Rory McIlroy has revealed he would prefer to win a World Golf Championship trophy than the Ryder Cup. While nobody should question the young Ulsterman's commitment to Colin Montgomerie's team, the position the match continues to command in his personal pecking order may raise more than the odd eyebrow.
A year ago, McIlroy caused an almighty fuss when calling the biennial dust-up "an exhibition". He has since updated those views, but still ranks his individual ambitions markedly higher. Not only would he rather lift one of the four majors, but also one of the four WGC crowns, the next of which – the HSBC Champions – takes place in Shanghai a month after next week's Celtic Manor showdown.
"If somebody asks me whether I'd rather sink the winning putt in the Ryder Cup or win a major, it's the major every day," said the 21-year-old, before pondering the next rung down. "World championship or Ryder Cup? Win a world championship." He added: "At the end of the day you're going to be remembered for what you achieve in an individual sport. When I was a kid growing up practising I never had a putt to win the Ryder Cup. I always had a putt to win the Masters or the Open – it's just the way I feel."
The comparisons with Tiger Woods will be inevitable, particularly as the world No 1 announced before the 2002 match that he could "think of a million reasons" – ie the first prize – why he would value a WGC win above beating Europe. But Woods had already competed in two Ryder Cups by then and McIlroy does acknowledge he has yet to sample the unique atmosphere and may well be won over in the Usk Valley.
"I played my first Masters thinking, 'I never want to miss one of those again', because it was so incredible and if the Ryder Cup does the same for me then so be it," he said. And his experience at last year's Vivendi Trophy – in which he played a leading role in Great Britain and Ireland's victory over Continental Europe – did see him revise his "exhibition" belief.
"That just reminded me how good and special team golf is," said the world No 8. "I played in a lot of Irish teams and then in the Walker Cup and they are all very important to me. I suppose not playing team golf for a couple of years I'd put it to the back of my mind a bit. My mind wasn't completely on team golf when I said what I said. I was trying to concentrate on my own game and that's sort of why it came out the way it did."
McIlroy looked every inch the team player in Versailles last September. Under the captaincy of Paul McGinley he formed a formidable partnership with his compatriot Graeme McDowell. Together he and the future US Open champion won three of their four matches, with McIlroy then signing off in style with a singles win over Henrik Stenson.
"It's nice to be able to celebrate with mates and that would be the best thing about the Ryder Cup as well," he said. "The result is important to the guys involved and important for the European Tour. Everyone's up for it and I will be come the week. It's not just for yourself – you've got your 11 team-mates, the back-room staff and everybody. So there is a lot of energy going around the team room."
Despite McIlroy's pledge that, "I'm not going to go running around fist-pumping", Montgomerie will doubtless be looking to his youngest team member to provide plenty of that spark. At the very least, the Scot will be expecting him to outperform Corey Pavin's surprise wild-card pick, Rickie Fowler, who is the same age as McIlroy but 24 placings further down the world rankings. It would obviously be a massive boost for America if Fowler could put the European young gun in the shade, just as he did at the Walker Cup at Royal County Down three years ago.
To this end, Montgomerie will be relieved to hear McIlroy declaring yesterday that he is happy not to have qualified for the final of this week's FedEx Cup play-offs in America and so be able to hone his form. "My game's pretty good," he said. "I'm glad to be home; I could have been over playing the Tour Championship this week in Atlanta but to come home has been good for me. I've done a lot of good work with my coach and I definitely feel I'll now be in better shape at Celtic Manor. I know I've got a role to play out there and I've just got to get ready to go and do it."
For love or money?
Rory McIlroy is not alone in stating that the Ryder Cup is not the holy grail for all golfers. A certain Tiger Woods also indulged in a bit of Cup-bashing back in 2002. When asked whether he would prefer to win that week's WGC-American Express Championship or the Ryder Cup to follow at the Belfry, he said: "Here this week." Then added when pressed for a reason: "I can think of a million reasons why." The prize-money was $1m.