As a confessed Tiger Woods geek, Rory McIlroy knows all about the Ryder Cup record that runs contrary to everything else in the icon’s career.
McIlroy is just as aware that this is not an anomaly, with Phil Mickelson, the second most garlanded male golfer of the era, similarly boasting a record in the biennial dust-up that is less “USA, USA!” and more “OMG, OMG!”
Could it be that the third best player of this century – with apologies to Brooks Koepka – will also end up with an individual winning percentage in the Ryder Cup in stark contrast to his success out of team uniform?
As it stands, McIlroy’s ratio is exactly 50 per cent, having amounted 12 points for Europe from 24 games. Woods’s is remarkably low at 39.2 percent (14.5 from 37) and Mickelson’s is a tad more respectable at 44.7 (21.5 from 47).
No doubt, McIlroy will say that his sole focus is on the overall result and with four victory parties already celebrated he has left Woods and Mickelson in the rearview window of his captains’ buggies anyway. Woods was – again incredibly – on the winning side once and Mickelson three times.
Yet Paul McGinley is just one expert who believes that McIlroy’s performance in Rome next weekend could not only be pivotal to Europe’s mission to stop the visitors from winning on away soil for the first time in 30 years, but to McIlroy’s blue-and-gold status going forwards. His standing could go in either direction.
“Yeah, of course Rory is a team player and that’s ultimately what he cares about,” Paul McGinley, a countryman, friend and former captain of the four-time major winner, tells Telegraph Sport. “But he will be mindful of the contributions of the Europeans and will compare himself to them, rather than any Americans.”
As one of the great Cup scholars, McGinley reels off the stats. Luke Donald 70 percent, Colin Montgomerie 65.28, Ian Poulter, 64, Sergio Garcia, 63.34, Jose Maria Olazabal 62.9, Justin Rose, 60.87, Seve Ballesteros, 60.81… these are the legends McIlroy is trailing. “That will be his aim – to get up with those guys,” McGinley said. “50 percent is not bad and fair enough, his ratio got hammered in Whistling Straits two years ago – when he won only one point from four - but he wasn’t up with the 60-plus percenters before.”
McIlroy was slightly defensive when his record was put to him. “Everyone thinks they could probably be doing more,” he said. “Yeah, 18 holes, match play - it’s certainly not tossing a coin but I’ve had some Ryder Cup matches when I haven’t played well and won, and played some great matches and lost. I feel over the course of the six Ryder Cups I’ve played, I made a good contribution in most.
“Last time skewed the numbers a bit but, yeah it’s important to feel you’re doing your bit. As everyone saw in Wisconsin [when he was in tears after losing his first three games], I didn’t feel I did what I was supposed to and I’m obviously trying to put that right this year.”
The stats do not lie and as McGinley alluded, McIlroy was not troubling the ‘greats’ when he arrived in Wisconsin. He won two out of five at Paris in 2018, meaning that he has collected only three points in his last nine matches and if you take it back to his extraordinary singles against Patrick Reed at Hazeltine, three out of his last 10.
“Rory will know this and there’ll be an urgency to rectify it,” McGinley says. “Yeah, there is [Jon] Rahm as well, and now Viktor [Hovland], but Rory is the one the team looks to.”
Another Irishman believes therein lies the point. “Monty used to say that defeating Tiger was like ‘cutting the head off a snake’,” Padraig Harrington, the 2021 captain, tells Telegraph Sport. “The thing is, at this level, in 18 holes of match play anyone can beat anyone and the smallest thing might make the difference. Being drawn against Tiger felt almost like a shot to nothing - you were the underdog, not expected to win. Maybe that’s the same with Rory as the Americans will reckon, ‘it might affect the others if we see him off’. That gives them confidence.”
Wyndham Clark has emerged as the headcase in point before this match. On Thursday, the debutant all but called out the four-time major winner. “That’s exactly who I want - I’d love to play Rory,” Clark told Golf Channel. “I have tons of respect for Rory. Because of that respect, I also want to beat him. I like to think I am better than him - and want to prove that.”
Clark has won two professional titles in eight years as a pro; McIlroy has 37 in 15 years. Yet Clark denied McIlroy down the stretch in June’s US Open and will be aware that the Ulsterman’s record in the singles is 3.5 points from six. Montgomerie and Poulter both played eight singles and neither lost once.
In light of this, the visitors would be foolish if they did not put a target on McIlroy’s back, particularly when he is in a duo. He has won just two points in his last seven foursomes and fourballs and, with six partners in the last three Cups, is clearly desperately seeking a longer-term pairing.
McIlroy thought he had it when he and Thomas Pieters won their three matches in 2016, but the Belgian has yet to make a second reappearance. “I’ll keep coming back to it, my hunch is that Rory is at his best when challenged - and that means by his partner as well,” McGinley says. “Pieters was one of the best ball-strikers on the European Tour and Rory felt he had to be at his best to match him that week.
’Yet when he has been put out as the father figure with a rookie - as he has a few times [with Andy Sullivan, Thorbjorn Olesen and Shane Lowry] - they’ve lost and the pairing has quickly been shelved for the match which is to dispiriting and uplifting to the opponents. He needs an equal alongside, or least someone who can live with his ball-striking. Maybe that will be [rookie, Ludvig] Aberg this time, or Viktor, or Tommy [Fleetwood].”
Harrington concurs. “There are well-known players who were only concerned about themselves and their own record and if they didn’t rate their playing partners could even ignore them going round,” he says. “Rory is the exact opposite, but maybe goes the other way in worrying too much about the other guy and carrying him. You want him to be a little bit selfish perhaps. I wouldn’t write off the Rory and Shane pairing that we tried in 2021 [at Whistling Straits]. That still has the makings of a very good duo.”
Whatever and whoever, McIlroy is determined that it will be all in for the cause. “Luke doesn’t expect me to make big speeches but if I can lead by example and be the first one in the team room for a meeting, or the first on the bus, or anything like that, I will,” he said. “Even though it’s my seventh Ryder Cup, I’ll be doing all the things you should do and not getting complacent. That’s the way I’d like to lead. Yeah, and lead with my clubs by making birdies and getting some blue on that board.”