2nd, 3rd, 1st, 1st, 1st and 1st. Despite typically facing tough opposition, McIlroy holds a commendable singles record of 3.5 points from 6.

Europe would win just three matches as the USA romped to a record 19-9 win, but McIlroy ensured he’d deliver a point, with the emotion of it all overwhelming him in the aftermath.

It took 20 seconds for McIlroy to compose himself with tears preceding words.

"I love being a part of this team," he told Sky Sports. "I love my team-mates so much and I should’ve done more for them this week."

Arguably the golfer of his generation, the pressure on McIlroy to win majors is immense, yet it pales in comparison to playing as a member of Team Europe.

And it’s what the Ryder Cup is all about.

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