Rory McIlroy is growing into the role of golf's big beast. If the Americans want to target him, let them. McIlroy skipped on to the Ryder Cup stage here at Medinah unrecognisable from the uncertain, even shy youth who made his debut at Celtic Manor. There, he had still to be convinced of the power and authenticity of Ryder Cup mythology, wasn't sure what all the fuss was about.
He has a better understanding now, not only of the scale of this event but of his role in it. McIlroy has been the focus of American interest. The points-scoring begins long before the first shot, and, to borrow from the Ryder Cup lexicon of Ian Poulter, McIlroy is the one with the biggest bull's eye on his back. Great. Bring it on, he says.
"I think it's a huge compliment that people are saying they want to beat me and whatever," he said yesterday. "Whoever wants to take me on, they can take me on." This is just the flavour of belligerent rhetoric required to douse American flames. Bombast does not come easy to McIlroy, but he is learning the law of the golfing jungle and with two majors under his loin cloth, the second coming just a month ago at the PGA, the chest-beating is justified. It comes with due deference to his team-mates, a hallmark of the European team ethic.
"There are guys that have played more Ryder Cups than me and are more experienced in the team room. I don't think my role is to be leader in the team room. The way I have played the last couple of years it's more a leader on the course, to try to win my point and put points on the board.
"I don't have a number, a total (in my head)," McIlroy said. "The US are a strong team and with them playing at home, they are favourites. We have to play very well to have a chance. So if I play on Friday morning I want to go out there, get my point and take it from there."
The "if" was diplomacy. McIlroy will feature in the opening foursomes almost certainly alongside Graeme McDowell, with whom he was paired on the opening day of practice on Tuesday. Few know better than captain Jose Maria Olazabal about the importance of chemistry to a pairing. Playing alongside Seve Ballesteros, Olazabal formed the most potent twosome the event has known. He would not want to disturb the equilibrium of a pairing that draws on friendship as well as roots.
Lee Westwood has enjoyed great success with Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia in previous Ryder Cups. Assuming the combined 59 Westwood and Donald shot in taking money off Poulter and Justin Rose on Tuesday is significant then Olazabal's big decision is who to pair with Garcia tomorrow morning. He will not be short of volunteers. As McIlroy maintained, the sense of camaraderie in the European team room is overwhelming. He checked in his No 1 ranking at the door.
"This week I'm not the No 1 player in the world. I'm one person in a 12-man team and that's it. It's a team effort. There's 12 guys all striving towards the same goal. I'm just part of that. I just want to go out and get a point for the team, whether that's going out first, fourth or in the middle it doesn't make a difference to me and it does not make a difference who I play. I'm going to go out there and give it my best to win that point."
If you infer from that the view that McIlroy is ready to take on all-comers, you will not be contradicted. For all-comers, read Tiger Woods, in whom the American team continues to invest everything. "As I said earlier I'm just going out to win my point. If that's against him or someone else, it doesn't matter."
This is the real strength of McIlroy. He has mastered all doubt. He knows that when he reaches for that extra gear and finds it, he is beyond the reach of all. And this feeling of personal empowerment is significantly enhanced in the team setting. "Playing at Celtic Manor opened my eyes. The majors are still the tournaments I want to win but I got to the Ryder Cup in Wales and my perception changed.
"I'd been to Ryder Cups to watch and I know how exciting they are, but until you are actually involved it's different. When you stand on that first tee on Friday morning, everyone screaming your name, you see how important it is to everyone. You are not just playing for yourself, you are playing for a lot of other people. That's what makes it so special and so important."
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