McIlroy has no fears of 'marked man' role


GOLF:NO CROSSHAIRS. No bulls-eye target. Rory McIlroy, who once upon a time described the Ryder Cup as an “exhibition”, has grown into a believer. Team USA may have the 23-year-old Northern Irishman down as a marked man but there is no semblance of fear. No trepidation. And, at Medinah Country Club yesterday, the world’s number one ranked player effectively took a swipe at anyone intent on making a direct hit.

“I don’t think I have a bulls-eye on my back. I think it’s a huge compliment that people are saying they want to beat me and whatever. Whoever wants to take me on, they can take me on,” said McIlroy, confirming a shift – in both mindset and status – since he walked onto the tee with a degree of disquiet for a debut appearance at Celtic Manor two years ago.

Much has changed since then. He really gets the Ryder Cup. “It opened my eyes,” he admitted.

In recalling his trepidation in Wales, McIlroy admitted: “I was nervous. I was a rookie . . . I was very anxious, very tentative. I was trying not to make a mistake instead of going out and free-wheeling 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 more certain of myself, (more) sure of my ability.”

Now, McIlroy – a four-time winner on the US Tour this season, including a second career Major when claiming the US PGA championship – is comfortable enough to talk of himself as an on-course leader, if still preferring to take his place on the quiet chair in the team-room and let other, older, players assume that part of the leadership duties.

The question of leadership, though, is – almost – embraced. “I think there’s leaders on our team that will lead with experience. 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 the way, (to) try to put points on the board.”

He knows his place, as part of a team. Not as an individual. “This week I’m not the number one player in the world. I’m one person in a 12-man team, and that’s it. It’s a team effort. There’s 12 guys all striving towards the same goal. I’m just part of that,” he acknowledged.

For a player who has moved with swift and sure steps in an already dazzling professional career, this is new terrain for McIlroy: playing in the Ryder Cup for the first time in the US. Although hugely popular stateside, he is fully aware of where he stands on this occasion. “I understand people want the US to win and I’m not playing for that team, so it’s going to be different . . . we want to try and quiet that crowd as much as we can, to go out there, hole putts, try and subdue them.”

He is a team man. If José Maria Olazabal wants him to playing five matches, he will. If Ollie wants to sit him down for a match, no problem. A team player. “We’re a unit. You’re not just playing for yourself, you’re playing for a lot of other people . . . I’m just going to go out and try and win my point, whether that’s against Tiger (Woods) or against someone else, it really doesn’t matter.”

McIlroy’s conversion to a Ryder Cup disciple, where he will give his all for the cause and do whatever team captain Olazabal asks of him for the team, hasn’t, however, deflected him from his overall focus. As he put it yesterday: “To me, the Majors are still the biggest tournaments and the tournaments I want to win . . . . but I got (to Celtic Manor) and my perception (of the Ryder Cup) did change. I’d been to Ryder Cups before to watch, and I know how exciting they are and how special they are.

“But until you actually are involved and you play and stand on that first tee on Friday morning, everyone screaming your name, and you see how important it is to everyone else, that’s what makes it so special, so important.”

This time, the trepidation has been replaced by a strut that befits Major champions and a world number one. The course is tailor-made for him. He knows it. Why be nervous? He’s even ready should anyone heckle. “There’s not much you can do, just get on with it. Hopefully I won’t get heckled but, if I do, you’ve just got to stay calm and be focused and get on with it.”

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