For Rory McIlroy, the Ryder Cup has always been about the bonds. The Northern Irishman spent the better part of 13 years, since his 2010 debut, forging them with a group of stalwarts who defined the European team: Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, and Graeme McDowell.
But that trio joined LIV Golf in 2022, along with fellow Europe team veterans Lee Westwood, Paul Casey and would-be captain in Rome, Henrik Stenson. As such, they were no longer a consideration for one of Luke Donald’s captain’s picks. At Marco Simone Golf Club outside Rome, where the Ryder Cup will be played September 29-October 1, the European side will be without any of the six for the first time in 26 years.
“I was speaking to [wife] Erica the other night, and it’s going to be weird for me not to have those guys in the team room because this is my seventh Ryder Cup and they’ve always been there,” McIlroy told Golf Digest.
The four-time major winner played 16 of his 28 career matches with Poulter (6), McDowell (6) and Garcia (4). Now, he’ll work with a team that includes qualifiers Jon Rahm, Robert MacIntyre, Viktor Hovland, Tyrrell Hatton and Matt Fitzpatrick, as well as wildcards Shane Lowry, Justin Rose, Tommy Fleetwood and rookies Ludvig Aberg, Nicolai Højgaard, and Sepp Straka.
“It’s time to form new bonds with other guys,” McIlroy said. “Hopefully, I still have a few Ryder Cups left in me, so I’ll try to form some bonds with the younger guys, like Nicolai and Ludwig, as well as guys who are going to be there a long time like Viktor and Jon.”
McIlroy at least has one very strong bond to start this new chapter with Europe: Irishman Lowry. The pair teamed up for a Friday fourball match at Whistling Straits in 2021. Lowry and McIlroy grew up playing golf together in Ireland and, despite their careers going in different trajectories for a while, are now inseparable living in the Jupiter, Fla. area. Their daughters attend the same school. McIlroy seems like he’d take a proverbial bullet for Lowry.
“Yeah, he’s turned into one of my closest friends and I’d go so far to say Erica would take a bullet for Wendy, Shane’s wife, too,” McIlroy said. “We are all that close; it’s just like a little pod since they moved down to Jupiter. … Shane and I grew up together. We’ve grown closer together over the last sort of five years.”
Lowry loves the big moments, almost exclusively. His four DP World Tour wins and two PGA Tour titles are primarily prestigious events. There’s the 2019 Open Championship at Royal Portrush, and a World Golf Championship-Bridgestone at Firestone. He won the Irish Open as an amateur in 2009, and the European circuit’s flagship event, the BMW PGA at Wentworth, last year.
It begs the question, can Lowry at least supplement the match-play killer instinct Poulter and Europe’s all-time points scorer, Garcia, exuded? Time will tell. Lowry’s European team debut at Whistling Straits yielded one point from three matches. But McIlroy saw enough to feel he could walk taller with Lowry on his team.
“Absolutely yeah. It’s different. Poults and Sergio were passionate and had so much energy, but like two different energies,” he said. “Poulter was so charged up the whole time. Sergio could sort of turn it on and turn it off whenever he needed. Having someone like that beside you and knowing they were going to do something at the right time; that something was always going to happen. I definitely get that feeling with Shane.”
Either way, the European team will rely on that inexplicable chemistry that has seen them deny the Americans an away victory since The Belfry in 1993. The popular description on the difference between the two teams has been that European tour players eat dinner on the road regularly and surrender entirely to the team duties during a Ryder Cup week, while the US side is a delicate balance of egos, schedules and players’ entourages. But McIlroy says this US team is closing that gap, courtesy of a tight-knit group of core Americans Scottie Scheffler, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Sam Burns, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay.
“I think [we do have a magic] but it’s a very natural thing. We all park our egos at the door,” McIlroy said. “In the past, [the US team], with some of the big personalities, it felt like a team of individuals trying to fit a jigsaw puzzle together and sometimes the pieces didn’t quite go together. That’s just from the outside looking in. This new US team, they all grew up playing junior golf together. They all love to travel. I think Europe isn’t going to have it quite as easy as we’ve had it the last  years.”
It sure is a mouth-watering prediction: a closely contested Ryder Cup in Rome for Italy’s first ever hosting. Asked how this Ryder Cup will be framed against the changes to pro golf’s ecosystem since the last Cup, McIlroy said: “I think it’ll feel a lot like the  Open at St Andrews … there are just some [events] that are bigger than all this other [expletive] that’s going on. Have things happened that have prevented some guys from being a part of [the Ryder Cup]? Absolutely. But one thing about the Open, the majors, the Ryder Cup … it’s all about the golf, which at the end of the day that’s all we all care about.”
McIlroy certainly cares deeply about his Ryder Cup record. Second to his nine-year quest for a fifth major championship is perhaps the 34-year-old’s desire to eventually end his Ryder Cup career with a winning percentage. Before Rome, his 28 matches have yielded 14 points. He’s been on winning European teams in 2010 (Celtic Manor), ’12 (Medinah), ’14 (Gleneagles) and ’18 (Le National).
“I’d love to finish with a winning Ryder Cup record in the team. if I play 10 Ryder Cups, I’d hope we’ve won more than we’ve lost,” he said. “I’d love to have an individual winning [percentage]. Most importantly, I’d like to think people would say I’m a good teammate, and I did everything I could.”