Relationships in team golf are often elusive, which makes weeks like this one of the best in sport
SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — In 2009, a 19-year-old wunderkind from Northern Ireland, with the kingship of an entire sport laid out in front of him, had some things to say about the biennial Ryder Cup.
“The Ryder Cup is a great spectacle but an exhibition at the end of the day, and it should be there to be enjoyed,” said a baby-faced, underaged Rory McIlroy. “In the big scheme of things, it’s not that important to me.”
McIlroy eventually went back on those words and proceeded to win three straight Ryder Cups (plus one in Paris in 2018) before losing at Hazeltine in 2016 and then again, this year at Whistling Straits. He played every session of every event from the moment he said those words until Saturday morning foursomes this year. In the process, he evolved into not only a convert of what he now says is the best event in golf but perhaps its foremost ambassador.
You have certainly seen the two interviews by now. A broken 32-year-old prince of sport, shortly after dusting Xander Schauffele in Sunday singles, unable to choke out the words he wanted to use to describe these magical weeks. I was standing right in front of him when it happened, and the entire thing was jarring.
The aroma of victory had begun to waft as the Americans closed in on their historic win, but Rory’s presence quelled whatever elation was felt by folks in those small circles.
The irony of the Ryder Cup is that nearly everyone involved is making money besides the players, and yet, the players — for the most part — wouldn’t trade these experiences for any amount of money you could feasibly offer.
Why is that? How could that possibly be true? What is it about this week and this event?
There are plenty of reasons you could select, but one stands above the rest: Failing together can be far more meaningful than succeeding alone.
That’s it. That’s the whole thing. For 103 weeks every two years, they are singular. Then for seven days, they are not. Some players might tell you they would rather win on their own than fail with a group, but buddy, I saw some emotions this week that paint a different picture.
“I can say those two days, those matches with Sergio [Garcia], what it means, the history of the game, an admirer of what Seve [Ballesteros] and Ollie [Jose Maria Olazabal] were able to do, to tee it up with Sergio; he’s living Ryder Cup history,” said world No. 1, Jon Rahm. “To be able to win those matches with them the way we did it, that is undoubtedly the most fun I’ve had on a golf course by far.”
Rahm, you may remember, just won the U.S. Open three months ago.
This was not an illusory presentation for the sake of appearances in a press conference. We spoke with Rahm more intimately on the 17th hole on Sunday as the week wound down, and he said the exact same thing. He told us that the feeling of rolling home against the best in the world at Torrey Pines couldn’t hold a candle to what took place this week with Garcia.
And this was at the tail-end of an absolute ass-kicking!
Succeeding alone is vapid. That’s hardwired into our souls. There are too many existential quotes from too many successful, famous folks wondering whether there’s another peak beyond the summit they just climbed to think anything other than this.
In golf, one of the famous examples is the David Duval story from 2001. He’s flying back from having won the Open Championship when he asks, “Is that all there is?”
Contrast that to what was said in the European team presser after losing in the most lopsided Ryder Cup in the modern era.
“It means a lot to be part of these teams,” said Ian Poulter. “We play a selfish sport week-in, week-out, and when we have this team spirit that we have … We have a good group. These things don’t come around very often. It’s special to put the shirt on. It’s special. It’s special to get around all these guys in a way that you would not imagine. It means a lot in Europe to represent Europe in the Ryder Cup, and that’s why it hurts and that’s why you see all the emotion that you see.”
“I spent years trying to make a Ryder Cup team, and I got here this week and didn’t know what to expect,” added rookie Shane Lowry. “I have probably done something that I only could have dreamed of, like, I won The Open by six shots in my home country, and this week … has been by far the best week of my golfing career. I said to the lads last night, ‘I’m having the time of my life, and we’re six points behind. What’s it going to be like when we’re leading?'”
Again, this is an Open Championship winner who looked at himself in the mirror before his final round at Portrush in 2019 and asked if he had what it took to win. Then he went out and did it at that Open on the island where he grew up with his parents and his wife and kids and all his friends looking on. And this guy is calling a 1-2-0 record in a field next to a lake in rural Wisconsin the best week of his life.
This is not normal! Lowry, too, wept as McIlroy embraced him on Sunday. Two kids who grew up dreaming about Claret Jugs embracing over a collective 2-5-0 mark at Whistling Straits. That’s incredible.
Tears were a theme this week, far more so in this Ryder Cup than others that I’ve covered. Perhaps because this week felt special as the event was delayed because of the pandemic.
U.S. captain Steve Stricker shed them at the opening ceremony, and he bookended the week by breaking down at the closing ceremony when he said, “I never won a major, but this is my major right here.”
Nearly every Euro player cried, too, but let’s get back to the most famous one of them all.
