THERE is so much talk of targets-on-backs and taking-out-the-big-man that this Ryder Cup might need to be monitored by the National Rifle Association.
It is hunting season in Illinois and Rory McIlroy will not be hiding in the trees: “Whoever wants to take me on, they can take me on.”
The brilliant cherub of world golf is a boy no more. His challenge clattered at the feet of America’s finest.
He lowered his voice and dipped his shoulders to the mic to say he would not be intimidated by Chicago’s boisterous sports fans or more senior opponents in the US team. He sounded like an Irish rugby man exhorting the All Blacks to try their luck.
Two years ago at Celtic Manor, where he made his Ryder Cup debut not long after describing the event as “ceremonial”, McIlroy’s pugnacious tone would have seemed preposterous.
He was too much the rookie to be firing off warnings to America. But he arrives on the first tee at Medinah with his status buttressed by his grand USPGA victory and a stomping run to No1.
Just as Tiger Woods this week picked up the tab for America’s poor recent Ryder Cup record, so McIlroy is ready to assume the role of leader out on the course. Some of this is standard hoopla. The idea of “targeting” the opposition’s best player is a touch contrived. What are you going to do?
Beat him up in the rest rooms? But there is no doubting that psychological pressure can be applied through the matchups, the crowd and by planting the fear that the fate of a continent rests on the shoulders of one man.
Woods has come up short in the leadership role because mucking in with others falls outside the range of his ambitions.
Only in singles play has he displayed his talents. McIlroy, a Ryder Cup sceptic before his elevation to the team, now sees this competition as another opportunity to assert his growing authority in the golfing heartland to which he appears to have moved full time.
“I don’t think my role is a leader in the team room; I think it’s more a leader out on the course and trying to lead in that way,” he said.
“Try to put points on the board and try to get my point.” He said it was all to do with “the way I’ve played over the last couple of years.” In other words his form entitles him to see Europe’s talisman staring back at him in the mirror.
His career has reached this point on a warm draught of admiration and goodwill but that will cease in the far suburbs of the Windy City. To many Americans he was the mop-topped antidote to the narcissism of Tiger Woods. In a country of many emerald flavours his Irishness enhanced his popularity and freshened up the picture while Woods was struggling
against injury and reputation-collapse.
“Yeah, it’s definitely going to be different,” McIlroy agreed. “I’m very well supported over here in the States. But I mean, obviously I understand people want the US to win and I’m not playing for that team.
“It’s the first Ryder Cup I’ve played over here. We had such a big support last time in Wales, and that really lifted us; lifted the team and helped us. We want to try and quiet the crowd as much as we can, go out there, hole putts, try to subdue them a little bit. That’s really our goal this week.
“I don’t think I have a bull’s-eye on my back. I think it’s a huge compliment that people are saying they want to beat me and whatever.”
Poulter had gone further with his “kill” remark. “I think kill is a little strong. I’d like to beat them,” McIlroy said. His early sense that the Ryder Cup was an end-of-term transatlantic shindig with a veneer of deadly rivalry was erased at Celtic Manor:
“You know, I was nervous. I was a rookie. We played the first four holes and got called in because of the rain; then we went back out and played another seven. I remember after those first 11 holes I was thinking to myself – I’m very anxious.
"I was very tentative. I was trying not to make a mistake instead of just going out and freewheeling it and playing the way I usually do.
“I think it’s going to be different this year. I’m going to go out and just give it a go, enjoy it, play the way I play. I definitely have more confidence in myself as a player than I did two years ago. I’m a lot more certain of myself and sure of my ability.
"So I think the feeling will be a little different going on to the first tee on Friday here.”
A US Open and PGA Championship winner at 23, he says: “To me, the majors are still the biggest tournaments in golf and the tournaments that I want to win. But yeah, I got here and my perception did change. I’d been to Ryder Cups before to watch, and I know how exciting they are and how special they are.”