Rory McIlroy once called the Ryder Cup an exhibition. He knows better now

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GUIDONIA MONTECELIO, Italy (AP) — Rory McIlroy was willing to read his words about the Ryder Cup before happily eating them.

He qualified for his first team in 2010, when he was a 21-year-old known as “Boy Wonder” with curly locks that spilled out from under his cap and already painted as Europe’s rising star. He referred to the Ryder Cup as an exhibition, nothing for him to get excited about.

McIlroy sat down to read comments from 2009 for a post on social media, and he couldn’t get through it without laughing, mainly at himself.

“It’s not that important an event for me. It’s an exhibition at the end of the day,” McIlroy said, reading from the script. “Obviously, I’ll try my best for the team. But I’m not going to go running around and fist-pumping.”

And then he added after he stopped laughing, “Who said that?”

It didn’t take long for him to realize the Ryder Cup meant so much more — a pivotal halve he earned against Stewart Cink in Wales in 2010, his fist-pumping, decibel-raising shouts against Patrick Reed at Hazeltine in 2016, the tears during the loss at Whistling Straits in 2021.

He went 1-3 for the week in an American rout and felt responsible. In a live interview with NBC when he won his singles match, McIlroy called his Ryder Cup appearances “the greatest experiences of my career.”

“I’ve never really cried or gotten emotional over what I’ve done as an individual. I couldn’t give a s—-” McIlroy said, by then a player who had been No. 1 and had three legs of the Grand Slam.

Yes, he said that.

It’s far different now. McIlroy is the heart of a European team that tries to protect its home turf at Marco Simone, for no other reason than he has played in more Ryder Cups than any player on either team.

“In 2009, I was just so focused on myself and trying to get my career off the ground that I felt like I had bigger and better things to achieve for my individual goals,” McIlroy said Wednesday.

“I’m still very, very proud and probably proudest of the things I’ve done as an individual,” he said. “But nothing — nothing — beats this week. It’s an amazing experience and I want to be a part of it for as long as I can.”

Wednesday brought another toasty day outside Rome, nine-hole practice rounds before the course was taken over by a celebrity match that included Novak Djokovic, Wales soccer star Gareth Bale and former New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz.

Pairings for the first session of matches are announced during the opening ceremony Thursday afternoon. The Ryder Cup is relentless action once a ball is in the air Friday morning. It just feels like forever to get to that point.

“I’m just ready for Friday to get here,” Scottie Scheffler said.

European captain Luke Donald seems to be striking the right tone for a European team that is eager to erase memories from a 19-9 loss — the biggest loss for a European team — at Whistling Straits two years ago.

Justin Rose is the oldest player at age 43 and thrilled to be back after being left off the last team. Jon Rahm has the Spanish passion for the Ryder Cup and has been Europe’s top player over the last two years.

But there’s something about McIlroy that led Rose to refer to him as “a leader of the team.”

“He’s been one of the players that’s kept the momentum going that was started a generation or two before us and before him,” Rose said. “And I think he has a really good appreciation of history and the guys that have come before him.

“I think that he will have a huge role in this team for the next decade plus.”

McIlroy sees his role no different from that of Rose or Rahm. A mentor to the rookies? Sure. But all he wants to do is win points and make sure that 17-inch gold trophy does not head back across the Atlantic.

“I don’t want anyone looking up to me,” he said. “I want them looking over to me. I want them to see me like I’m on their level. And there’s no hierarchy on our team. We are all one part of a 12-man team and we all go forward together. I guess that’s the one message I’ve tried to relay to some of the younger guys on the team.”

McIlroy wasn’t in the best of form for the last Ryder Cup. He lost the No. 1 ranking not long after golf returned after a three-month pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He didn’t contend in any of the four majors in 2021 and had only one victory in the previous two years.

He extended his winless streak in the majors to nine years in 2023, finishing one shot behind Wyndham Clark at the U.S. Open. But he has two wins this year and has finished in the top 10 at 12 of his last 14 tournaments.

After the last Ryder Cup, McIlroy won in his next start, which got him back into the top 10 in the world, and now he is No. 2 behind Scheffler.

“I just went back to really trying to be myself and trying to express myself the best way that I can on the golf course,” McIlroy said. “I think the last two years have proved that’s the way that I’m going to play my best golf.

“So I certainly feel a lot better about things coming into this Ryder Cup and feel like I’m more than capable of contributing more than one point this time around.”

He’s capable of running around in celebration, throwing a few fist-pumps. Maybe even tears. For McIlroy, this is no exhibition.

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AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf