HE PROBABLY wasn’t Ian Poulter’s first choice, or indeed Sergio Garcia’s, and he certainly wouldn’t have been Thomas Bjorn’s, but Sir Alex Ferguson was the perfect motivational speaker for Rory McIlroy ahead of this week’s Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.
Poulter is an Arsenal fan, Sergio follows Real Madrid and Bjorn has a weakness for Liverpool, but McIlroy has such a passion for Manchester United that, after winning the Open Championship at Hoylake in the summer, he paraded the claret jug at Old Trafford.
When the club’s former manager addressed Team Europe the other night – a strange Ryder Cup ritual performed in the past by George Bush (for the Americans), Gareth Edwards and, ahem, DJ Spoony – the world’s No 1 golfer was utterly transfixed. “I didn’t take my eyes off him,” said McIlroy. “I was sort of in this trance, just listening to everything that he was saying. I’m sort of thinking, ‘This is all the stuff that he’s probably said to Manchester United teams over the years’. He told us a couple of stories just of past experiences in some big matches. It was a great evening, a really cool thing to be part of.”
The value of these celebrity team talks is open to question. Either they are a bit of fun, giving the players perspective and insight from another walk of life, or they are a gimmick that a strong captain should not need. When Tom Watson, winner of eight major championships, and undisputed legend of the game, was asked who would be addressing the American team, he replied: “Me.”
To be fair, Sir Alex has made a meaningful contribution to the European cause, regularly meeting with Paul McGinley, their captain, throughout his preparations. According to McIlroy, the Scot shared with the players some invaluable thoughts on dealing with crowds, pressure and the burden of expectation, surely one of Europe’s biggest challenges in the days ahead.
“United were obviously favourites and whenever he was managing, they made Old Trafford a bit of a fortress,” said McIlroy. “When teams went there, it was hard to compete against United. He was just talking a bit about that. We’re slight favourites for a reason. We deserve to be. We’ve played well this year. It’s not something we should shy away from. It’s something that we should embrace.”
What is true of Europe is also true of McIlroy in particular. Since last year, he has won his third and fourth majors, taken a few more steps along the path to greatness and established himself as leader of this European side, a responsibility the 25-year-old is happy to bear. “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. I like that. I’ll embrace that. It comes as part of what I’ve done this year and who I am. Being No 1 in the world, and all that comes with it, you expect that. You just try to handle it as best you can.”
In two previous Ryder Cups, McIlroy has won five points from a possible nine. Most of his golf was in the company of Graeme McDowell, another Manchester United fan from Northern Ireland, but the two are expected to be separated this week. Martin Kaymer has been touted as a possible partner, maybe even in the first match tomorrow morning.
“That’s completely Paul’s decision,” said McIlroy. “I have a job to do, which is go out and win points for Europe, and I don’t care what number I play or who I play with. I’m 1/12th of a team unit here. I’m going to play the same role as everyone else. 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.”
All of which selflessness is a far cry from the early days of McIlroy’s precocious career, when he described the Ryder Cup as an “exhibition”. Two years ago at Medinah, he would have been late for one of his tee-times had it not been for a police officer who sped him to the course at short notice.
This week, he has put a new driver in the bag, a strange step by one of the game’s biggest hitters off the tee, but McIlroy insists it is not an issue. McGinley says the player is old enough and good enough now to make his own decisions. He is, according to Garcia, a player who can be trusted to give his best in golf’s transatlantic showdown.
“He’s definitely grown up a lot, both as a player and as a person,” said the Spaniard. “He’s got to know what the Ryder Cup is all about. He has a lot more respect for it. He lives it a little bit more than maybe he would have at the beginning. He’s really become a nice team player. We know the ability he has to play. I’ve got to know him quite a lot and he’s the kind of guy you always want to have on your team.”