The Greatest Show in Golf

Marcus Smith

It was Saturday night at the 2012 Ryder Cup and the U.S. held a commanding 10–6 lead. For me and my European teammates, the outlook was bleak — we would need to gain 8½ points in one day to win the Cup outright — but you’d never know that given the scene back at our hotel.

There, in a little meeting room at the end of the team corridor, my teammates and I were charged up. Ian Poulter was smacking guys on the back. Graeme McDowell’s hand was red from high-fiving people. The rest of us couldn’t stop smiling. Even our captain, José María Olazábal, was getting in on the fun as he laughed with the group.

I’m sure that part of him couldn’t believe how pumped up we were given the score. But on some level, I think he knew our excitement was justified. I mean, earlier in the day, we looked as if we wouldn’t even have a chance to be anywhere near the Americans heading into Sunday. But that mentality had completely changed by the time we left the course on Saturday.

The final two matches of the afternoon had been critical. Luke Donald and Sergio García won their afternoon four-ball game against Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods on the 18th hole, and my playing partner, Ian Poulter, had birdied five holes in a row to finish off an inspiring comeback victory in our match against Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson. After those two big wins, the momentum was surely on our side. And in our meeting room, we could feel it.

We sat there in awe. Nervous energy was replaced with adrenaline. We were fired up.

Rory McIlroy

When the chatter and the laughter finally started to die down, José María began:

“As you all know, the tournament is far from over. We still have a monumental task ahead of us tomorrow.”

It was true. Only one other team in Ryder Cup history had overcome a four-point deficit on the last day to win. The gravity of the moment was not lost on our captain as he spoke.

“Remember one thing: All men die, but not all men truly live,” he said. “And I want every one of you to go out there tomorrow and live as if it’s your last day.”

We sat there in awe. Nervous energy was replaced with adrenaline. We were fired up. Something big was happening.

All week long, José María had carried with him the memory of his Spanish compatriot and friend, Seve Ballesteros, who had died a year earlier. With José María’s words echoing in our ears — and with Seve’s legacy in our hearts — we were ready to run through a brick wall for our captain and his mentor.

What happened the next day at Medinah will stay with me forever. Spurred on by what happened the day before, my teammates and I showed what can happen when there is a real brotherhood in golf. Even though everybody had already written us off, we ended up winning those 8½ points we needed to retain the Ryder Cup.

I was 23 years old at the time, and after that week I took a moment to reflect on how far I had come. A little more than a decade earlier, back home in Holywood, Northern Ireland, my dad and I would flick on the television and watch the best golfers in the world.

As I stared at the screen mesmerized by what I was seeing — and as the smell of my mum’s cooking drifted into the den — I dreamt of playing professionally. One thing I never could have imagined, though, was participating in something as special as the 2012 Ryder Cup.

Rory McIlroy | PGA Tour | The Players' Tribune
Marcus Smith

Sundays were the best. By far.

When I was about eight or nine, I started to play and watch golf every Sunday. The days always went pretty much the same: When the clock hit half seven, my dad, my uncle and a family friend would go grab breakfast and then head up to a local course for a morning game. We’d finish early enough so that my dad and I could join my mum back home for lunch.

We would spend the rest of the day on the sofa watching golf on our small, boxy television. As the sun sank lower and lower, my dad and I would remain glued to the conclusion of European Tour action. And once that was over, we would catch the end of that week’s PGA Tour event.

Like almost every kid from my generation, I rooted for Tiger. It was impossible not to. I was completely enthralled with his dominant style of play. And in the quiet of our den, I watched his entire performance at the 1997 Masters. It left quite an impression. After that, I wanted him to win every single tournament.

But for as wonderstruck as I felt watching Tiger, I soon learned that there was one tournament where rooting for him felt, well … wrong.

It was the Ryder Cup. And it was the greatest week in golf.

Everything was different about it. Suddenly, instead of cheering for Tiger, I was pulling for an entire European continent to beat him and the rest of the Americans. And the atmosphere … it was unique, something special. I’m sure it was made even more intense because of the fact that I watched the event for the first time in 1999.

Yes, my introduction to Ryder Cup golf was the Battle of Brookline.

