Rory McIlroy eager to 'embrace' American target on his back
Considering Rory McIlroy’s record this year in head-to-head battles, he could be forgiven for being coy when it comes to questions concerning his desire for high-profile showdowns. But the Irishman welcomes the notion that he remains the European the Americans would most like to take down here this week.
McIlroy has appeared in the final group on six occasions in 2018 and has gone backwards each time. On Sunday, he went out in the last two-ball with Tiger Woods at the Tour Championship and fell back to a tie for seventh with a four-over 74. That was all too familiar for the 29-year-old. At the Masters in April, McIlroy partnered Patrick Reed and struggled to a another 74 as the American made his major breakthrough.
But McIlroy is insistent those shortfalls will have no bearing on this week and that despite only having won once in the last two years, he thinks he remains a marked man.
“I like having a target on my back. I embrace that - bring it on,” he said. “I’ll have that again here, but in Europe I’ll also have the support of the crowd. Definitely in the last one, at Hazeltine, I felt like I didn’t have a target on my back just from the US team, but from the fans as well. But I like it. Your back is up against the wall and you have to produce.”
The Ryder Cup could be exactly what McIlroy requires. From Thursday to Saturday of late, he has looked his old self with his ball-striking pristine and his wedge play much improved. His putting continues to be a concern, although he has always been streaky in this regard and it does appear connected with his general levels of self-belief. The team-room could be the answer.
“My problem’s been playing in the last group. I’ve just not played well in those situations. If I ever get that figured out, I could be dangerous,” he said.
“I’m much more comfortable in the team environment and in not thinking that if I mess up here it’s going to have an effect on the rest of the team. I’ve come to realise I can only do my job. I can’t worry about what other people are doing. I’ll be there for my teammates for anything they need but when I’m playing I have to concentrate on my game, getting that point, and not worrying if I lose that the team will suffer.
Certainly Thomas Bjorn is thinking of McIlroy as one of his strike weapons. "Maybe Rory’s not won the last few weeks or months, but he's still there or thereabouts every time he plays, and that shows what quality he has and what he brings on the golf course," Bjorn said. I always say he's the one guy I'll pay money to watch play because he's always quality.
"The steps he's taken off the golf course are brilliant. He brings so much in that team room. He's great to have conversations with. He's got great ideas. He understands everybody in the team room very well. He really gets under the skin on a lot of those youngsters and they take to him.
"You've got people that are great players and then you have people that have everything, and he's one of those. If you're a young player you look at him where this is the guy I want to learn from and this is the guy I want to be, the way he plays golf.“