Rory McIlroy and the age-old question of what the Ryder Cup means to golf’s stars

ROME — Rory McIlroy has finished in the top 10 in eight of his last 10 major championship appearances, including two solo runner-ups. Incredibly impressive stuff. And bru•ta•lly fruitless. This is a man who, now 34, openly speaks of being on the back nine of his career, and who, when he lays his head down at night, likely lends one last silent thought to the fact that he hasn’t won a major in a decade. As far as year-in and year-out play goes, he’s arguably the best player in golf over the last 10 years – and the most disappointing.

So, yes, he might take things a little personally.

McIlroy stood behind the 16th green at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club on Sunday as a product of all his parts. The talented — he scored more points than anyone in the 2023 Ryder Cup, going 4-1. The emotional — cheeks still reddened from pressing his eyes closed and roaring in the air after a head-to-head win over Sam Burns. The candid — offering an unfiltered description of Saturday night’s events, when all hell broke loose and battle lines were drawn. The sanctimonious — that priggish side that turns many off, whether it’s justified or not.

The afternoon was getting late and a European win was coming into view. It was around this time two years ago, as the Euros were facedown in the mud amid a 19-9 American runaway, that McIlroy broke down on live TV after his Sunday singles match. He said then that he wished he’d done more for his team on a week he went 1-3-0. He said losing in team play takes more of a toll than a regular tournament. “I have never really cried or got emotional over what I’ve done as an individual,” he said at Whistling Straits. “I couldn’t give a s—.”

Seeing things come full circle in Rome, McIlroy said Sunday: “It’s the best competition in golf. It means the absolute world to me.”

It was hard not to believe him.

Europe won this Ryder Cup, 16 1/2 to 11 1/2. The proceedings began as a blowout on Friday, turned hostile on Saturday, and squeezed close on Sunday. The week at Marco Simone will be, as they always are in Ryder Cup postscripts, analyzed intensely in a search for any unifying theory as to why some teams win Ryder Cups and why others don’t. This event — the ultimate team competition in the ultimate individual sport — lends itself to thesis more than any other. We’re already thick in the midst of a regular biennial tradition — diagnosing indefinable components like camaraderie and questioning formats and wondering again why the home team always wins in a rout. Trust that it’ll be cued up all over again in 2025 at Bethpage.

It can all feel a little repetitive, a little predictable.

Yet the Ryder Cup remains maybe the most compelling product this sport can produce.


Well, like him or not, just follow Rory.

It probably hasn’t been fully or adequately processed what occurred at Marco Simone on Saturday night.

Arguably the most famous player in professional golf (McIlroy) accosted the most famous caddie in professional golf (Jim “Bones” Mackay) in the breezeway of a Roman golf course. Why? Because another caddie (Joe LaCava) celebrated a 45-foot birdie putt by waving an imaginary hat in the air. Why? Because his player (Patrick Cantlay) was accused in a media report earlier in the day of fracturing U.S. Ryder Cup team relations over frustration for not being paid for Ryder Cup participation and deciding, of all things, not to wear a hat as a protest, and was subsequently taunted all afternoon by hat-waving European fans.

Got that?

The entire scene woke up an otherwise lifeless, listless Ryder Cup proceeding. The Americans lost Friday’s opening session 4-0, quickly dashing some earnest hopes that this year might finally deliver a close, drama-filled Cup. Day 1 ended with Team Europe leading 6 1⁄2 to 1 1⁄2 and, needing desperately to rally on Saturday, the Americans instead got trucked again in morning foursomes, 3-1, falling behind by a seemingly insurmountable seven points heading into Day 2’s afternoon matches.

The fourth session saw two of three matches end with the Americans claiming a point, but McIlroy and Matt Fitzpatrick had an opportunity to even things with a win over Cantlay and Wyndham Clark. In a narrow match with little budging, McIlroy and Fitz looked ready to close their 1-up advantage. Instead, Cantlay went nuclear, stealing a halved hole on No. 16, rolling a birdie on No. 17 to extend the match, then turning the 18th into a moment that will forever mark his career. Cantlay, who by all accounts didn’t know the specifics of the Sky Sports report that he’d splintered the team, made one of the great clutch putts in Ryder Cup history. Hand to his ear, he goaded the crowd while American players waved their hats and inflated their laughs. LaCava, meanwhile, one of the most respected caddies in the game, followed with an out-of-nowhere decision to traipse around the green celebrating.

McIlroy, incredulous, and still to putt, told LaCava to move.

LaCava did not move.

Now things went from spirited to something else. LaCava, 68, barked back at McIlroy, ambled around some more, then barked again at a pack of European players standing green-side. One of them, Shane Lowry, a large Irishman more suited for a rugby pitch, took particular exception. He fired back, bellowing through a long, tousled beard, but made his point clearly. LaCava responded by telling him to “f— off.” The whole moment devolved into confusion and quarreling. But Cantlay and Clark got the win.

