GUIDONIA MONTECELIO, Italy — Rory McIlroy needed this Ryder Cup win.
The regrets of Whistling Straits have fueled him over the past two years. There were tears then, and under the relentless Italian sun on Sunday, his eyes welled again. This time, though, it was relief and pride over the four points he contributed to Europe’s overall tally in a 16½-11½ victory.
The week at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club has allowed McIlroy to underscore the past two years.
“I didn’t feel I did my part for the team [at Whistling Straits],” McIlroy said. “The 19-9 scoreline hurt. Everyone earlier in the week was talking about revenge, but this was about redemption and showing what we can do.”
It has been a turbulent 24 hours off the course. His Saturday finished with him so furious at Patrick Cantlay’s caddy, Joe LaCava, that the frustration boiled over into a parking lot altercation. If you asked him to map out the week beforehand, there’s little doubt he’d have predicted being bundled into a car by Shane Lowry to prevent things from escalating.
“I was relieved he did that,” McIlroy said.
There was talk of the drama maybe being a distraction for McIlroy heading into Sunday. Instead, he bottled it and used it as fuel.
“It was disrespectful. I was hot coming out of that yesterday, I was pretty angry,” McIlroy said. “I let it fuel the fire today, it focused me.”
He also said he turned to Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” to steady his mind on the drive into the course Sunday morning.
His week started with a segment for a DP World Tour video, where he was asked to read out comments he made before his Ryder Cup debut in 2010. He looked embarrassed as he recalled what he said back then on social media. Reading out the three sentences, he referred to his younger self in his “naivete” as the “young swashbuckling lad” with the big curly hair.
“It’s not that important of an event for me,” McIlroy said in 2009. “It’s an exhibition at the end of the day. Obviously, I’ll try my best for the team, but I’m not going to be running around fist-pumping.”
But as he prepared for his seventh Ryder Cup, he showed a new perspective.
“Those three quotes couldn’t be any further than the truth,” McIlroy said, describing the Ryder Cup as the “purest competition in golf.” He loves being part of the bubble, where there’s not as much pressure from sponsors or other commitments, and is allowed to zero in on living in the present.
“I’m still very, very proud and probably proudest of the things I’ve done as an individual, but nothing — nothing — beats this week,” McIlroy said. “It’s an amazing experience, and I want to be a part of it for as long as I can.”
His Ryder Cup purpose at Marco Simone was three-fold: He was the man linking Team Europe’s recent eras, and he’s a solid teammate — but he was also there on a personal mission of retribution.
McIlroy was the mainstay in this transitional European team. Gone were the familiar faces of Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood; he has laughed and cried with them in previous tournaments, but that’s in the past. Ludvig Aberg, Nicolai Hojgaard and Viktor Hovland are the future.
“I’d love to be in Ludvig’s shoes, he’s got what, another 20 Ryder Cups in him?” McIlroy said.
Along with ushering in the rookies, he embraced the team aspect. He spoke earlier in the week of just wanting to be one of the 12 faces in the team, focused on a collective purpose, rather than the three-time major winner who some of his teammates would’ve grown up watching.
“I don’t want anyone looking up to me,” McIlroy said on Wednesday. “I just want everyone looking at the side. I want them looking over to me. I don’t want them looking up to me in any way. I want them to see me like I’m on their level. And there’s no hierarchy on our team.”
He remembers how he felt in 2012, when he was the No. 1 player in the world, but still didn’t feel he could speak up in the team room.
But there was also the individual need to cleanse himself of what happened two years ago at Whistling Straits, where he lost all three of his matches across Friday and Saturday and was even benched for one session. He finished that Ryder Cup with an emotional win over Xander Schauffele, but the scars of that weekend ran deep. The tears at the end in Wisconsin weren’t relief then — they were desolation. He needed this weekend to banish those painful memories.
It started brilliantly for McIlroy on Friday while paired with Tommy Fleetwood in the foursomes. The team now known as “Fleetwood Mac” got a win in the morning, and then he partnered up with Matt Fitzpatrick in the afternoon for a 5 and 3 win over Collin Morikawa and Schauffele. Saturday started the same with “Fleetwood Mac” defeating Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, but then ran into trouble in the fourball against a trio of Cantlay birdies on the final three holes of the day. That of course led to the parking lot incident that earned him the new nickname “Rocky McIlroy” from his teammates.
But by Sunday he was back to his dominant best as he hammered Sam Burns. His highlight reel across the weekend included the “Rory roar” from all five matches, his standout, jaw-dropping shots, like the two hole-winning putts on the 15th and 17th in the opening round Friday, and his approach for Fleetwood on the 17th on Saturday foursomes. While he was in the shadows for some of those matches, in the big moments, he stood up.
Underneath that play were unrivaled nerves. He told the BBC on Sunday this is the only tournament in the world where he’s too nervous to eat while he plays the course. But there were moments throughout these three days at Marco Simone where McIlroy took long, lingering looks at the crowd around him. Rather than blocking it all out, he was choosing to take in every moment. It was like he was capturing a snapshot to bank it for the future, knowing he doesn’t have many of these tournaments left in him.
On Sunday evening there was a moment of catharsis. As he entered the final news conference, he sat back, put his feet on the table and exhaled. Job done, demons banished.
“You realize how bad it feels when you lose them,” McIlroy said. “As time goes by, this is my seventh Ryder Cup … am I going to play in another seven? I don’t know. I’m probably on the back nine of my career, and every one I play in is incredibly meaningful.”