It’s not unusual to get a brand-new wedge on your birthday. Perhaps not even being treated to a visit to one of the world’s top links courses. Add in being star-struck by meeting Darren Clarke for the first time, though, and you can probably see why there was a sparkle in Rory McIlroy’s eyes as he recalled his special relationship with the man who, 17 years on, is his fourth Ryder Cup captain this week.
“My 10th birthday present was a Cleveland Rusty Wedge – the in thing at the time – and my dad [Gerry] taking me up to Portrush to play the Valley Course,” said McIlroy as he became the first of the 24 players involved in the event’s 41st staging to pay a visit to the media centre at Hazeltine. “My birthday couldn’t really have gotten any better then, all of a sudden, I met Darren Clarke for the first time.”
For all that McIlroy has since eclipsed the achievements of his fellow Northern Irishman, he remembers it as though it happened yesterday. “I was on the chipping green and that’s where Darren was with a good amateur player from back then, Paddy Gribben,” added the four-time major winner. “I was in awe of him. He’d been on a great run, having just won the [Accenture] Match Play against Tiger Woods earlier that year, so it was a great birthday.”
As a direct consequence of that chance meeting, McIlroy was taken under the umbrella of Clarke’s Foundation. It aims to nurture young talent in Ireland and few have displayed more natural talent when it comes to the Royal & Ancient game, of course, than McIlroy.
Still recalling that birthday treat, he said: “I remember him saying to me, ‘practise, practise, practise’, and that’s always been his motto. I think one of the things that has been underestimated about Darren throughout the years is how much hard work he put in.
“Memories from that day at Portrush and the times we spent together at Portmarnock, where he held his Foundation weekend every year, are rushing back this week and here we are, on the biggest stage of the game, I’m able to play under him as a Ryder Cup captain and I’m very much looking forward to that.
“My relationship with Darren goes back a long way and it’s very special for me this week. I think it’s special for both of us. I’ve always wanted the win for the captain, but probably even more so this year because of Darren and the relationship that we have.”
Even McIlroy admits now that he made himself look daft when he talked in the build-up to his first Ryder Cup – under Colin Montgomerie’s captaincy in Wales six years ago – about it being more like an “exhibition” and, therefore, not that big a thing for a young player like him aiming to become the game’s dominant force. “I made a couple of comments that seem very stupid now – I think I underestimated what it was going to be like,” he conceded.
Having played on winning teams at Celtic Manor, Medinah and Gleneagles, the 27-year-old now relishes the Ryder Cup as much as anyone in the European camp and he’s heading into this one feeling confident about being one of the players captain Clarke will be leaning heavily as the visitors bid to chalk up an unprecedented fourth win in a row.
“Even when I came into the event in 2012 as the No 1-ranked player in the world, having also just won my second major and two of the four FedEx Cup events, I still didn’t feel like it was my place to be a leader on the team,” revealed McIlroy. “We had so many other players that had more experience in the Ryder Cup and were older than me, so I still didn’t feel I deserved that role in a way. But definitely last time at Gleneagles I embraced that role and I took on more responsibility and that was really to do with Paul McGinley, pictured. I was in constant contact with him and that’s what he said he needed from me.
“I relished that opportunity to sort of rally our guys, be one of the leaders and speak up in our team room when I needed to. But definitely lead by example on the course [as he did in the Sunday singles by producing a blistering display to hammer Rickie Fowler 5&4].
“I felt like I did that for the first time in a Ryder Cup then and, hopefully, I can do it again. I relish that role. I understand it’s a big responsibility, but I feel I’m now ready to take it on my shoulders and hopefully lead by example.”
For most of this season, McIlroy has cut a frustrated figure on the golf course, having never really got into the mix in the majors as his putting, in particular, wasn’t up to scratch. Apart from producing two flashes of magic over the closing three holes to finish ahead of Russell Knox in the Irish Open at The K Club, it had been relatively poor fare, at least by his high standards, until he returned to form with a vengeance by winning two of those four FedEx Cup events again for a second time. His victory in the Tour Championship in Atlanta on Sunday to lift the FedEx Cup into the bargain has put a real spring in his step for this week.
“I don’t know how much bearing it will have on the team as a whole, but I’m confident coming in here as I’m obviously playing well,” he said. “When I’ve been able to get into the positions like the one on Sunday, I’ve been able to produce my best golf, as I did in a great battle with Russell in the Irish Open. If anything the struggle for me this year has just been trying to get in those positions to let my game flourish and I don’t really have that problem this week. I’ve never experienced a loss in the Ryder Cup before and obviously that’s the goal again this week.”
Before heading off for his first look at Hazeltine, McIlroy was asked if he’d been reminded that this Ryder Cup is being played in the Central Time Zone in the US, a reference to the fact he’d almost missed his singles tee time at Medinah four years ago after claiming his alarm had been set on Eastern Standard Time. “Yeah, I’ve already set my watch,” he replied, smiling.