Rory draws on his iron will: Steely McIlroy won't fear being US target
22:49 GMT, 26 September 2012
Every now and then, the mask slips and we get a glimpse of what it is that makes Rory McIlroy the No 1 golfer in the world.
Such a moment occurred when he was questioned, not for the first time one imagines, on American plans to target him as the prize scalp of European golf.
Beat their best guy, runs the logic, and the rest will scatter in fear. At the very suggestion, McIlroy’s amenability vanished, his voice dropped to barely a murmur.
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‘Whoever wants to take me on, they can take me on,’ he said. There was no smile to soften the sentiment. No trace of warmth in his words. It was only a moment, but it revealed much about what makes a champion.
This was the McIlroy the world rarely sees, bold, brave, confident in his talent and its place in the world. Those qualities are there in his golf, of course, because nobody gets to the pinnacle of his sport without savage determination and self-belief, but McIlroy’s steely side is often hidden beneath a cheery, broth-of-a-boy demeanour.
We want to believe McIlroy really is the young man we see eagerly bouncing down the fairway, playing championship golf as if it is a Sunday morning fourball, joking with Tiger Woods. And, sometimes, he is.
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On other occasions, however, he is all business. The 39th Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club would appear to be such an event.
McIlroy versus Woods is the heavyweight contest everyone is hoping for this week. If Ryder Cup captains Jose Maria Olazabal and Davis Love reached a private agreement to make both men their No 1 singles pick on Sunday, it would be one of the greatest spectacles in the history of the competition.
The Ryder Cup is golf at its most gladiatorial, the challenge of match play, coupled with a raucous gallery, extracting degrees of emotion not typically associated with the sport. Some major tournaments end as processions; others are won standing at the back of the green watching a rival’s nerve fail. At the Ryder Cup, competitors are always head-to-head, whether as pairs or alone.
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Plan B, certainly from an American point of view, is that McIlroy is taken down by one of their lesser names, shattering Europe’s aura of invincibility. Inescapably, the feeling is that he walks Medinah’s course No 3 a marked man.
‘I think it’s a huge compliment that people are saying they want to beat me,’ said McIlroy. ‘I don’t think of it as a bull’s-eye on my back. I just want to go out, that first day, and get a point for my team.
‘It doesn’t make a difference where I play or who I play, whether it’s against Tiger Woods or someone else. I don’t feel under any added pressure. This week I’m not the No 1 player in the world, I’m just one person in a 12-man team, and that’s it. It’s a team effort, 12 men striving towards the same goal, and I’m one part of that.’
This sounds fine in theory, but experience suggests a different reality. For many years Woods was the No 1 in the world, and without doubt it was a huge psychological boost for the European team that he had such an ordinary Ryder Cup record.
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Beating Woods — admittedly in pairs matches; his singles record is very strong — was key to European unity, just as Phillip Price’s 3&2 win over Phil Mickelson at The Belfry in 2002 came to symbolise how the mightiest could be taken down by strength of European will.
Whether McIlroy senses a bull’s-eye or not, to lose to Webb Simpson or Jason Dufner would have a similar effect.
According to Paul Azinger, one of America’s few victorious Ryder Cup captains of recent times, this is the first time since Seve Ballesteros was at his peak that the United States can try to separate one European player from the herd.
‘McIlroy has that youthful enthusiasm,’ Azinger said. ‘He’s going to be the most fun guy in the locker room, but he can slump his shoulders if he is losing. I think if you can get him to slump his shoulders, if he loses the first two matches on the first day, that whole dynamic in the European team room changes.
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‘Davis should look for McIlroy. Not with Woods or Mickelson but somebody like, say Dufner or Keegan Bradley together. I’d try to find him with somebody like that and, if they beat Rory, you’ve got everyone on Europe’s team demoralised.’
McIlroy seemed to concede as much when he admitted he saw his role as a leader on the course. Whatever his status, this is only his second Ryder Cup, and his record from Celtic Manor places him all square: a match won, a match lost and two halved.
‘There are players on our team who will lead with experience,’ McIlroy said.
‘I don’t think my role is to lead in the team room. There are lots of guys who have played more Ryder Cups and know when to speak up. I’m still getting to know the tournament, I’m still learning. With the way I’ve played over the last couple of years, my role is to try to be a leader on the course.
'Put points on the board. Beat them. If I was needed in all five games, I’d be very comfortable, more than happy to play five.’
And there it was again; the flicker of the man that drives the player. In his nice, affable, unassuming way, McIlroy’s message was that of the rawest street fighter.
To borrow a phrase from George W Bush, one of three ex-presidents expected at Medinah this week: bring it on. Or to use one more familiar to those from McIlroy’s neck of the woods: come and have a go, if you think you’re hard enough.