Rory McIlroy now regrets his Ryder Cup put-downs
What exactly is the Ryder Cup? As the “third biggest event in the world,” it has to be the biggest event in the game, right?
Bigger than any of the majors, the Masters, The Open, the US Open, the USPGA?
Erm, no. It might only be trumped in terms of global television ratings by the football World Cup and the Olympics, but in terms of global golfing ratings, there is not a professional worthy of his self-importance who would class it as bigger than the Big Four.
Show them a battered Claret Jug or the gleaming gold of that trophy donated by Samuel Ryder and the fingers will point in one direction. Do not ask what your continent can do for you, ask what you can do for yourself.
Along with the millions earned through endorsements, this is the great unsaid truth of the Ryder Cup, but for some it is not allowed to go unsaid. For Tiger Woods, especially, who will fly on the team airbus to Wales this evening aware that the whole “Can he be a team player?” debate is about to gain fresh impetus. The world wants this flawed individual to atone for his sins in the appropriate manner — with tears of joy into a team-mate's jersey. At least one member of the opposition may feel sorry for Woods as the latest blast of “show some emotion” goes up.
Rory McIlroy himself has always struggled to “get” the biennial dust-up and has been brave enough to air those doubts.
Only last Tuesday, the Belfast Telegraph carried quotes from him declaring he even ranks the four World Championship events higher. Yes, he would rather win for himself at the WGC-HSBC in Shanghai next month than for Europe at Celtic Manor this coming weekend.
It made for an easy headline, albeit an update of one he'd made earlier. Last year, while saying, “The Ryder Cup's not that important an event for me,” he dared to label it an “exhibition”.
It is a description which still haunts him; not only in the press but also on the range.
“A lot of the other pros have been coming up and saying, 'Well, what about this exhibition taking place in a couple of weeks?'
“It's all in good humour. It's one of those things I'm going to have to talk about for a few years. Until people forget about it.”
Of course he acknowledges the error of using the “e” word.
“It wasn't the right thing to say,” he said. “I've made it quite known that the Ryder Cup isn't the most important event to me and I've always said that individual success in golf is far greater in my eyes, but the Ryder Cup is a huge event, you're playing for 11 other guys. I do realise this will be the most pressure-packed environment I play in all year.”
Yes, McIlroy is ready for what is always called the “unique atmosphere,” but he cannot be sure he will completely understand.
While his Northern Irish hombre Graeme McDowell, a Ryder Cup fanatic, keeps telling him, “You'll see,” McIlroy has already seen to some degree. It is fair to say his boyhood images of the match are hardly from the pages of Tiger and Scorcher. Tiger and Torpor, maybe.
“The first one I went to was Oakland Hills in '04, when I played in the Junior Ryder Cup the week before,” he said.
“Any special images that stuck with me? Not really. Europe won by a record margin, but the one thing I do remember is Phil Mickelson hitting it against the fence on the 18th when he was playing with Tiger. That was my lasting memory of that week.”
And there you have it. Most other bushy-haired, bristly-chinned European lads in Detroit that week would have taken away Colin Montgomerie holing the winning putt or Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia winning four- and-a-half points out of five. Not Rory. He watched Woods's aura die a little more in that infamous moment and he wondered. Plainly, he still wonders.
“I could win one out of five matches and still win the Ryder Cup,” said McIlroy. “I might not play very well and be part of a winning team. In a major you can only be a winner if you play well for all four days.”
Fortunately the 21-year-old is not without a plan, even if it is of the suck-it-and-see variety.
Not for him the scurrying around the ranges these past few months asking the fabled Ryder Cuppers what to expect and how to deal with it.
“I'm not going round looking for advice because I don't feel that's what should be done,” he said. “I'm just going to go there and take it as it comes. The way I'm looking at it is that if I play the way I can I know I'll be OK. If I keep everything under control I'll be fine.”
How do you do that, as the crowd beg you to deliver the winning shot there and then? When the pros who are usually rivals gather round beseeching you to strike a blow for their benefit?
With difficulty, suggests McIlroy. “You're playing for more people than just yourself. If you make a mistake on your own it's fine, but when you make a mistake and it's 11 other guys you have to worry about... well, it's a bit different.”