Then came the parking lot incident — cameras catching McIlroy crossing paths with Mackay, shouting wildly and being restrained by Lowry.

The inevitable followed. Video breakdowns with forensic detail. Lip-reading. Theories. All of it, birdfeed for social media.

Regardless of how absurd or overdone the whole thing was, it was real, and the 2023 Ryder Cup took on an entirely different life.

In an event that — in golf’s modern world of both sides primarily playing on the PGA Tour and being real-life friends — can often feel inanimate, this version now felt personal.

Did everyone take it that way or feel that heat? No, certainly not. Viktor Hovland and Collin Morikawa weren’t taping up their hands. Plenty of others, though? Yeah, things were tense.

No one more so than McIlroy. Recounting the events, he said he was “actually about to drop my bag (Saturday) and go into the American locker room because I was so angry.” He said it was “completely disrespectful” and he was the “angriest I’ve been in a long time.”

McIlroy said this after his 3&1 win over Burns in Sunday singles. He spoke behind 16 green and the whole ordeal still seemed fresh on his mind. He said it “fueled the whole team” and focused them for Sunday’s 1 v 1 match. He added that he read excerpts from Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” early in the day to “put me in the right frame of mind.” He said he’s long appreciated studying Stoic philosophy. (One could feel McIlroy’s detractors rolling their eyes.)

Which passages from the former Roman emperor did McIlroy read over on Sunday? We have no idea, but for the sake of a good story, let’s assume it was “Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together.”

The European team undoubtedly rallied with McIlroy following Saturday’s events. In turn, needing only 3 1/2 points to close out the Americans, they split the Sunday session 6-6, getting 1/2 points from Lowry (vs. Jordan Spieth) and Jon Rahm (vs. Scottie Scheffler), and full points from Hovland (def. Morikawa), Tyrrell Hatton (def. Brian Harman), Tommy Fleetwood (def. Rickie Fowler) and Robert MacIntyre (def. Clark).

As for the point McIlroy put on the board, he beat Burns with eight birdies and no bogeys through 17 holes. He led 2-up after three holes and never allowed Burns to get it back to all-squared.

For the week, McIlroy’s four points were the most by any single player at Marco Simone. He single-handedly matched the production of the Americans’ top-three ranked players — Scheffler (1 point), Xander Schauffele (1) and Cantlay (2).

As for where things stood with LaCava, McIlroy said he received a text message but hadn’t yet spoken to him. He said the whole thing will pass in time. It’s worth noting the bizarre sidebar of LaCava being the former caddie to Tiger Woods, with whom McIlroy is both a close friend and business partner.

Approached after Cantlay’s singles victory over Justin Rose, LaCava declined comment, saying U.S. captain Zach Johnson asked him not to speak to reporters about Saturday’s brouhaha.

“It’s the way the Ryder Cup goes,” McIlroy said Sunday. “You have to have thick skin. That’s just the way it is.”

Two years ago, McIlroy’s tears at Whistling Straits were real. This weekend, so too were his fire and fury and frustration and frolics.

For all the faux controversy and theatrics in the long history of Ryder Cup histrionics, this event is what it is because in the annals of great players to represent their countries, the ones who left their marks were the ones who felt it in their marrow.

The Ryder Cup means what each individual player makes it mean to them. Not every member of the U.S. team looked crestfallen or wounded on Saturday. Some looked fairly indifferent. And that’s fine. This is not an event requiring a mandatory mortgage on one’s persona. But the image of Scheffler brushing tears from his eyes after a Saturday morning foursome loss shows exactly what it means to a guy who won the Masters. And the strained emotion on Johnson’s face Sunday shows what a loss means to a captain with two major championships. On the European side, Rahm came to Rome ready to fight a lion on the Colosseum floor to regain the Cup for Spain. Fleetwood looked like a guy who fulfilled some kind of personal destiny.

McIlroy, meanwhile, looked like a man in full.

“Playing there,” he said, pointing to the course, “under those conditions, in that atmosphere, makes the final round of a major feel like a walk in the park.”

Does it feel more significant than a major?

“I don’t know,” he responded. “I think it’s different. A team event, and individual events, I think they’re a bit different. I still want to accomplish a ton as an individual, but these Ryder Cup wins are so sweet.”

Truth is, with more and more waves of young talent coming into professional golf, and McIlroy so often feeling incredibly close, but incredibly far away from winning that long-sought fifth major, a performance like his at Marco Simone might carry more weight now.

And that likely means more than anyone can know.

(Illustration: Samuel Richardson / The Athletic; photos: Alberto Pizzoli, Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

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