Redemption, not revenge, carries Europe to victory

Redemption, not revenge, carries Europe to victory
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GUIDONIA MONTCELIO, Italy – On Saturday afternoon, Scottie Scheffler sat dejectedly in a Team USA golf cart, rubbing his face and wiping his eyes, his wife attempting to console him. He’d just been blown off the course on the 11th hole in a historic rout. Scheffler’s Ryder Cup was going miserably, now with a 0-2-1 record, and his captain had little choice but to bench his slumping star for the afternoon in hopes that it reset him for Sunday singles.

“It sucks,” Scheffler said. “It’s pretty tough.”

He was upset not because he wasn’t meeting his own lofty expectations, or because he coul become the first reigning world No. 1 to go winless. He was reduced to tears because of the nagging, gut-wrenching feeling that he was letting everyone else down. His loved ones. His teammates. His captains. His fans. Everyone, everywhere, who had invested so much in him.

It was a lot to bear … and Rory McIlroy could relate.

That was him, two years ago.

A singles victory in 2021 at Whistling Straits provided little solace during a week when little went right individually and the European team got smoked collectively on their way to the biggest blowout in Ryder Cup history. McIlroy was their most important asset, their greatest talent, their unquestioned leader – and he couldn’t deliver.

“I’ve luckily been a part of a few winning Ryder Cup teams and it feels amazing,” he said, “but at the same time, being part of a losing Ryder Cup team sucks. It really does.”

McIlroy was speaking Sunday night from the back row of the winner’s press conference at Marco Simone. Moments earlier he’d kicked up his feet on the table and sipped an ice-cold Peroni. A half-hour prior he was drowning in champagne. And an hour before that, he wrapped up the best Ryder Cup performance of the week, and the best of his career. He choked up in another TV interview, but this time, while swelling with pride.

All it took was remembering why he cared so damn much in the first place.

* * *

Here’s the context of fall 2021: It’d been a rough year. He’d won only once. He hadn’t contended in the majors. His confidence was shot. He’d been seeing other coaches and chasing even more distance and straying from what had made him a generationally great talent. Then the Ryder Cup came, and he faceplanted on the world stage, and it was time to look inward.

What McIlroy found was twofold: He found the inner peace he’d been missing. “I realized that just being myself is enough,” he said. “Not trying to be something that I’m not.” But he also found that for all of his individual success, there is nothing that brings him fulfillment in this ordinarily selfish pursuit quite like collective achievement.

“Nothing beats this week,” he said. “It’s an amazing experience, and I want to be a part of it for as long as I can.”

The two years between cups have been an endless source of drama, with McIlroy most often at the center of it. But this summer, he once again began to find his purpose. With the European Ryder Cup team starting to take shape, he talked more frequently with captain Luke Donald. He set up rounds with some of the prospective players in South Florida. He broke away from his usual routine on the road to catch up and game-plan.

Once the team was officially finalized last month, McIlroy was all-in. At the scouting trip a few weeks ago at Marco Simone, he most relished the time spent around the fire pit, sharing stories with the newcomers from past Ryder Cups, with McIlroy essentially explaining why, years ago, he had gotten it so wrong. That this wasn’t just a meaningless exhibition. It was one of the great joys of his career.

Donald understood it, too, and as Ryder Cup week dawned, he cued up two-minute videos for each of his players – words of heartfelt encouragement from their loved ones. There was nary a dry eye.

“It’s really, really important to not just play for each other, but to play for those that mean the most to you,” Donald said. “That’s why we play this game. It’s not just for ourselves. That’s what makes the Ryder Cup so special – we play it for the people that mean so much to us.”

* * *

When the new-look European team gathers around the fire pit in fall 2025, the story they’ll rehash the most is the events of Saturday night, when the typically amiable, 5-foot-9-inch Northern Irishman became “Rocky” McIlroy.

Rory McIlroy said he and caddie Joe LaCava will be fine, in time.

Time will eventually soften the harsh feelings, but it’s clear, both immediately after his singles match and again in the press conference, that McIlroy is still seething about it.

On Saturday night, after Patrick Cantlay drained the 40-footer for his third consecutive birdie, it prompted caddie Joe LaCava to wave his hat to the crowd, a well-timed rebuttal to how vociferously his man had been taunted all day because of his decision not to wear Team USA headgear. McIlroy took exception not with LaCava’s celebration but with how long the veteran looper had carried on with it, and how he didn’t move out of McIlroy’s eye line while he was sizing up the pivotal putt to tie. Making matters worse, LaCava jawed back at McIlroy – and then caddie Harry Diamond, and then a few members of the European team, too.

