McIlroy is the first European in nearly 20 years to go into the Ryder Cup as the No. 1 player in the world, although the star power of this 23-year-old from Northern Ireland is defined by much more than a computer ranking. He already has won two majors, with a record score in the U.S. Open last year at Congressional and a record margin at the PGA Championship last month at Kiawah Island.
His four wins this year are the most of anyone in the world, all against the strongest fields.
So it was no surprise when Jim Furyk referred to McIlroy as the “present-day Tiger Woods” and a “marked man” at this Ryder Cup. That’s the role Woods played for so many years in these matches when he dominated golf. There was a feeling among Europeans that beating Woods was worth more than one point because of the emotional lift it gave the rest of the team.
McIlroy doesn’t see it that way.
“This week I’m not the No. 1 player in the world,” he said Wednesday. “I’m one person in a 12-man team, and that’s it. It’s a team effort. There’s 12 guys all striving toward the same goal. I’m just part of that.”
But even in this team competition, it’s easy to get wrapped in a single star, as it was for Woods.
There’s only one way to keep score in the Ryder Cup, though it’s tempting to make individuals accountable. Even when Woods was at his best, he still could only deliver a maximum of five points if he played every match. He never came close, and didn’t even produce a winning record until his fifth Ryder Cup.
“I don’t have a number. I don’t have a total,” McIlroy said. “I think with the U.S. playing here at home, I think they are the favorites. It’s a very strong team. So we know we have got to go out there and play very, very well to have a chance. So if I play on Friday morning, I just want to get my point and then take it from there.”
Wednesday brought the Ryder Cup one day closer to the start of matches that are growing in anticipation.
Both teams look strong on paper, with all 24 players among the top 35 in the world. The Americans are loaded with experience behind Woods, Furyk and Phil Mickelson. Europe has only one Ryder Cup rookie, Nicolas Colsaerts, and has the experience when it comes to winning. It has captured the cup six of the last eight times.
And while captains Davis Love III and Jose Maria Olazabal have preached civility and respect throughout the week, leave it to Ian Poulter to set the record straight on how the intensity can change when the first tee shot is struck Friday morning.
“It’s not that we don’t like each other,” the Englishman said. “We are all good friends, both sides of the pond. But there’s something about Ryder Cup which kind of intrigues me, how you can be great mates with somebody, but boy, do you want to kill them in Ryder Cup.”
Poulter is not alone. Among the four American rookies is Brandt Snedeker, coming off an $11.44 million payday for winning the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup.
“I’m very, very competitive,” Snedeker said. “People don’t get that, because I’m polite. But I tee it up on Friday here — tee it up against anybody — I’m going to try to beat their brains in as bad as I can.”
Love brought the first dose of tears to Medinah when talking about the time spent Tuesday night at a team dinner, when he showed a video of past captains and spoke of the camaraderie in the team room. Then, he dressed his team in bright red pants for a practice session of foursomes, keeping together the same partnerships he had the previous day.
Olazabal mixed up his team ever so slightly, with Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia together. They are 4-0 in foursomes.
Both teams played only nine holes, trying to conserve energy for the most dynamic three days in golf. Even for such a short practice sessions, fans poured into Medinah and set a tone for the noise level, chanting, “USA! USA!” just for players leaving the practice range.
McIlroy, for all his ability, is so unfailingly polite and respectful that everyone likes him. Woods calls him “such a great kid.” The gallery adores him. Perhaps for the first time in his career, he might not get a lot of love from the other side of the ropes.
“I expect it to be loud. I expect them to cheer for them,” McIlroy said. “Hopefully, I won’t get heckled, but if I do, then you’ve just got to stay calm and be focused on the golf and just get on with it.”
He could not think of a time when he has heard it from a heckler.
“But just because of my hair,” McIlroy said, touching his curly brown locks. “Nothing too insulting.”
As for the notion that he has the biggest target on the back of his European uniform? McIlroy says that’s nothing more than a compliment.
Love doesn’t buy into the idea that beating McIlroy is any better than beating a team that features Francesco Molinari or Martin Kaymer. The captain has wondered if a loss by any of his top players would be a boost for Europe, “but I hadn’t really looked at it from their side.”
“I don’t know if that’s worth scratching my head over,” Love said. “I didn’t go to bed until 2:30 already thinking about my team. If I had to think about their team, I wouldn’t get any sleep, because they’re as strong as we are.”
Steve Stricker sees it differently.
He has become Woods’ favorite partner over the last three years. They went undefeated in the Presidents Cup at Harding Park in 2009, and were 2-1 as a partnership at Wales in the last Ryder Cup. Stricker has noticed an increase in emotion when playing against Woods, and he believes it will be the same way for McIlroy.
“When Tiger was at the top of his game and No. 1 in the world for all those weeks, he was a marked man,” Stricker said. “Rory is the guy that’s playing the best golf in the world right now, and I agree that he’s a guy we all want to beat. ... Whoever it may be, the No. 1 player in the world, playing the best golf in the world, we’re going to want to beat that player no matter who it is. And it so happens to be Rory.”