By Mark Lamport-Stokes
CHASKA, Minnesota (Reuters) - Rory McIlroy has added motivation playing for Europe captain Darren Clarke at this week's Ryder Cup, having first met his fellow Northern Irishman by chance on his 10th birthday 17 years ago.
While McIlroy readily concedes that he has been lucky to represent his continent under three superb Ryder Cup captains in Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal and Paul McGinley, he says this week at Hazeltine will be extra special.
"I've been very fortunate, everyone in Europe has been very fortunate, to play under some great captains," McIlroy said on Tuesday before heading off for team practice with Englishmen Chris Wood and Andy Sullivan and Spaniard Sergio Garcia.
"McGinley at Gleneagles (Scotland, in 2014) was the best captain that I had ever played under. I had a very special relationship with Paul," he said of of the Irishman.
"I've always wanted the win for the captain, but probably even more so this year just because of Darren and the relationship that we have."
His relationship with Clarke dates back nearly two decades ago to the Valley Course at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland where the young McIlroy had been taken by his father, Gerry, to play golf as a treat on his 10th birthday.
By chance, he ended up practising his chipping very close to Clarke and the two struck up a conversation.
"I remember I got a new wedge, the Cleveland Rusty Wedge," McIlroy, 27, recalled during a news conference at Hazeltine National. "So I was chipping around the chipping green, and that's where Darren was.
"He had been on a great run, was like a top-10 player in the world, and it was my first time to meet him. It was a great birthday for me. I was then part of his Foundation to try and nurture the talent in Ireland.
"My relationship goes back a long way with Darren ... now here we are, in the biggest stage of the game, and I'm able to play under him as a Ryder Cup captain. I'm very much looking forward to that."
A four-times major champion who has represented a triumphant Europe in the past three Ryder Cups, McIlroy relishes his expanding role as one of the team's leaders.
"At Gleneagles last time, I embraced that more and I took more responsibility on," said the world number three, who comes into this week in sizzling form after winning twice in his last three PGA Tour starts.
"I relish that role. I understand it's a big responsibility but I feel like I'm now ready to take that on my shoulders and hopefully lead by example."
(Editing by Larry Fine)