Rory McIlroy is preparing for his sixth appearance in the Ryder Cup this week at Whistling Straits. While that makes the 32-year-old Irish man relatively long in the tooth when it comes to the biennial matches, he’s still younger than the average age (34.5) of this European team.
While he’s typically one of the highest-ranked Europeans and thus relied upon to lead the way on the course, he’s never had to shoulder the bulk of the leadership responsibility on a team always rich in veteran experience.
“I think I’ve already tried to evolve into that role,” McIlroy said on Tuesday. “This being my sixth Ryder Cup, 2014 I felt like was the year that I embraced the role of being a leader, and then going on from then.
“But I think that’s one of the great things about the European team. It’s not as if we’re just looking to one guy. There’s a collection of very experienced players there that some of the younger guys and the rookies can look at. And then you look at our vice captains, as well, and you look at all the pivotal roles they’ve played in Ryder Cups over the years. We have no shortage of leaders on our team.”
That experience is something captain Pádraig Harrington has leaned into in hopes of extending Europe’s dominance in the event through recent decades. While the Americans always seem to have the advantage on paper and world-ranking metrics, the Europeans thrive as underdogs year after year.
The US team includes 10 of the top 13 players in the Official World Golf Rankings compared to only one (No. 1 Jon Rahm) on the European side, the entire American roster has only 12 combined previous experiences playing in the Ryder Cup. Lee Westwood alone is making his 11th start. Sergio Garcia his 10th, Ian Poulter his seventh, and Paul Casey his fifth.
And it’s not just empty experience. Europe has won seven of the last nine and 12 of the last 17 Ryder Cups going back to 1985 even as the matches have grown bigger in scale and importance over that span.
“In terms of things that haven’t changed for us as Europe, there’s a lot of continuity in our team, and I think that’s been part of the reason for our success,” McIlroy said. “That’s something that I hope never changes because it’s worked very well for us.”
This could be the biggest challenge of all, on American turf at Whistling Straits where the balance of support outside the ropes will be more heavily weighted than usual in favour of the home team due to pandemic travel restrictions.
Of course, the higher the stakes and the steeper the odds stacked against you, the sweeter the victory should it happen. Such as 2012 at Medinah when the Europeans rallied from 10-6 down on Sunday for an historic win.
McIlroy envisions a victory this week would rank on that scale.
“It would be massive,” he said. “I think winning any Ryder Cup is huge and it’s a monumental achievement for all that are involved, but I think over the years winning a Ryder Cup on the road has just become more meaningful for some reason. We experienced it in 2012, which from a European perspective is probably one of the best days in the Ryder Cup that we’ve ever had in history. I’d certainly love to have that feeling again.
“It would be a huge achievement. … Obviously this tournament isn’t played on paper, it’s played on grass. But on paper you look at the World Rankings and everything, we’re coming in here as underdogs with a lot of things stacked against us, so I think that would make it even more of an achievement.”
A few weeks ago, McIlroy expressed concern about his energy level at the end of an extended season that included six majors, an Olympics and a full touring schedule. But with two weeks off after a solid run in the PGA Tour’s season-ending playoffs, McIlroy brings a full tank into Whistling Straits.
“I feel good. Played well the last few weeks,” he said. “Led the season in birdies made on the PGA Tour, birdie percentage, so usually that works out pretty well in match play. I’m feeling good.”
One of the keys, McIlroy noted, is harnessing that energy and emotion in a team event that is wired differently than what players are used to week in and week out. He points to 2016 at Hazeltine, when he lost a hyper-stimulated singles match against Patrick Reed, as a lesson in trying to find the right balance of passion that the Ryder Cup evokes.
“I certainly will try to not be as animated and I’ll try to conserve some energy,” he said of a lesson learned at Hazeltine. “It’s a long week. Whether I play all five (sessions) again, we’ll see, but it’s a lot of golf. It’s a lot of energy just playing, then trying to beat who you’re playing. If you try to beat the crowd, as well, it seems a bit of an impossible task.
“I will try my best for this team and I’ll try to play the best golf I possibly can, but I sort of learned quite a few things from 2016 about conserving energy. I felt like I sort of hit a wall on the back nine against Patrick that day, and I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”