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Rory McIlroy has grown from a Ryder Cup pup to an alpha dog

USA TODAY Sports Media Group
USA TODAY Sports Media Group
 30 days ago
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Photo by Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

As a blistering sun pummeled athletes during the pressure cooker of competition in the recent Tokyo Summer Games, Rory McIlroy’s noggin seized attention.

Specifically, the matter dealt with what wasn’t atop his dome. Mind you, there was no need for a Breaking News banner on telecasts, and the curiosity wasn’t sweeping through the Olympic Village. But this is McIlroy we’re talking about, and fans thirst for all nuggets on the biggest and most popular stars in the game.

So, Rory, why aren’t you wearing a golf hat?

“My head is so small that I have to get Nike to make me custom hats,” he told reporters in Japan. “So whenever I’m in a team event and the hats aren’t custom, they’re all too big.”

From his days as a Boy Wonder with one of the game’s most exquisite swings and a personality to match, the contents of McIlroy’s head have always been a fascinating subject for examination, not only for what covers it and what was growing from it, but for what’s inside of it.

Without reservation, he speaks his mind, though often to his detriment; doesn’t hide behind a PR-rinsed explanation; gives considerable thought to most every query; is a student of the game and its history; and quenches his large appetite to expand his IQ by devouring books.

Through the years, his voice has come to carry significant weight, not only for Team Europe but for the game in general.

But let’s return to his hair, which, like himself, has changed over the years. For a few years now, he’s had his hair cut high and tight. But rewind to the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in Wales, where he was sporting a disorderly mop on top as he made his first appearance in the biennial tussle pitting Europe against the U.S.

Ahead of his Ryder Cup debut, however, fans wanted to know what was going on between his ears, for he had ignited two large storms of controversy by putting his foot in his mouth with comments on the Ryder Cup and Tiger Woods.

Sensing McIlroy was feeling blue and feeling the need to welcome him into the fold of Team Europe, a few of his European mates lightened the mood on Tuesday when both teams first took to the course for practice rounds.

McIlroy arrived on the first tee and saw three of his teammates and their caddies, as well as his own caddie, sporting unruly jet-black wigs. It was a simple comedic moment involving the perfect props that eased McIlroy’s mind and meant a lot to his Ryder Cup soul.

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Caddie John-Paul Fitzgerald, Martin Kaymer, Rory McIlroy, caddie John McLaren, Graeme McDowell and Luke Donald pose with wigs during a practice round prior to the 2010 Ryder Cup. Photo by Getty Images

“Those guys with the wigs made me feel a real part of the team,” he said. “They put their arms around me, welcomed me to that sort of a fraternity and I think everyone knew I was going to be there for a while, so it was a great gesture.”

More of a leader

From wigs to Whistling Straits for this year’s Ryder Cup in Wisconsin, McIlroy’s maturation and voice, and yes, if you will, his hair, has been fascinating to watch unfold and grow over the five times he’s donned the colors of Europe in its battles with the Stars & Stripes.

He has gone from sitting in the back of the team room and keeping his mouth closed in Wales to willingly accepting more of a leadership role in 2014 at Gleneagles in Scotland to being the face of Team Europe in 2016 in Minnesota, 2018 in Paris and certainly this year in the Badger State.

In his five editions of the Ryder Cup, McIlroy has been on four winning squads. He’s played in every session since 2010—24 in all—and chances are he’ll play in all five at Whistling Straits.

And he plays well—he’s 2-2-1 in singles, 9-7-3 in Foursomes and Four-Balls.

Ian Poulter has been a teammate of McIlroy’s on four of the teams and was a vice-captain in 2016. Along with McIlroy, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Justin Rose, Poulter has been a leader inside the gallery ropes and the team room. He’s had a ringside seat—he and McIlroy have partnered for some memorable wins, after all—to watch McIlroy grow over the years in the Ryder Cup, from a rookie pup to the Alpha Dog.

“It’s always comforting to have class on your team,” Poulter said. “When you’re talking about Rory, he’s a world-class talent who can turn it on at any given second. We all expect a lot from him. And he expects a lot from himself.

“We’ve all loaded him up with that pressure and he puts that pressure on himself. He’s been a great teammate. He’s a good person to play with because he motivates you to play well. At any given stage you can lean on him if you need to.

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Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter wait for their turn to putt during day two of the 2014 Ryder Cup. Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

“He’s great in the team room. He’s quietly confident. He’s open and honest. He comforts the rookies on the team. He’s part of the furniture. There’s not a lot he doesn’t know in the game of golf. He’s a true leader.”

Being a Ryder Cup rookie is stressful enough, but when McIlroy, 21 at the time, headed to Celtic Manor, he was carrying a lot of unwanted baggage.

Despite playing in the Junior Ryder Cup in 2004 and 2006 and seeing the theater and drama, McIlroy said a year ahead of playing in Wales that the “Ryder Cup is a great spectacle but an exhibition at the end of the day and it should be there to be enjoyed. In the big scheme of things it’s not that important to me.”

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Ouch. The comments drew icy responses from all corners of the golf world and didn’t sit well with many European Ryder Cup players past, present and future.