Rory McIlroy | PGA Tour | The Players' Tribune
Marcus Smith

Oh, how that Sunday is carved into my memory! With a creeping sense of dread, I sat there on our sofa pleading for the Europeans to finish the job. But it was a lost cause. By the afternoon, we had inconceivably lost a four-point lead. And with our den illuminated by just a single lamp, I watched the Americans snatch the Ryder Cup from our grasp.

There I was — 10 years old and an entire ocean away — completely gutted. I was truly distraught. I went to bed in pieces, as if the European’s collapse was the end of the world.

Though I understood the significance of the event, I wasn’t yet dreaming of playing on a Ryder Cup team. I was still very young. But by my early teens, I had won some big junior tournaments. I was improving as a golfer and beginning to imagine future goals, targets and ambitions. The more I progressed, the closer I came to making the Ryder Cup team. And I was fortunate enough to take a big step in that direction when I was 14 by earning a spot on the Irish boys’ national squad.

Given my early success, I expected my transition into team golf to be quite seamless. And, purely on a basis of my performance, that was pretty much the case.

But when it came to coping with disappointing my teammates, well, that was a bit more of a struggle.

One of the biggest challenges early on in my career — and honestly, one of the most humbling experiences — was assuming the responsibility of playing for something bigger than myself.

My last tournament as an amateur was the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal County Down — a course I had played many times as a kid. Given my familiarity with the course, along with my form going into the event, I was seen as a leader of our all British and Irish team. That was quite an honor.

By the end of the weekend, though, I was more disappointed than I had ever been.

My teammates and I lost to the U.S. by one point. After contributing only 1½ points out of a possible four, I felt like I was responsible for the outcome. I was disappointed not only in myself, but also because I felt like I’d let my teammates down — and that was disheartening. I had never really experienced that feeling before.

Everything changed the very first time I gathered together with the rest of my teammates.

Rory McIlroy

It was extremely frustrating. But I had a lot of good people around me who encouraged me to look forward rather than to dwell on the past. Soon after, I achieved one of my loftiest dreams: I became a professional golfer. Though I had lots to learn, it was such a special time for me. I felt at peace with myself both on and off the course.

I had worked so hard to become a professional, and having won my first European tour event in Dubai in 2009, I was lucky enough to make my first Ryder Cup team in 2010.

Without ever having played in the event, I wasn’t prepared for the emotions that came from being part of a team. Sure, after watching it for so many years and hearing all the stories, I knew that the event was something different. But it quickly became apparent what an honor it was to be part of the team.

Rory McIlroy | PGA Tour | The Players' Tribune
Marcus Smith

When I arrived at Celtic Manor that week, I was just 21. I was still so afraid of failing my team, especially after what had happened three years earlier at County Down.

But everything changed the very first time I gathered together with the rest of my teammates. Although I had some trepidations, some of the veterans on the European squad reinforced the power of our team. And I’ll never forget how some of the guys made me feel included and welcomed.

There’s one particular moment that stands out.

After our team dinner the night before the competition began, our captain, Colin Montgomerie, asked me and my teammates to stick around. As we sat back down in our chairs, Monty addressed us.

“There’s a very important man who wants to speak to you all,” he started. “But, unfortunately, he’s not able to be here in person.”

I looked over at GMac. He shrugged his shoulders.

“So, instead, we’re going to phone him.”

Monty dialed a number, waited for an answer and then turned on the speakerphone.

He laid the phone in the middle of the table.

“Alright, go ahead.”

A voice with a thick Spanish accent boomed out of Monty’s cellphone.

“Hello, boys!”

I immediately recognized that wonderful and unmistakable voice. We all did. It was Seve. Everyone in the room was grinning from ear to ear. There were a smattering of salutations:

“Oi, Seve!”

“Hello, Seve!”

“You alright, Seve?”

He continued: “I wanted to talk to you all before play started. It is very important for you all to play for each other this week.”

At the time, Seve was incredibly sick. He had already gone through four courses of chemotherapy for a malignant brain tumor. But, as he went on, he sounded so … animated.

“I will be watching every shot, and I’ll be with you all 100%. You must bring the Ryder Cup back to Europe!”

