FOR the first time since 1997, this weekend’s Ryder Cup will involve just a single Irishman as Europe and America prepare to do battle again for the 41st time.
The disappointing performances of Shane Lowry, Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell saw the trio miss out on Darren Clarke’s wildcard picks and signalled what many predicted; that Rory McIlroy would head to Hazeltine Golf Club as the sole Irishman.
With the lack of Irish golfers due to be involved, this week’s tournament is a far cry from the days of the 2004 Ryder Cup, when the island of Ireland had three players in the European team and in 2006, when the side contained three Irishman once again, as Dubliner Paul McGinley sunk the winning putt at the K-Club in Kildare.
However, the Emerald Isle’s part to play could still be just as pivotal in this week’s Ryder Cup as in those years previous.
McIlroy heads to Minnesota as the European team’s star man with his form and quality on the greens, which is likely to be the barometer of his side’s success in this year’s tournament.
At world number three and having won four Majors – the highest number from any golfers in Europe’s team – McIlroy is the kingpin.
And after earning an incredible $11.5m in winning the Tour Championships and FedEx Cup with a subline finish in Atlanta on Sunday, the American team will be looking at him with an unrelenting weariness.
The 27-year-old won a play-off to seal victory in the Tour Championship and with it the $10m FedEx Cup bonus – the PGA’s season-long points race – as well as $1.5m tournament prize money.
Additionally, he’s yet to be part of a losing European team after winning three successive Ryder Cups, rising his stock even higher.
Such a successful streak in this continent versus continent clash shows the Ulsterman possesses invaluable experience and know-how of what’s required to win Europe the title and therefore can lend a crucial hand in helping the rookies – like England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick, Danny Willett and Chris Wood – settle into their first battle against the Americans.
What’s more, after experiencing a testing year on tour, McIlroy earlier this month won the Deutsche Bank Championship, which indicates he is coming back into form just at the right time, an assertion allied by his former Ryder Cup captain, Paul McGinley.
"That's a very strong message he has sent out," McGinley said, speaking to The Telegraph. "Rory has proved he's formidable when he's in form. He gave everyone a four-shot lead [McIlroy dropped four shots after three holes of his first round] and still won by two. I haven't seen a dominating performance like that from Rory for two years. It reaffirmed that he still has the ability to have an extra gear and it’s a great boost for Europe.”
The Deutsche Bank win brought to an end a 16-month drought on the PGA Tour and lifted a millstone from around McIlroy’s neck, which should allow him to play with more confidence and a renewed oomph in the Ryder Cup.
The Holywood native’s troubles on the green also look to be behind him, with his putting appearing more fluent and assured, which has understandably delighted the four-time Major winner.
"I knew my game was in good shape, I just needed to do something with the putting. I found something," said McIlroy after his win.
Having triumphed in every Ryder Cup he’s been involved in, McIlroy will be desperate to continue that impressive feat this week at Hazeltine.
"I am excited with how my game is and what I have found, and hopefully I can keep it going for the next couple of tournaments, but ultimately into the Ryder Cup and trying to get a fourth one of those," he added.
If the man from County Down can maintain his mini revival, then him and Europe could very well make it a record four in a row.