Rory McIlroy: We’re looking to beat the US team not Tiger
‘He’s one of 12. We’re not looking at any individuals, just trying to beat the US team’
Team Europe’s Rory McIlroy walks through a corridor of fans at Le Golf National. Photograph: PA
If we imagined that Rory McIlroy would be in the mood for pouring his heart out about what happened last Sunday, he wasn’t long disabusing us.
Wednesday morning in Paris was his first engagement with the media since wading through the sea of humanity that followed Tiger Woods down the 18th in Atlanta but it was clear from early on that he was in no humour for delving too deeply into it.
A gentle-lob question about whether or not he felt any degree of intimidation playing alongside Woods on Sunday got nothing more than a wry response. “That East Lake rough was really tough, yeah,” he said, drily. “That was the most intimidating part about it. I started hitting a few drives left and right early, and I didn’t actually have quite a good view from the trees on Sunday. I couldn’t really see what was happening too much.”
Throughout his career, McIlroy has kept amateur psychologists just about as busy as whoever Woods employs to curate his trophy room. The flipside of Rory’s usual ready openness is that anything less from him feels telling. Here, the visible bristling when mention of his latest Sunday non-showing could only be interpreted as a warning. Ground under repair. Go play somewhere else, fellas.
All the same, we gave it another shot a few minutes later. Did European players fancy playing Tiger now? Would we see a different player to the early-era Woods, whose Ryder Cup record was never quite as bad as everyone made out yet still not as good as everyone expected? Again, McIlroy, after a small sigh, demurred.
“This week, he’s one of 12,” he party-lined. “We’re not looking at any individuals. We’re just trying to beat the US team. It’s great what he did on Sunday. It was great for golf. It brings a lot of excitement to the game. I think to focus on one player is silly, especially when I might not even see him this week at any point this week because I mightn’t be on the course with him or play against him.
“I don’t really want to speculate how he’s going to play or what he’s going to do. I think it’s great for the US team that he’s in the mix, and it’s great that it’s given their team a little bit of momentum coming over here. You know, we’re looking to beat the US team. We’re not looking to just beat Tiger Woods.”
Wouldn’t hurt, all the same. Incidentally, he and Woods have never faced each other in a Ryder Cup match. As the practice rounds chugged away in the perfectly pleasant morning sun here, McIlroy played alongside Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose and Jon Rahm. Rumour has it that he and Rahm will team up at some stage during the week and he has no fear for the Spanish rookie.
“We’ve had this WhatsApp group going, all the Ryder Cup players and vice captains and captains for the last few weeks, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at Jon’s input into it. I only met Jon a couple years ago, but the first time I heard of him was through the college system in the US.
“He lives in Arizona now, and he’s obviously very friendly with a lot of the guys on the US team, especially the ones that live over on the West Coast. Tim Mickelson was his college coach, so he’s very close to Phil.
“To see how much he wants this and how he cares about the Ryder Cup and how proud he is to be European and to be Spanish and to really be a part of this, it’s been really cool to see. I wasn’t quite as vocal in my first Ryder Cup as he’s been, but I wasn’t as good a player my first Ryder Cup as he is.
“So I’m expecting some great things from Jon this week. I played 18 holes with him yesterday. He seems to be playing really well. And if we do play together at some point, that would be something I’d really look forward to.”
McIlroy will presumably feature in all sessions, as he has in each of his four Ryder Cups up to now. Each one them has been different, each one has broadened his perspective on the competition. From famously coming ever-so slightly blasé into his first one at Celtic Manor in 2010 to going full-bore over the top in his singles match against Patrick Reed two years ago at Hazeltine, McIlroy has packed every part of the spectrum into his time.
On Friday morning, he will become the first player in Ryder Cup history to tee it up in five Ryder Cups before his 30th birthday. He wouldn’t be who he is without learning bits and pieces along the way. There won’t, for instance, be a repeat of the Sunday afternoon harooing this time around, regardless of who he is up against.
“I could play it for nine holes,” he reflected this morning on that 2016 match against Reed. “And then it suddenly hit me. The level sort of declined after that and sort of reached its crescendo on the eighth green, and the last ten holes wasn’t quite as good.
“I look back as those videos and I look back at the last Ryder Cup. It wasn’t just Sunday. It was Friday and Saturday. Surprised I had a voice left at the end of the week. It even looked tiring to have to play golf like that for three days.
“So I think I learnt a lot from that and learnt that, you know? It’s good to get excited and it’s good to have that. But at the same time, if I need and have to be called upon to play a late match on Sunday or whatever it is, I want to have all my energy in reserve so that I can give everything for 18 holes. Because I did hit a wall that back nine on Sunday and it cost me.”
Europe can’t afford an empty-tank Rory McIlroy on Sunday. Not this Ryder Cup, not any.