McIlroy ready to step into the limelight

County Down golfer eager to put negative comments behind him and play a leading role in Europe's Ryder Cup challenge

James Corrigan

He admits he has struggled to "get" the competition -- even going so far as to call it an "exhibition" -- so will Rory McIlroy be Reluctant Ryder or Matchplay Master as he tees it up for Europe later this week?

Of all the questions swirling through Celtic Manor, this answer will be as intriguing as any.

What exactly is the Ryder Cup? As the "third biggest event in the world", it has to be the biggest event in the game, right? Bigger than any of the majors, the Masters, The Open, the US Open, the USPGA?

Erm, no. It might only be trumped in terms of global television ratings by the football World Cup and the Olympics, but in terms of global golfing ratings, there is not a professional worthy of his self-importance who would class it as bigger than the Big Four.

Do not ask what your continent can do for you, ask what you can do for yourself.

McIlroy himself has always struggled to "get" the biennial dust-up and has been brave enough to air those doubts.

Last year, while saying, "The Ryder Cup's not that important an event for me," he dared to label it an "exhibition".

It is a description which still haunts him; not only in the press but also on the range.

"A lot of the other pros have been coming up and saying, 'Well, what about this exhibition taking place in a couple of weeks?'" he said.

"It's all in good humour. It's one of those things I'm going to have to talk about for a few years. Until people forget about it."

But will they? They certainly haven't forgotten Tiger Woods's declaration at the WGC event in Ireland in 2002 which preceded the Belfry match.

"I could think of a million reasons," he said, when asked to explain why he would favour a victory that week. The next week he lost twice.

Of course, McIlroy, with his more engaging persona, is a different animal entirely. For starters, he acknowledges the error of using the "e" word.

"It wasn't the right thing to say," he said. "I've made it quite known that the Ryder Cup isn't the most important event to me. And I've always said that individual success in golf is far greater in my eyes.

"But the Ryder Cup is a huge event, you're playing for 11 other guys. I do realise this will be the most pressure-packed environment I play in all year."

Yes, McIlroy is ready for what is always called the "unique atmosphere", but he cannot be sure he will completely understand.

While his Irish teammate Graeme McDowell, a Ryder Cup fanatic, keeps telling him, "You'll see", McIlroy has already seen to some degree.

It is fair to say his boyhood images of the match are hardly from the pages of Tiger and Scorcher. Tiger and Torpor, maybe.

"The first one I went to was Oakland Hills in '04, when I played in the Junior Ryder Cup the week before," he said. "Any special images that stuck with me? Not really. Europe won by a record margin, but the one thing I do remember is (Phil) Mickelson hitting it against the fence on the 18th when he was playing with Tiger. That was my lasting memory of that week."

And there you have it. Most other bushy-haired, bristly-chinned European lads in Detroit that week would have taken away Colin Montgomerie holing the winning putt or Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia winning four-and-a-half points out of five. Not Rory.

He watched Woods' aura die a little more in that infamous moment and he wondered. Plainly, he still wonders.

"I could win one out of five matches and still win the Ryder Cup," said McIlroy.

"I might not play very well and be part of a winning team. In a major you can only be a winner if you play well for all four days."

In contrast to the Ryder Cup, McIlroy knows all about the majors. For three days at St Andrews in July he played better than anyone, including the runaway winner, Louis Oosthuizen. But on the second day he bled better than anyone.

"I didn't handle the conditions well and got a little bit down on myself," he said reflecting on that 80. "I didn't realise 75 or 76 was a decent score that day. It's all part of the learning curve."

In truth, McIlroy is close to completing the circle. He sees the 25-year-old Martin Kaymer beating him in the USPGA by a single shot and feels the fantasies of his childhood looming large in his reality.

"When I was a kid and had a putt on the practice green it was always for the Masters or for The Open, never for the Ryder Cup," he said. "I can't help it. That's just the way I've always felt."

As McDowell says, McIlroy should not have to excuse his ambitions.

"How can anyone get inside another man's brain and understand their goals and dreams?" asks the US Open champion.

He is right, how can they? Yet still they will try, and for that reason McIlroy must make this event work for him in what will surely be a garlanded career.

Fortunately the 21-year-old is not without a plan, even if it is of the suck-it-and-see variety. Not for him the scurrying around the ranges these past few months asking the fabled Ryder Cuppers what to expect and how to deal with it.

"The way I'm looking at it is that if I play the way I can I know I'll be OK. If I keep everything under control I'll be fine," he said.

But how do you do that, as the crowd beg you to deliver the winning shot there and then? When the pros who are usually your rivals are gathering around beseeching you to strike a blow for their benefit? With difficulty, suggests McIlroy.

"You're playing for more people than just yourself," he said. "If you make a mistake on your own it's fine. But when you make a mistake and it's 11 other guys you have to worry about ... it's a bit different."

For his part, the Europe captain, Colin Montgomerie, will take McIlroy's personality into consideration and also his performance in last year's Vivendi Trophy.

With McDowell, he revelled in being the Pied Piper, winning all four of the games he was put out first for. McIlroy wants to be out there doing it, proving his Ryder Cup passion the right way.

"Teeing off first gives you an extra buzz because you want to put blue on the board early," he said. "G-Mac and I relished leading the way in the Seve Trophy, and then in the singles I went out first and won against (Henrik) Stenson.

"That's the role I've always played in team golf, that's where I've felt my most comfortable."

In this regard, McDowell appears the vital cog.

"We enjoy each other's company and make each other laugh and I think that's the thing," McIlroy said.

"If you can enjoy it out there, that's when you'll play your best golf."

Well, he could lap it up, dance round the green, go against his pledge of "not running around fist-pumping" and declare it to be the finest experience of his golfing life.

Or he could gracefully accept the praise with a Guinness or four and move on to his real priorities.

Each to their own. As they don't say in the team room.