Only practice. Yet, for these guys, there’s always skin in the game. From the elevated 16th tee at Marco Simone Golf Club, the green below is some 303 yards away which makes for the classic risk-reward drivable par four. Nobody, on this practice day, is tempted to play conservatively. Everyone is having a crack at the green, ignoring the water lurking to the right.
Of the first two fourballs of Europe to make the attempt, only Jon Rahm in the first group and Ludvig Åberg in the second quartet manage to find the green. And, for those gathered around the tee complex, there is then a long wait before the final group manage to arrive so that they can again get their clapping to go in unison with the player’s backswing.
Among them is Rory McIlroy. He’s already seen Matt Fitzpatrick drive the green and Justin Rose come up just short. His drive, however, stays long and left and his ball finishes in the deep greenside rough that greenkeeping staff had earlier been watering so it will remain lush come the main event.
After McIlroy, Nicolai Højgaard hits his tee shot to 12 feet and, later, would roll in his putt for an eagle two, raising his putter to the sky and absorbing the acclaim for the crowds as he dips his toes into the Ryder Cup on his debut appearance.
For McIlroy, this – believe it or not – is a seventh Ryder Cup appearance. No longer the curly-haired player who got his first taste of the match at Celtic Manor in 2010. The hair is tighter, smidgens of grey appearing here and there, and part of his remit in the past few weeks and days has been to ensure that the likes of Højgaard and Åberg view him as an equal rather than looking on him as different.
A couple of weeks ago, Luke Donald took his European team on a reconnaissance visit to Rome, to see the course and to get to know the younger players a little better.
“When we came on the practice trip, I said to every guy, ‘I don’t want everyone looking up to me’. I just want everyone looking at the side. I want them looking over to me. I want them to see me like I’m on their level. And there’s no hierarchy on our team. It’s we are all one part of a 12-man team and we all go forward together. I guess that’s one message I’ve tried to relay to some of the younger guys on the team,” explained McIlroy.
He’s the man in the room with the most Majors (four), the one with the biggest bank balance. The one many look up to. But, for this week, McIlroy wants everyone to be on the same level and having the same messaging. To be on the one page.
“I love being a part of this team. My most enjoyable moments in my career have been being a part of European Ryder Cup teams. I’m still very, very proud and probably proudest of the things I’ve done as an individual, but nothing, nothing, beats this week. It’s an amazing experience and I want to be a part of it for as long as I can,” claimed McIlroy.
And while the new kids on the block are in the room – the Åbergs, Højgaards and MacIntryes – there was also some reflection by McIlroy on those who no longer are. Sergio García. Ian Poulter. Lee Westwood. Graeme McDowell. Others who took the LIV route and in doing so ruled out playing for Europe. This time at any rate.
“They are not here, and I think they are going to miss being here more than we’re missing them ... I think this week is a realisation that the decision that they made has led to not being a part of this week, and that’s tough,” said McIlroy of the absentees.
“The landscape in golf is ever-changing and more dynamic, and we’ll see what happens and whether they will be part of it in the future. I always thought leading up to this week is when it’s going to hit home that they are not going to be here.”