World number one Rory McIlroy happy to be a team player on Europe Ryder Cup side
Ulsterman relishes being world number one, but this time it's a collective effort
Much has been made this week of Rory McIlroy being a target for the opposition in the Ryder Cup, one of Europe's "big dogs" that US captain Tom Watson wants to bring down.
But anyone fortunate enough to be at Medinah in 2012 and Gleneagles this week might be hard-pressed to spot the difference between the situation then and now.
"This week I'm not the number one player in the world," McIlroy said in Chicago.
"I'm one person in a 12-man team and that's it. It's a team effort. There's 12 guys striving towards the same goal. I'm just part of that."
Fast forward two years and the answer is eerily familiar.
"I've got a responsibility just to put points on the board and I'm one-twelfth of a team unit here," the 25-year-old said yesterday.
"I'm going to play the same role as everyone else just to try and get points on the board."
And the similarities do not end there. In 2012, McIlroy went into the Ryder Cup as the hottest player on the planet, the reigning US PGA champion and winner of two of his previous three tournaments in the FedEx Cup play-offs.
Arriving at Gleneagles, McIlroy is again top of the world rankings with four wins under his belt this season, having won the flagship BMW PGA Championship on the European Tour in May and following it with the Open Championship, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and US PGA titles in consecutive appearances.
It is therefore understandable that Watson would single out McIlroy and 'Mr Ryder Cup' Ian Poulter for special attention, but McIlroy was content to play the perfect team member ahead of the opening day tomorrow.
"I have a job to do which is to go out and win points for Europe and I don't care what number I play or who I play with," McIlroy said.
"I wouldn't say it wouldn't be a thrill, of course, leading the team out would be a huge buzz and a great thrill.
"But no matter where I play, I've still got the same objective, which is just to win my match."
Asked to put himself in an American player's shoes and decide whether his scalp or Poulter's would give greater satisfaction, McIlroy added: "I think maybe in this format and in this environment and in the Ryder Cup, probably Poulter just because how good his record is (12 wins from 15 matches).
"I know Watson has been talking about targeting us two and whatever, but at the same time it's only one-sixth of the team.
"There's 10 other world-class players that he has to worry about as well and they are just as capable of putting points on the board for Europe.
"They can try and target us all they want, but there's guys alongside us that can do just as good a job. Someone beats me, they win a point. They win a match against me, they get a point, no more, no less."
The Ulsterman is confident he will be ready for the pressure tomorrow morning.
"I'm the sort of character that would enjoy that, enjoy that environment, enjoy being in the spotlight and being one of the guys that everyone is focusing on," he said.
"I like that. I'll embrace that and it comes as part of what I've done this year and who I am.
"Being number one in the world and all that comes with that, you expect that and you just try to handle it as best that you can."
Quite a difference from McIlroy's first experience of team golf as a professional, the 2009 Seve Trophy in France under the captaincy of a certain Paul McGinley.
"What's been great this week for me personally is he's quoted me back a couple of the things that I said to him that week," Ryder Cup captain McGinley said.
"I've built a little profile of things that I've said to players in the past so there's continuity in my message to them.
"Without any prompting, him being able to quote them back has been a big thrill for me that he remembered what I said to him back in 2009 when he was kind of 40th in the Order of Merit, never mind 40th in the world, and look at him now, top of the world."
Incidentally McIlroy, who witnessed at close quarters the damaging effect a change of equipment can have before a Ryder Cup, has allayed fears that he was about to do the same at Gleneagles.
Despite four wins this season McIlroy used a new driver in practice on Tuesday.
Phil Mickelson famously changed from Titleist to Callaway clubs shortly before the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills, lost twice on the opening day in partnership with Tiger Woods and won just one point from four matches as Europe stormed to a record nine-point win.
But McIlroy revealed that he had been practising with the club for months and was all too aware of Mickelson's struggles a decade ago.
"Phil Mickelson nearly hit me off the first tee in 2004," said McIlroy, who was in Detroit as a spectator after helping Europe win the junior Ryder Cup in Ohio.
"I was standing down the left-hand side, so I'm very aware of what he did that week.
"Hey look, Phil changed from one equipment manufacturer to another. This is a driver that I've actually been using and practising with since June. I wouldn't be putting it in the bag if I didn't feel it was better.
"It's looking likely that it's going to be in the bag."
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