Rory McIlroy smiles and looks across the course during the Pro-Am prior to the 2023 BMW PGA Championship. Andrew Redington
He wasn’t giving away any secrets as such. Still, for those in the market for insights into the European side’s demeanour heading into the upcoming Ryder Cup, there are few better places to go than a Rory McIlroy press conference. Speaking at the BMW PGA Championship, the DP World Tour’s flagship event, the World No. 2 was close to his interesting and informative best during a 20-minute joust with the media.
Perhaps to the chagrin of the former European Tour, which makes its home here at Wentworth, the questions posed to McIlroy were almost exclusively based on the biennial contest with the Americans set for later this month at the Marco Simone just outside Rome. And, as he nearly always does, the Northern Irishman delivered, covering a variety of sub-topics starting with the much-vaunted team spirit every European team claims to own. It will surely surprise only a few to hear the carefully nurtured relationships that have helped carry Europe to 11 victories since 1979 — to the Americans’ nine — remain a priority this time round.
“It’s a transitional time for the European Ryder Cup team,” said McIlroy who, alongside his 11 teammates, was part of Monday’s scouting trip to the host course. “It’s exciting. And what has been refreshing is that I feel like the 12 of us are on the same level. There’s no type of hierarchy on the team. I remember the 2012 Ryder Cup, I went in there as No. 1 player in the world and had won two majors in the previous two years. But I still didn’t feel like I could speak up in the team room. This doesn’t feel like that, which I think is really good.
“It’s just about making the new guys as comfortable as possible,” continued the four-time major champion. “To me, that has been a really cool thing about the last couple days. I don’t think any of these guys need their hand held in any way. I’d rather them look across to me than look up at me, if that makes sense. That’s the way I’d hope they see me. We are all part of a team and we are all trying to do our bit. No one is more important than anyone else.”
That theme of equality and camaraderie was later picked up by Jon Rahm.
“We have players that have more experience, but there’s no hierarchy,” insisted the Masters champion. “On that team, we’re all the same. It’s all for one and one for all. That’s kind of how it is. We are all there to accomplish the same goal. We are all part of the same team. What you’ve done before and what you might do after that week, doesn’t matter at all.”
And McIlroy wasn’t quite done. In fact, he was only getting started. Which surely speaks to the 34-year-old’s emotional attachment to the Ryder Cup. No one who watched his tearful reaction to Europe’s heavy defeat and his own relatively poor performance at Whistling Straits two years ago will forget the obvious strength of his disappointment.
“I told a story on Monday night to the team about watching Brookline in 1999 on TV and crying after America came back and Europe lost,” McIlroy said. “And obviously I cried in 2021. So not much has changed. I feel like I’m someone who should go out there and win points for the team. I didn’t do that. We’re not used to playing for other people in this game. So when you’re playing for your teammates, you want to do well for them. I felt like I didn’t do that. I felt like I didn’t give a good account of myself. That stung, and the score line stung. It was a difficult week for me.
“But that emotion was real and what I said at the end of that tournament was all true,” he continued. “It is by far the best experience in sport, and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with your teammates in an environment like that is I think the epitome of competition and sport.”
Amid all of the above, McIlroy is now the third-oldest member of the European team after just Rose and Shane Lowry. Combined with his obvious stature in the game, it would be realistic to assume that European captain Luke Donald is leaning on the soon-to-be seven-time Ryder Cupper for advice and input.
But that assumption would be flawed.
“Luke has sort of let me be a little bit,” McIlroy said. “We’ve played a lot of golf, and we have chats. We live on the same street in Florida. We live 10 houses down from each other, so it’s not as if we don’t see each other all the time. But it has just been on a more casual sort of basis. It has not been sit-down talks and strategies and pairings. That’s not my job. I don’t want to have that role. I’m one of his players and I just want to do my best for the team.
“That said, if there’s anything asked of me by a leading player, a veteran player, a player that’s played in quite a few of them, I’m certainly happy to take direction and do what’s needed of me,” McIlroy continued. “But I don’t feel like it’s my place to give the captain my opinion unless it’s asked for. Luke has a lot of great vice-captains around him and has leaned on a couple of past captains, as well, which has been great.”
Spoken like a true team player. Ah, but there was one moment of mock-acrimony. Asked if he viewed himself as something of a “father figure” within the squad, McIlroy was quick to correct the questioner. “Older brother,” he said.
Older and wiser, of course.