Then, a month prior to the matches, McIlroy unwittingly ignited a storm when he poked the bear named Tiger Woods, of all people, by saying during an interview with the BBC that “anyone on the European team would fancy his chances” against Woods at Celtic Manor “unless his form dramatically improves.”

The tabloid newspapers went bonkers, Woods tersely replied, and McIlroy felt he had stepped into it and let his team down after seeing the war of words splattered all over the back pages.

So that’s where the wigs came in.

Waiting for McIlroy on the first tee for the first practice round at soggy Celtic Manor were Graeme McDowell, Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald and the four caddies all wearing ungodly hairpieces.

“The other guys felt it was right to do something on the first tee and it was brilliant,” Europe captain Colin Montgomerie said. “There wasn’t an issue with Rory. They just wanted to build him up again.”

It was a seminal moment in his Ryder Cup career, and in less than 10 minutes that day, he became whole, his smiles on the first tee a clear indication. He would go on to partner with McDowell, went 1-1-2 and fell in love with the “exhibition.”

“Going into the Ryder Cup as a rookie you don’t know quite what to expect,” McIlroy said. “Once you’re there, it’s a completely different experience. I was a decent player at that point, but I wasn’t as established as I am now or as I was in 2012. I learned there is nothing in golf that can prepare you for it.

“While I’m most proud of my individual achievements in the game, the most fun and the most enjoyable weeks I’ve ever had as a golfer have been the Ryder Cup weeks. Being a part of the team, winning or losing, that’s an experience we don’t often get to have as a player in golf.”

Back then, McIlroy was the youngest member of the European troops. When he left Wales he knew his role would change, and when that time would come he would embrace it. He learned over seven days that he is all things Team Europe and would do whatever the team needs.

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Rory McIlroy hits out of a bunker on the 14th hole during a singles match at the Ryder Cup on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012, at the Medinah Country Club in Illinois. Photo by Associated Press

Heading to Medinah Country Club north of Chicago for the 2012 Ryder Cup, McIlroy had won his first two majors—the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship – and was the No. 1 player in the world.

And he still felt like a rookie..

“I still didn’t feel I was any sort of leader for the team,” he said. “I was 23 years old and you had people like Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose and Ian Poulter and captain José Maria Olazábal and the vice captains with more experience, so I was very reluctant to say anything in the team room.

“I was the best player in the world and it still seemed sort of new to me.”

And then he teed up a major rookie mistake.

McIlroy went 2-2 in partner play the first two days, his second victory alongside Poulter when the two delivered a resounding victory late on Saturday to cut Europe’s deficit to 10-6. The two made birdies on the final six holes to win on the 18th; Poulter made the final five but McIlroy loves to joke he triggered Poulter’s explosion with his birdie on 13.

Europe, despite the daunting deficit, had momentum heading into the final day.

And then McIlroy nearly missed his tee time against Keegan Bradley.

As the first match set sail, McIlroy still was AWOL and he was third off in 20 minutes. Turns out he had confused time zones—he thought he was on east coast time while in reality he was in the land of the central time zone—and he accidentally jeopardized Europe’s chances to win the 4-pound, 17-inch tall, gold Ryder Cup.

Fortunately, he was able to track down a state trooper who went Mach 1 and got McIlroy from the team hotel to the first tee with 10 minutes to spare.

As the esteemed Dan Jenkins tweeted for Golf Digest, the only thing that would have made the hell-bent drive any better would have been to have Jake and Elwood from the movie “The Blues Brothers” driving the car.

“If I would have let the team down, I would have never forgiven myself,” McIlroy said. “I got there with about 10 minutes to spare, put my shoes on, hit a couple of putts and went to the first tee. And I played probably the best I played all week. I delivered my point for the team, and that was the most important thing.”

Had McIlroy arrived more than five minutes late, he would have been disqualified. But McIlroy defeated Bradley, 2 and 1, and Europe, once down 10-4, stormed back to complete the Miracle at Medinah, 14½-13½.

“We all know what Rory brings to the team when it comes down to his game, and he’s shown that in every Ryder Cup, but what he did Sunday in Medinah, how many players could have done that?” Garcia said. “And obviously, he’s a great teammate and he’s come to bring a lot to the team room, too, which is great and very important. He’s the guy you always want to play with and he’s a guy you always want to listen to. It’s as simple as that.”

In his third consecutive Ryder Cup, McIlroy didn’t taste defeat as Europe trounced the Americans, 16½-11½, in 2014 at Gleneagles in Scotland. But his Ryder Cup plate gained some heavy poundage that year when European captain Paul McGinley led McIlroy to the table of leadership.

While he went 2-1-2 on the field of play, McIlroy’s emergence as a leader by example and with his words and comfort in the team room were just as important, his thoughts on partnerships, strategy, course knowledge and his experience in the intense atmosphere of the Ryder Cup making a significant difference.

“I’ve certainly evolved into the role,” McIlroy said. “I certainly wasn’t a leader in 2010; you’re a rookie and you don’t open your mouth in the team room, you do what you’re told, basically, and that was my thing.