At that very moment, it all felt right. The team, the camaraderie, the togetherness. And I’m indebted to Seve and my teammates for making me feel that way.

Despite his poor health, I could feel the fire and passion in Seve’s voice. Of course, whenever he and his team lost the Ryder Cup, Seve took it personally. Though he was one of the most courteous competitors in the history of golf, deep down I know he felt hard done by whenever he lost to the Americans. Nothing was more important to Seve than winning the Ryder Cup.

And if we wanted to win, we needed to be in it together.

The next morning, with people stomping their feet as they sang and chanted in the grandstands, I crossed the bridge that connected the practice range to Celtic Manor’s 1st tee. This didn’t sound like a golf tournament. No, this was closer to a Manchester derby than anything else. It was that atmospheric.

After a weekend of weather delays and high emotion, we regained the Ryder Cup. To have done it on European soil was exhilarating. Though I only won two out of a possible four points, I felt as though I matured psychologically. And that newfound confidence spilled over into the regular season.

In 2011, I won the U.S. Open at Congressional. The following year, I reached No. 1 in the World Rankings for the first time. Toward the end of the season, I won the PGA Championship at Kiawah and captured back-to-back victories in the FedEx Cup playoffs. I just felt good about my game.

If my teammates could look to the scoreboard and see UP and a blue number next to my name, then I’d be pulling my weight.

Rory McIlroy

A few weeks later, at the 2012 Ryder Cup, there was an expectation that I would play more of a leadership role within the team. I was incredibly honored to be considered experienced enough. But, as a 23-year-old and the youngest guy on the team, I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries or get above my station in any way. And, thankfully, our captain José María, really helped me navigate the situation.

Before play started at Medinah that year, he convinced me that the best way to lead the team wasn’t by giving speeches. It wasn’t by adding my thoughts on the pairings. And it certainly wasn’t by thinking of myself as the best player in the world.

If my teammates could look to the scoreboard and see UP and a blue number next to my name, then I’d be pulling my weight. All I had to do to gain the respect of my teammates was to play as well as I could and be one of the lads. It was that easy.

And just as José María said at that impromptu Saturday-night pep rally, we had a monumental task ahead of us on Sunday. Although we trailed by four points, we knew what we were capable of.

When I surveyed our little room and saw the determination on the faces of Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald, Justin Rose and the rest of our team, I knew the guys were in it for each other. And, truthfully, that was all we needed — to look into our teammates’ eyes and know that everything that was going to happen on the course the next day wasn’t for any one individual.

It was for something much, much bigger.

Rory McIlroy | PGA Tour | The Players' Tribune
Marcus Smith

The strength of our team during the 2010 and ’12 victories was apparent in our ability to rally and pull together when it mattered most. Colin and José María had been brilliant with our strategy, and our team accomplished what many believed could not be done.

At the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, our roster was again tightly knit. Our captain, Paul McGinley, imbued every golfer with a sense of ownership and told us that we would all have an opportunity to contribute and lead. Each person held a role. And having won two more majors that year — and with more Ryder Cup experience — Paul asked me to be a bit more involved in team strategy than I had been in 2010 and ’12.

But the thing is, there’s no MVP award in the Ryder Cup. All that matters is how the team does. So, despite going into the event with a couple of big wins and some added responsibility, I knew we still had to play as a group. Paul knew that, too, which is why he valued input from everyone on the team — from rookie Victor Dubuisson to 43-year-old Thomas Bjørn. Without a doubt, our five-point victory was a testament to that.

And this year is no different. When play begins on Friday, that same cohesion will be on full display.

Our team has been heartened by the recent play of veterans Justin Rose, who won Olympic gold in Rio, and Henrik Stenson, who took home the Claret Jug this summer. Darren Clarke, our captain, has the same transparent and inclusive leadership style as Paul. And we’re all excited about our rookies.

It’s funny actually — this year, we’re going to have the same number of rookies as we did during my first Ryder Cup in 2010: six. And I can’t help but think back to that week at Celtic Manor, the first moment I really felt the importance of being on a Ryder Cup team.

There’s nothing more powerful than all parts of a team working together. And that strength is something we’ll be looking forward to showing at Hazeltine.

Rory McIlroy | PGA Tour | The Players' Tribune