When it comes to professional athletes, external motivators are gravy on top of a plate filled with hard work and inner belief. The great ones, like the 24 golfers at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club this week for the 2023 Ryder Cup, ooze self confidence almost to the point of delusion. One does not arrive at one of the biggest stages in sport without it.
So, when United States rookie Wyndham Clark said he would enjoy the challenge of facing Rory McIlroy in Sunday Singles at the Ryder Cup, many didn't think much of it. Clark didn't say he is better than McIlroy or would beat him should the opportunity arise. He said he believes he is better than him and wants the chance to prove it.
"I have the utmost respect for Rory, he is one of our great ambassadors of our game," Clark told Golf Channel last week. "He is obviously one of the best of all time and he is still going so he can be that. I have tons of respect for Rory and because of that respect, I also want to beat him. I like to think I am better than him and I want to prove that. I would love to play Rory, I think that would be really fun for the fans, too. Long-ball hitters. We have similar games in that respect. It would be a little bit of David and Goliath. I am hoping to get that chance. Regardless of who I play, I am really excited. But that one would be a lot of fun."
Without this belief, Clark isn't in Rome this week.
Clark's words were immediately twisted — a sad reality of the current age. Headlines and clicks were abound. The most experienced man on the European side finally got his bulletin board material he so desperately does not need. Parallels to Abraham Ancer's comments about his desire to play Tiger Woods in the 2019 Presidents Cup were drawn. We all remember how Woods handled that.
"I want everyone to know, I think it was taken out of context," Clark said Wednesday. "If you listen to the whole interview, I praised Rory and said how much I respect him and how good I think he is and how he's one of the best players in the last 20 years.
"And what I said was I think I'm better than him when I'm playing good — if I don't think I'm better than every player out here, then what am I doing? If I'm trying to be the best player in the world, which is what I'm trying to be, I've got to believe that. Right now, maybe I'm not. He's had a way better career than me, that's obvious. But I also have to have that self belief that I can beat anyone out here. It is kind of funny to me that people took it that way because they kind of saw that I'm better than him and I want to beat him. Well, of course I want to beat him and of course I believe that I can beat him."
Why shouldn't the 29-year-old think in such a manner? All his peers do. Brooks Koepka just about said the same moments after Clark stepped away from the podium. A five-time major champion, Koepka has built himself some runway, so the argument could be made Clark shouldn't verbalize his thoughts like he has. Let's remember where he was this time last fall, though.
Clark entered this calendar year outside the top 150 in the Official World Golf Rankings and without a win to his name. His skill was always eye-catching, yet something was missing. Self belief. He got out of his own way in 2023, which some may call ironic at this point, and the trophies and accolades came in spades.
A breakthrough victory at the Wells Fargo Championship was followed by his major moment at the 2023 U.S. Open where he did get the better of McIlroy as well as other fellow Ryder Cup participants Scottie Scheffler, Rickie Fowler, Tommy Fleetwood, Jon Rahm and Xander Schauffele, who rounded out the top 10.
He finished third in the FedEx Cup Playoffs and earned an automatic qualifier spot for the U.S. Ryder Cup team, trailing only Scheffler in points. Clark's improved iron play and timely putting helped, but the catalyst was between the ears.
"What am I supposed to say," said Clark. "If I say I think he's better than me and he's going to beat me, then I'm going to get ridiculed because people don't think I have any self belief. And then if I have self belief, which I do in myself, people take it out of context either way, so it was kind of a tough question. Like I said, I have so much respect for Rory. I've always looked up to him. Even when I was in college, Rory was winning majors. I'm like, man, one day I'd love to be Rory McIlroy.
"By no means did I say anything that was trying to belittle what he did or be cocky or arrogant, it's more just self belief in myself. I'd love to get a chance to play against him this week, and if it doesn't happen, that's fine. Anytime I get Rory in a pairing, I'm excited because I like to measure myself up against the best players in the world and see how I fare."
Some will roll their eyes at the American's comments. Others will wish he had just kept his mouth shut from the beginning. Most will doubt him, but Clark does not, and that is all that matters when you are the man in the colosseum.