“But in 2014, Paul really involved me in the process. Coming off the big summer in 2014 (he won the Open Championship and the PGA Championship in succession and was the No. 1 player in the world), he really wanted me to be a talisman for the team and set an example for the other guys.

“Paul gave me the belief that I could become a leader for the team, so I owe him a little bit of credit for that. He coaxed me that this was my time to be a leader.”

McIlroy had lobbied for McGinley to be the captain and then learned from him.

“From the first day we got (to Gleneagles), the speeches that he gave, the videos he showed us, the people that he got in to talk to us, the imagery in the team room, it all tied in together,” McIlroy said. “He was meticulous in his planning. He left no stone unturned. I was in constant contact with him and that’s what he said he needed from me. I relished that opportunity.

“I found my voice in 2014.”

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Rory McIlroy signs autographs for fans as he walks off the 10th hole during a practice round ahead of the 2014 Ryder Cup. Photo by USA TODAY Sports

From that year on, McIlroy has added to the volume of his voice. He loves to read and one of the books on his shelves is “Taking People with You: The Only Way to Make Big Things Happen” by David Novak, who is a member at Seminole Golf Club in Florida and often plays golf with McIlroy’s father, Gerry.

“I’ve read a bunch of books on leadership, not for the Ryder Cup but more so for me as a person,” McIlroy said. “I’d like to think I’m the leader that leads by example. I try to do the right thing all the time. I try to be the first one into the team room for meetings, try to be the first one on the practice range. I like to try to be the leader who I would want to lead me.”

Ask his teammates and they will tell you he is the leader they want.

“He has gone from being the young kid who some players took under their wing to the man this team looks up to,” Justin Rose said. “He’ll do whatever is right by the team. As he always has.

“He is one of the guys who likes to speak up in the team room, likes to give his two cents worth. He’s just not going to sit on the couch and let the meetings go by without contributing. He’s a confident character and has the experience now where when he says something, people listen.”

McIlroy flew into Minnesota for the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National Golf Club having just won the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup, The Tour Championship and $10 million in bonus money on a magical Sunday in Atlanta.

Before the plane touched down, however, his mind had shifted to the Ryder Cup. While Europe had won the past three editions of the Ryder Cup and six of the past seven, Europe would be playing on foreign soil and with six rookies in tow.

McIlroy did what he could in the team room and was stellar on the golf course, teaming with rookie Thomas Pieters for three wins. But the USA’s firepower and experience overwhelmed the Europeans en route to a 17-11 rout.

“It stung,” McIlroy said of his first and only loss in the Ryder Cup. “You can get over a loss of your own easy enough. It’s the pain of watching the other team spray the champagne and have the fun you would have loved to have had. Luckily, it’s only been once, and we’re going to try and make sure it’s only once.”

In defeat, however, there was a lasting memory from Hazeltine—McIlroy’s singles clash with Patrick Reed, aka Captain America, in the first contest out on Sunday. In a match for the ages, the two’s scintillating stretch of one-upmanship bordered on the ridiculous as they combined for eight birdies and an eagle in the first eight holes. McIlroy went birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie starting on the fifth and lost ground.

The Richter scale jumped to its highest point on the eighth green when McIlroy knocked in a 40-footer for birdie and then nearly exploded. Reed, however, knocked in his 25-footer for birdie to halve the hole and waved his finger at McIlroy to say, “Not so fast.” And then the two fist-bumped each other and patted one another on the back in a flash of sportsmanship just off the green.

Reed went on to win, 1 up, but still gets chills talking about the match.

“All the passion and fight,” he said. “At the same time, the respect we showed for each other was amazing. That match showed how much you can respect your opponent and still have all the passion to beat him.

“It’s safe to say that Rory, not only in how he plays and how he handles himself and the demeanor he shows and how he becomes all things Ryder Cup, he’s definitely the leader of that team. You know he’s going to step up in those moments in the Ryder Cup and it’s a hard thing to deal with. Europe leans on him and counts on him and he comes through.”

McIlroy certainly did in 2018. Europe was stacked with leaders including captain Thomas Bjorn, McIlroy, Garcia, Rose, Poulter and Henrik Stenson and exuded a quiet confidence that swept over Le Golf National outside of Paris. After falling behind 3-1 Friday morning, Europe won seven consecutive matches and pasted the USA, 17½-10½. While McIlroy was 2-3-0, his influence was palpable at key moments on the golf course and certainly in the team room.

More of the same

The same will likely be true at Whistling Straits for the 43rd playing of the Ryder Cup. McIlroy has been in regular contact with European captain Padraig Harrington for more than a near now.

“His job has evolved,” Harrington said. “He’s got more responsibility now and the players look up to him. It’s been great so far this year, even during COVID, how much he’s taken on board to help the team.”

Still, Harrington will be mindful of McIlroy’s load.

“You don’t want to distract a guy too much from his golf,” he said. “He wants that role as a leader. He’s always led on the golf course; he always wins points, which is very important for the team. You never want to take away from that.

“But there is that alternative job and he’ll take on that role for the team. I have all the confidence that he will do what he needs to do as a leader and player.”

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