ROME - Rory McIlroy sighed when the inevitable question came about this Ryder Cup.
Of course, the query was about the absence of Europe's old guard. Golf's bad boys. The LIV rebels: Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia.
The trio joined a rival golf league in 2022 and their decisions to tee it up with the Saudi-funded upstart presented an immediate risk to their futures in the biennial contest, notwithstanding their relationships with their home circuit.
Since the 6 June peace agreement between golf's warring organisations was announced, a lot of water has passed under the bridge.
McIlroy, the PGA Tour's sacrificial lamb, appeared to be defeated. There was a sense of inevitability about how things transpired. The other side has more money and they are not going to stop.
The Northern Irishman is now back on speaking terms with Europe's record points scorer.
Still, it is strange, McIlroy said, that the three golfers have no involvement at the Marco Simone Golf & Country Club.
"But I think this week of all weeks, it's going to hit home with them that, you know, they are not here," McIlroy told reporters on Wednesday before heading out on a practice round with Matthew Fitzpatrick, Justin Rose and rookie Nicolai Hojgaard.
McIlroy's assumptions are right, given Graeme McDowell recently admitted to Golf Digest he's a tad bitter and unsure whether to bury his head in the sand over the next few days.
McDowell explained: "It's not bitterness towards anyone. It's bitterness that I am not part of the eco-system."
He added: "But I'm trying not to let that get in the way of what my true feelings are. I've had some of the greatest experiences of my life with my Ryder Cup teammates. And I enjoyed my two vice-captaincies. But this year it's a little bittersweet for me. I just have to remember how cool it all is."
For so many years Poulter was a thorn in Team USA's side. To many, he was the player you love to hate.
"The guys we brought in are awesome," McIlroy said.
"We came here to Rome a couple of weeks ago for a practise trip, and I thought that was incredibly important. Honestly I couldn't believe that we've never done it before."
McIlroy said when the team weren't on the golf course they sat round the fire pit sharing stories and describing their journeys in golf and what the Ryder Cup means to team.
He added: "I think Luke and his vice captains have really sort of tapped into that emotional connection around Team Europe this week, and we have all bought into it.
"It's been an amazing experience so far, and it's only Wednesday. There's a lot of great things to come. But couldn't be more excited to be a part of the team, and to have those other 11 guys be my teammates."
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