Allegiances here vary, of course, but depending on your rooting interest he is either one of a dozen world-class European players or a “marked man,” the world’s best player or the guy whom Tiger can beat, the potential savior at Medinah or a potential antihero.
In a sport in which we’ve recently learned there is no such thing as intimidation, can a 23-year-old, floppy-haired, freckled, 5-foot-9-inch, 165-pound, affable Northern Irishman truly evoke such a nasty connotation?
Well, it seems unlikely. Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter already play those leading antagonistic roles, and do so well. (Especially Poulter, who on Wednesday said that he was intrigued by how “you can be great mates with somebody, but boy, do you want to kill them in Ryder Cup.” Fire up the hype machine.)
So McIlroy is no villain. What he remains, though, is the player the U.S. team – and its full-throated fans – most want to defeat. Jim Furyk described him as a “marked man,” a quote that was headline-worthy, sure, but not in the least bit inflammatory. Of course Rory is a marked man – this season he has won four times, including a major by eight strokes, and put the top of the world rankings in a full nelson.
“It’s part of being ranked No. 1,” Tiger Woods said. “It’s part of winning major championships. You’re always going to want to try and take out their best player, and that’s just part of the deal. That’s a fun challenge. I certainly have relished it over the years, and I’m sure he’s going to relish it this week.”
Eight of the questions in McIlroy’s Wednesday news conference dealt with either expectation or being targeted. Sorry to disappoint, but golf isn’t like other sports – Rory can’t be double-teamed in the post, he can’t be blitzed on every down, he can’t be intentionally walked.
Yet theories abound as to how to best deal with McIlroy, as if he’s the five-tool player poised for a breakout game. Casual fans, of course, prefer a spectacle: Rory-Tiger, final match, cup on the line. Colin Montgomerie, the victorious European Ryder Cup captain in 2010, wrote in a European newspaper that the Euros would be wise to keep Rory away from Tiger at all costs, lest the wunderkind loses and the team’s confidence wanes.
Because of the blind draw in the Ryder Cup, though, it’s unlikely a player can be singled out or targeted, anyway. (Davis Love: “I’m not aiming at guys.”) Save for a wink-wink deal, Rory could get Tiger in Sunday singles, or he may draw Matt Kuchar.
Predictably, the European team has downplayed any kind of target talk, trotting out the well-rehearsed line that no player is above the team, that each guy already has a tremendous responsibility in playing for himself, his 11 other teammates, his captain, vice captain, country and continent.
“I don’t think I have a bull’s-eye on my back,” McIlroy shrugged. “I think it’s a huge compliment that people are saying they want to beat me and whatever. Whoever wants to take me on, they can take me on.”
McIlroy said he’d feel “very comfortable” playing all five sessions, and good thing: Given his current form (three wins in his past five events) and stature in the game, it’s a likely proposition.
In his first Ryder Cup, two years ago in Wales, McIlroy experienced the enormity of the moment while standing on the first tee next to partner Graeme McDowell. Rory admittedly was “very tentative . . . trying not to make a mistake instead of just going out and free-wheeling it” during that first fourball match, twice delayed by rain. Eventually, he totaled a 1-1-2 overall record at Celtic Manor, but the team won, 14 1/2 to 13 1/2, and that was the enduring mark.
McIlroy has always believed he’s more of a leader on the course than in the team room, which is fine, so long as he understands that it is his performance – not necessarily the form of the other 11 players – that will be the most highly scrutinized, much the same way Woods’ sub-.500 Ryder Cup record has been reviewed ad nauseam here. As Woods himself said, it’s part of being ranked No. 1.
Indeed, McIlroy may lack the flair of Poulter, or the fieriness of Garcia, but the Northern Irishman is the No. 1 player in the world, the kid who has hijacked the golf globe, and he’s being targeted, fairly or not, as the man to beat at Medinah. It’s a tremendous burden for a 23-year-old playing in his second supercharged match.
His media responsibilities complete Wednesday, McIlroy was ushered out of the media center and whisked away in a cart, through the incoming crowd. It was a chilly fall morning, and nary a man or woman, boy or girl, stopped to cheer or even give a thumbs-up to the game’s second-most popular player.
Yes, it’s most certainly Ryder Cup week. For McIlroy, it figures to be a decidedly new experience.