Rory McIlroy - Europe's Most Important Player and Key to Victory
Post by Sports Writer Derek Clements
ONE of the 24 players heading for Hazeltine is destined to be remembered for ever as the man who holes the winning putt, while others will probably head home after it is all over feeling that they either didn't do themselves justice or that their captains should have used them more.
Darren Clarke is taking six rookies to Minnesota. It is not the first time that has happened - Colin Montgomerie's winning team in 2010 also contained six rookies. And Clarke will have no worries about his first-timers. Everybody who is in the European team deserves to be there. It is difficult to consider Danny Willett as a rookie - he won The Masters, after all, is ranked 12th in the world and leads the Race to Dubai.
Rookies are not normally asked to play in all five matches, but Willett might well be an exception as he has what it takes to become a senior member of the team, on and off the course. He has not played especially well since his heroics at Augusta way back in April, but will be delighted to have come so close to winning the Italian Open on the eve of the Ryder Cup.
Willett will be a key man in the European team room, as will the laconic and very funny Henrik Stenson, the bubbly Andy Sullivan and Thomas Pieters, who is a renowned joker and enjoys playing pranks on other players. It is exactly what you need when there is such a real danger of everybody taking things too seriously.
The star of the team is likely to be a man who once labelled it a glorified exhibition match - but that was before Rory McIlroy played his first match, at Celtic Manor in 2010. He learnt during that match, which Europe won in damp, muddy conditions, just how much emotion is spent and how much pressure players feel while representing themselves, their teammates and their continent. McIlory was Ian Poulter's partner (and largely a spectator) in the fourballs at Medinah in 2012 when the Englishman finished with a barrage of birdies to earn the pair a priceless point that saw them going into the singles trailing the USA by "only" 10-6 before staging that remarkable comeback.
Poulter was Europe's talisman in 2012 but he is not playing this time. McIlroy needs to take that role at Hazeltine - he knows it, he expects it and he aims to deliver, just like Poulter "The Postman" has.
The Ryder Cup brings out the best in some players. Poulter is one example, but look at Colin Montgomerie's astonishing record in the singles - he was never beaten. Sergio Garcia is regarded as one of the shakiest putters in the game, but he always finds a way to will the ball into the hole when he comes up against Americans. Then there was Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, who were almost unbeatable in foursomes and fourballs.
Of course, it affects some players in other ways - Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk have won about 140 tournaments between them, but all have dreadful Ryder Cup records.
With four majors to his name, McIlroy fears nobody. It is true that he didn't have the most stellar of seasons until the past month during the FedEx Cup playoffs. However, this is the Ryder Cup and it will surely bring out the best in McIlroy, who is now in the highest levels of confidence Several people surrounding the US team have made it clear that the home side needs to target McIlroy. Paul Azinger, the last successful US captain back in 2008, believes that Clarke's team will be demoralised if the Americans can get the better of the Northern Irishman. He also went out of his way to point out that McIlroy's shoulders slump when things are not going his way. It is up to McIlroy to ensure that his shoulders do not slump.
And if there is one thing that is likely to light his fire, it is comments such as those being made by Azinger. Be clear about something - if they didn't fear him, if they didn't respect his incredible skills then his name would not be mentioned in the build-up to the event. Azinger and company could live to regret their comments.
If Rory can lead Europe to another famous victory on American territory then it could just be the thing he needs to further reignite the game of the most gifted golfer on the planet.
For the USA, the man to keep your eye on is Dustin Johnson. Having won the US Open and continued that form ever since, you might think that is a statement of the bleedin' obvious but, as we have seen, form and class don't always equate to a great Ryder Cup record. Johnson is different though - he is not the brightest light in the house (well, he just isn't) and is not a great thinker about the game. And that is precisely why he has been able to shake off all those past disappointments.
The Dustinator doesn't feel pressure, and that makes him a very dangerous opponent. How good it would be for Clarke's hopes if McIlroy could go out there and show Johnson who's the boss - and he made a good start with his brillant and thrilling performance at East Lake in the Tour Championship.
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