“I was trying to afford Patrick the opportunity to do what he did, which is great, and now I’m trying to read my putt on 18 and he’s standing directly in my line,” McIlroy said. “So I don’t feel like I was afforded the same opportunity to make the putt as Patrick was. I was trying to do the right thing, and that was definitely the wrong thing to do.

“That’s not the way the game should be played. I just thought it was completely disrespectful. Angriest I’ve been in a long time.”

After his first and only loss of the week, McIlroy initially thought about barging into the U.S. team room to voice his displeasure and decided against it. But on his way off property, the first American that McIlroy spotted was another U.S. caddie, this time Jim “Bones” Mackay. Knowing that Mackay was close friends with LaCava, McIlroy let him have it in the parking lot, growing incensed all over again, screaming that the incident was a “f—ing disgrace” – to the point that he needed to be restrained by Shane Lowry and shoved into his courtesy car.

“He was the one that that took the brunt of it,” said McIlroy, who later texted Mackay to apologize. “He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Despite the heated finish, it didn’t take long for McIlroy to fall asleep on Saturday night. It had been an early morning and a stressful afternoon. He and wife Erica used the Calm app and put on a sleep story. His alarm was set for 7:30 a.m., but he couldn’t make it. He was up at 6, pondering the day’s possibilities.

On his way to the course, with his tirade suddenly the talk of the Ryder Cup, McIlroy thumbed through some quotes from a Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, who was best known for his meditations on stoic philosophy.

“I could have let it take me down the wrong path,” he said, “but I didn’t. I let it focus me.”

* * *

Two years later, why was he crying again?

Burns had just conceded his birdie putt on the 17th green, giving McIlroy a 3-and-1 victory in the fourth match out. Europe was closing in on another home victory, now just two points away. But there was little time to revel in the achievement; he was being whisked toward a TV interviewer.

McIlroy spoke about how the incident the previous night had fueled him. How he played with a different level of focus and determination. How it had “lit a fire” under the team and galvanized them.

That’s when the emotion arrived.

“I just wanted to come out and win another point for Europe,” he said.

“I’m …”

He took a step back and glanced to his right, away from the camera lens.

“Emotional again,” the interviewer said. “Take your time. I’ll make a nice, long question.”

When he started to ask another, to fill the dead air, McIlroy stopped him.

“No, no,” he said.

“Ever since Whistling Straits,” he continued, “I was so disappointed in my performance there. To come here to Rome and get four points for the team, it means a lot to me, and hopefully we can get it done.”

And with that, McIlroy headed back onto the course to bring home the boys.

Here’s how the singles played out Sunday at Marco Simone in the 44th Ryder Cup.

He followed in Matt Fitzpatrick, who lost on the final green.

He followed in Sepp Straka, who couldn’t eke out a half-point.

By now McIlroy had untucked his shirt, hidden behind designer sunglasses and swapped out his spikes for the team’s custom blue-and-gold Jordans. He was the center around which the entire European team revolved. He was embracing teammates. Relaying information between assistants. Chatting up wives.

The Ryder Cup will be part of his life for the next 30 years, but McIlroy has already begun to contemplate his competitive mortality. He’ll be 36 when the matches are next played at Bethpage. He has taken stock of this year’s team. How rookie Nicolai Hojgaard is just 22. How Ludvig Aberg is only four months removed from college. How there were a half-dozen more studs who are young and hungry and desperately wanted a pick, to play alongside him. Come 2025, McIlroy figures to be one of the oldest on the team, if not the most senior. It’s a sobering thought.

“I’m probably on the back nine of my Ryder Cup career,” he said, “and every one that I get to play in from now on is very, very meaningful.”

An image splashed on the giant scoreboard: Tommy Fleetwood, over on 16 green, embracing his caddie. He’d just gone 2 up with two to play, guaranteeing the last half-point for Europe that would win back the cup, that would help erase the painful memories of 2021. They’d eventually pile it on late, walking away with another lopsided margin of victory, 16.5 to 11.5, their seventh consecutive win in Europe and their eighth victory in the last 11 cups.

“This wasn’t about revenge,” McIlroy said. “This was about redemption and showing what we could do.”

Now that it was complete, McIlroy threw his arms in the air. He bearhugged Donald. With Lowry lumbering down the fairway, McIlroy took off on a dead sprint back toward him and, in a moment of unadulterated joy, leaped into the arms of his one-time bodyguard.

With Lowry still needing to finish the hole, McIlroy retreated to the right side of the fairway. He was surrounded by supporters and yet alone in thought. He crouched down and lowered his head, staring at nothing but turf for five, 10, 15 seconds.

Before rejoining the victory celebration, he cleared his throat and then, once last time, brushed away tears.

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