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LAS VEGAS – Rory McIlroy couldn’t hold back the tears.
After defeating Xander Schauffele in the leadoff singles match in the Ryder Cup last month, McIlroy looked at the scoreboard and saw mostly red flags and knew instantly Team USA was routing his European mates.
It was McIlroy’s second loss in the biennial tussle in six editions and he had an emotional explosion during an interview just after beating Schauffele, 3 and 2. It was the lone point McIlroy earned against three losses during the week. And through genuine, raw, tearful moments of agony, he talked about his love for his team and the event and how much the loss hurt him.
It was a telling interview.
“I don’t necessarily get that emotional about golf, so I guess in that way it surprised me. But as you know, it’s a very emotionally charged week,” McIlroy said Wednesday after his pro-am round for the CJ Cup at The Summit. “There were so many different thoughts and emotions. There was relief that I won a point, there was frustration that I didn’t get more out of myself and disappointment I didn’t do more for the team, so there was so many sort of different emotions sort of going through me there and it was all just a little overwhelming in a way.
“But I think it was a good thing for me. I think I realized a couple of things about myself that I hadn’t, or maybe I had known but I was maybe trying to keep down and not let them out. I was surprised at how emotional I got, but then after a little bit of reflection over the last couple of weeks, I realized why I did get that way.”
Part of what he learned about himself during the outburst was to be true to himself. He’s often talked about the game not defining him, not being his top priority, that you win some and you lose some and you move on. The approach tempers the blow of defeat but can be a crutch.
“I think sometimes I give myself too easy of a time and I try to play it off with, you know, golf doesn’t define me and I’ve got balance in my life and I’m happy away from the course,” McIlroy said. “And that’s obviously very true, but if I’m honest, sometimes I sort of maybe use that as a way to lessen the blow if I don’t play good golf.”
McIlroy hasn’t played his best golf of late. In March, he fell out of the top-10 in the world rankings for the first time since 2018 and he’s currently No. 14. He hasn’t added to his four major championships since winning the 2014 PGA. He won the Wells Fargo Championship earlier this year for his 19th PGA Tour title, but he’s earned just three top-10s in 11 starts since.
But the competitive fire still burns inside McIlroy. He wants win No. 20 on the PGA Tour and the lifetime membership that comes with it. He wants major No. 5 and more. He wants to be No. 1 again.
“I think when I play my best, I’m the best player in the world,” he said. “Haven’t played like that for a while, though, but I don’t feel like I need to go that far back to whenever the pandemic hit, whatever it was, 18 months ago, I was the No. 1 player in the world.
“Obviously the last 18 months haven’t been what I’ve wanted them to be, but if you keep it in perspective, I’m not that far away. (Ranked 14th) is not the position I want to be in, but at the same time there’s so many other guys that are trying to do the same thing as I’m doing and I realize the competition gets tougher each and every year and you just have to try to not just keep up with that, but try to become better.”
McIlroy said he sort of turned the corner a little bit at the end of the season and is looking forward to playing competitive golf again after a two-week break.
“It’s a nice, gentle introduction to the season, 70‑whatever players, no cut,” McIlroy said of the CJ Cup. “I feel like you’re going out there to compete and play and try to win, but at the same time you can maybe try a couple things out in your golf game that you’re maybe working on.
“So it’s a nice way to start the season.”