"Golf is a very selfish game, I’ll be the first person to say that,” says Rory McIlroy as we sit down in Interlaken, Switzerland. Fresh from an outstanding victory at the Ryder Cup just days earlier, the glow of success radiates off the Northern Irish golfer.
As he gushes about his Ryder Cup partners, including Spanish veteran Sergio Garcia, it becomes clear that this wasn’t just an ordinary win for the Briton. “I now know what some of my heroes who play for Manchester United know: what it’s like to win a Champions League and win as a team,” he says.
The biennial competition has grown to become a special event for the golf pro. Despite being sceptical at first – McIlroy famously called the cup an “exhibition” in 2009 – the golfer claims to have had the most memorable experiences of his career at the tournament. It’s also where he met his wife of one year, Erica Stoll, in 2012.
And it seems company has been good to him. In the years following his first Ryder Cup in 2010, McIlroy went on to become a four-time major champion, winning the 2011 US Open, the 2012 PGA Championship, the 2014 Open Championship and the 2014 PGA Championship. He’s hoping to go even further in 2019 with a Masters win – “I’m getting closer each year,” he says.
Whether it’s four team wins at the Ryder Cup, his recent marriage or a new-found commitment to helping others – he’s in Switzerland to drum up support for junior golfers in the Omega Top of Europe challenge – it seems McIlroy’s confidence is back on par.
Congratulations on your Ryder Cup victory. I’m sure that must’ve been such a high?
It was, yes. When we got there, we didn’t envision the score line would be what it was. Everyone was saying it was the strongest American team ever, in terms of world rankings and players, so to be able to beat them as comprehensively as we did, that was a pretty big achievement for all of us.
Despite the Americans appearing so strong on paper, the Europeans easily triumphed. Why do you think this was?
On paper, the Americans had the strongest side ever, but the Europeans also had their second strongest side ever. Both had strong teams, but I think Europeans always seem to gel a bit better. It’s a very individual sport and we’re so used to being somewhat selfish for 51 weeks a year, but to succeed in this tournament you have to leave your ego at the door and just be one of 12. Sometimes we’re able to do that a little bit better than they are.
How do you find competing as a team versus playing individually?
I love it. I’m a big football fan so I’d always wondered what it’s like to be part of a team, not just the big match days but going into training and having banter with the lads. To feel a part of that, and to win or lose as a team, is a very different experience for me but it’s something that I’ve really enjoyed. It’s always more fun winning as a team. Honestly, the best experiences of my career have been being part of Ryder Cup teams.
How do you find playing with golf legends such as Sergio Garcia?
Sergio became the greatest Ryder Cup player ever after last tournament. He’s earned more points than anyone else in history, so for me to be able to help him on his way to that by winning a point on Saturday morning was really cool. Sergio first played in a Ryder Cup in 1999 and 20 years later he’s still playing and winning points, so I feel incredibly fortunate that I’ve been able to have him as a partner.
You’ve averaged two championships a month last year. How so you manage such a hectic work/life schedule?
It’s a balance. I’ve had to learn how to manage my time very well over the last few years, especially since 2011 when I won my first major. It seems like when you win a major it brings your career to that next level and from then on, it’s non-stop. For me, if it was just golf 24/7, I’d go mad. I think it’s very important to take time away and to appreciate that you still need time to do other things. I’ve had a better balance in my life since getting married as that part of my life is as important, if not more important, than what I do on the golf course.
Do you ever go and play a round of golf with your friends at home?
I never used to play much social golf as I’d have very structured practices where all I’d think about was the next tournament, however over the past couple of years I’ve started to appreciate spending four hours with my friends, playing golf and having a laugh. I’ve grown up playing with most of my friends so they’re pretty good. If there’s four of us, we’ll play three on one where the three of them take me on, which usually turns out to be a pretty good match in the end.
Which is your favourite course to play?
There’s a great golf course in Northern Ireland called Royal County Down. Every year it’s ranked in the top three or five in the world. I took it for granted because I grew up so close to it, but I play golf all over the world and when I come back, I realise it really is one of the best courses I’ve ever played.
Are there any courses around the world that still make you nervous to play?
Anywhere they bring the US Open. The Oakmont Country Club is by far the toughest golf course I’ve ever played. The greens are so severe and if you miss the fairways, you’re dead. It’s so challenging and there’s no let up. Usually there are a couple of holes that are a little easier, so you can make a birdie and let your guard down a little bit but there, from the first shot to the last putt, it’s just so difficult.
You’re in Switzerland for Omega’s Top of Europe challenge which saw you go head-to-head with local junior golfers. Why is supporting young talent important to you?
I had such a wonderful experience as a kid playing golf but the opportunities I had might not be available to everyone. I want to try and make golf more accessible and more fun. I know how much fun I had growing up with all my friends at the golf club – they’re still my closest friends to this day, and they’re the guys I lean on if I need any advice. Golf has been an important part of my life and I want to give that opportunity to junior golfers.
Is golf becoming a younger person’s sport?
I think it is, especially some of the women that are playing – you’ve got teenagers who are world number one in major championships. If you look at some of the top players (both male and female) in the world now, they’re in their early and mid twenties.
Do you think you’ll win the Masters in 2019?
I hope so. The Masters has been a tournament that’s eluded me, but I’ve had five top tens in a row so I’m getting there. Each year I’m becoming more comfortable on the golf course and more confident with what I need to do to succeed there. It would be nice to get back on the major winning train. It’s been a few too many years since I won one, so hopefully next year I can start to get back on that.
Rory McIlory wears Omega. omegawatches.com