There’s a lesson about the human condition in Rory’s story. When you’re 19, you think jackets and trophies and having enough money to buy a big jet, or a small island are going to fill up your heart. That’s the story of all of us. As we get older, we learn that the thing we wanted all along is the thing nobody could ever have enough money to purchase: relationship.
Being Rory McIlroy is probably not as fun as it seems. I’m sure (I know) a lot of it is grand, but so much of your time is spent constructing sandcastles by yourself. They might be the best sandcastles ever built, but they’re still made of sand.
“I don’t think there’s any greater privilege to be part of one of these teams,” McIlroy said Sunday. “It’s an absolute privilege. They’ve always been 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 (beep). But this team and what it feels like to be a part of … it’s phenomenal, and I’m so happy to be a part of it.”
I always think of the Pringles story. I think about it all the time. The loneliness of professional golf at the highest level. That’s not his existence these days, but it’s a microcosm of the world of pro golf, and specifically his world of pro golf.
Being Rory McIlroy for 12 straight years with hardly a day where you don’t have to be on for somebody or something is probably even more exhausting than it sounds.
Psychoanalyzing McIlroy is one of the most fun parts of this job. Some of us feel as if we’ve built half our career around doing just that.
Not wanting to get this one wrong, I spoke with McIlroy on Monday to ask why he wept so openly and so vulnerably on Sunday afternoon. It couldn’t have been as simple as going 1-3-0 or having one of the worst birdie percentages of all 24 players or feeling like he let his team down. It seemed like there was something more there, something deeper.
McIlroy said it meant the world to him to be sent out first on Sunday. That’s a big deal to the European team, and though he was initially slated to go 11th, a collection of those on the Euro side said, Rory McIlroy doesn’t go 11th on Sunday at the Ryder Cup.
As a result, he was desperate not to let them down, especially after such a terrible start to the week and especially after losing to Patrick Reed in 2016 and Justin Thomas in 2018 from that same leadoff spot.
“I didn’t really sleep much on Saturday night after they put me in that spot,” McIlroy told CBS Sports on Monday.
We also talked about how, when you become a dad, you start thinking more about your own mortality. We admitted crying more since becoming dads than the rest of our lives combined. McIlroy also said he started thinking more about his own golf mortality (and the golf mortality of his teammates as well).
“I’ve played in six, which means I’ve probably played in the majority of these that I’m going to play in my career,” he said. “The end is not near, but you start thinking about that a little bit more. The other thing is that this year was meaningful for our team because we knew it was probably the end for some of our older players who have been so great at Ryder Cups.”
McIlroy explained how outsiders don’t necessarily understand just how special these weeks are for not just the men who play in them but for their families as well. How players’ wives revel in getting to spend that time together in ways they don’t get to in most other weeks. Add it all up, and you get what you saw on Sunday.
“I don’t think anybody believes I don’t care anymore,” he said.
What you probably didn’t see with McIlroy on Sunday was what happened with his own wife shortly after he completed his interviews. He meandered through a small army that stood inside the ropes, still shook up from what they had just witnessed. Then he found Erica. As he walked toward her, she mouthed the words, ‘I love you,’ and he completely fell apart.
What McIlroy said and how he said it make both him and this event more likable, if that is even possible. After that scene was over, I saw him go to every player and captain on both teams, shake their hands and say something meaningful and important about the week, something they would remember.
This truly is, like he said, the very best event.
I love the Ryder Cup. That’s no big secret. I love talking about it, thinking about it and experiencing it. I ran around for most of this one with Chris Solomon of No Laying Up, trying to see as many shots as possible, trying to drink from the three-day firehose of this event, and in-between all of that, hollering at each other about how it should be played every year.
At one point, Rahm told us, “Think about the feelings you guys have in a week like this, now imagine how we feel.”
I believe the Ryder Cup reigns because it reminds us that we were created for something outside of ourselves. Sandcastles will not suffice. There’s a vulnerability in admitting that, and so often going at it alone for these professionals is the safer, less exposed option, but it is not the better one. That’s why these European teams are so immensely likable. They understand that, and they are willing to openly weep, not over losses but over the loss of that wisp of time.
The Ryder Cup, like the Masters for me, also represents a passage of time. Two years until the next one. Four years until the next one in the United States. So many different things will happen in the lives of these players and those of us covering them in that span of time. Marriages will begin, babies will be born, family members will pass away.
Then we will gather again in Rome and then at Bethpage and do this whole thing over again. Insane moments will happen. A complete theater of the absurd. There’s a through line, though. And that through line is that we will gather again.
C.S. Lewis once said art and culture (and I will add sport) are all mortal entities. They will pass away. The grass withers, the flowers fade. What lasts is relationship.
That’s too rarely highlighted in golf, and then it gets magnified and clarified during this week we call the Ryder Cup, and it is beautiful.
This event, too, will not last forever but damn, after weeks like this one, I certainly wish it could.