McIlroy steps into leadership role as talisman for Europeans
Rory relishes opportunity to be a rallying force for Clarke at Hazeltine
Published 28/09/2016 | 02:30
Rory McIlroy has come of age as a Ryder Cup player.
The brash young tyro from Holywood, who famously described the biennial Europe v USA contest as "an exhibition" seven years ago, has stepped up to the plate.
Aged 27, a golfing hero to millions, and a member of three winning Ryder Cup teams, McIlroy relishes the responsibility thrust on him by his world renown.
Gleneagles 2014 under the captaincy of Paul McGinley proved a turning point in his development as a team player for Europe.
McIlroy admitted that, for all his individual success since he turned pro after the Walker Cup in 2007, he felt somewhat reticent about making his voice heard.
"In 2010, I was a rookie. But 2012, I came into the Ryder Cup as the number one ranked player in the world.
"I had just won my second Major championship, I won two of the four FedEx Cup events. I was playing really well, but I still didn't feel like it was my place to be a leader on the team.
"We had so many other players that had more experience in the Ryder Cup and were older than me, so I still didn't feel like I deserved that role in a way.
"But definitely at Gleneagles last time, I embraced that more and I took more responsibility on, and that was really to do with Paul McGinley. I was in constant contact with him and that's what he said he needed from me.
"I relished the opportunity to sort of rally our guys and be one of the leaders and speak up in the team room when I needed to; but definitely to lead by my example on the course.
"I felt like for the first time in a Ryder Cup I did that last time, and hopefully I can do that again," he said.
The Northern Irishman has already struck an early blow on behalf of the defending Ryder Cup champions.
Team captain Darren Clarke and his players were elated on Sunday night at the double success of their talisman in winning the Tour Championship and the prestigious FedEx Cup title.
Clarke pointedly remarked: "He was the only European in there that's playing this week. To see Rory showing that fighting spirit and battling the way in which he did was wonderful."
McIlroy is primed to bring that fighting spirit to the team effort this week, but first came his perspective on the Ryder Cup.
"I underestimated what it was going to be like. I made a couple of comments before the 2010 Ryder Cup that seem very stupid now.
"But yeah, I had no idea. You know, I had been to Ryder Cups before. I had played in the Junior Ryder Cup. I was at the Ryder Cup in Oakland Hills in 2004. I was at the Ryder Cup in 2006 at The K Club.
"I was there and thought I knew what it was like, but there's nothing like walking onto that first tee for the first time and feeling that rush and just soaking in the atmosphere.
"That's what I've tried to sort of reiterate to the rookies that are on our team.
"You think you know what it's like, and you think you've played under pressure, but you haven't. You haven't played under what this is going to be like," he said.
Motivation is not a problem for McIlroy, but if he needed any extra impetus, it comes from his friendship with fellow Irishman and captain Darren Clarke.
Read more: Why I'm struggling to root for 'Big Darren'
"My relationship goes back a long way with Darren and it's very special for me this week. I think it's special for both of us, that he is now a Ryder Cup captain and I'm a player under him.
"I've always wanted the win for the captain, but probably even more so this year just because of Darren and the relationship that we have," said McIlroy.
They first met on May 4, 1999, McIlroy's 10th birthday, at Royal Portrush.
His birthday presents were a game of golf at The Valley course in Portrush, and a brand new Cleveland wedge.
Dad Gerry brought the youngster to Portrush, and just when it seemed the day could not get any better, a chance meeting with Clarke brought the youngster's excitement levels to a new high.
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"I was chipping around the chipping green, and that's where Darren was, and he was with a good amateur player from back then, Paddy Gribben.
"I mean, I was just in awe of him. My 10th birthday wasn't getting any better anyway, and all of a sudden I meet Darren Clarke.
"He had been on a great run, was a top-10 player in the world, and first time to meet him. It was a great birthday for me. That day has always stuck with me, and even this week, all those memories come sort of rushing back of the times that we've spent together from Portrush down to Portmarnock where he held his Foundation weekend every year.
"Here we are, in the biggest stage of the game, and I'm able to play under him as a Ryder Cup captain and I'm very much looking forward to that," said McIlroy.
Chilly temperatures and strong winds made conditions very similar to autumn in Ireland as McIlroy joined rookies Chris Wood and Andy Sullivan with Ryder Cup veteran Sergio Garcia for a practice outing.
The mix of veterans with rookies was evident in the other groups - Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose with Matthew Fitzpatrick and Thomas Pieters; and Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood, alongside Danny Willett and Rafa Cabrera-Bello.
Huge crowds poured in the gates eager for any glimpse of the players in action as Ryder Cup fever began to build up. American fans are revved up and ready to rock and roll.