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Rory McIlroy scoffs at bull’s-eye on his back for Ryder Cup at Medinah

Red-hot Rory McIlroy would “love it” if he were be matched singles play against Tiger Woods. | Getty Images

Red-hot Rory McIlroy would “love it” if he were to be matched in singles play against Tiger Woods. | Getty Images

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Updated: October 29, 2012 7:02AM

In golf’s version of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,’’ one man wields the most dangerous six-iron (and driver, wedge and putter) in the Midwest.

Say hello to Rory McIlroy, who finds himself fending off a ­barrage of questions about ­being “a marked man’’ at the 39th Ryder Cup, which begins Friday at Medinah.

It’s appropriates that McIlroy will be paired in the first alternate-shot group Friday morning with Graeme McDowell. It’s a formidable duo that will be favored to get the Europeans off on the right foot against Jim Furyk and Brandt Snedeker.

“I don’t think I have a bull’s eye on my back,’’ McIlroy said. “It’s a huge compliment that people are saying they want to beat me and whatever. Whoever wants to take me on, they can take me on.’’

That’s what happens when you win two legs of the Fedex Cup tournaments in September, on top of winning the 2012 PGA championship and the 2011 U.S. Open, both in record fashion.

Exactly what makes someone a marked man in golf is open to discussion. The gallery, which is expected to number at least 40,000 Team USA partisans, can mess with him a bit. Team USA captain Davis Love III can try to arrange a favorable matchup, if there is one.

Maybe McIlroy will see the Great Intimidator, Tiger Woods, in singles on Sunday. The problem with that is, Love and European captain Jose Maria Olazabal ­submit their lineups without knowing what the other is doing.

“It would be pretty good theater to match [them],’’ Team USA captain Davis Love III said. “But I don’t want to be the first [captain] to start rigging pairings.’’

So the Americans can’t be sure of having Tiger stalk McIlroy. They can’t double-team him or cheap-shot him, either.

So this “marked man’’ stuff is all part of the considerable Ryder Cup hype, which is reaching ­Olympic proportions in the Windy City this week.

“I think there’s 12 bull’s eyes on every one of our backs this week,’’ Englishman Ian Poulter said. “ I don’t think Rory is singled out. I know he’s world No. 1 and he’s played incredible golf over the last year. I don’t see that as being an issue. I don’t think it’s an issue for Rory at all.’’

True enough. But McIlroy is a marked man in one very real sense.

As perhaps the hottest player golf has seen since Woods was dominating, McIlroy needs to perform this weekend. If McIlroy is going to turn theories that he can succeed Woods as golf’s premier force into reality, the Ryder Cup, is an excellent place to make the point.

Right or wrong, the Ryder Cup has become an event in which ­reputations are made and lost. That is what makes him a marked man, more than anything Team USA or its supporters do.

McIlroy wasn’t buying the theory that there’s more pressure on the world’s top-rated golfer.

“No, not at all,’’ he said. “This week I’m not the No. 1 player in the world; I’m one person in a 12-man team, and that’s it. It’s a team effort. There’s 12 guys all striving toward the same goal. I’m just part of that.’’

That’s probably a healthy approach to take, even if it isn’t necessarily the case.

A lot depends on whether McIlroy sees the Ryder Cup as frosting on the cake, or a potential roadblock — whether he plays loose or tight.

In a departure from the O.K. Corral analogy, Rory is more of a Billy the Kid than Doc Holliday. Despite his boyish look, he’s not afraid to say things or back them up.

“I’d love it,’’ Rory the Kid has often said when asked if he’d like to go head-to-head with Woods.

After winning the PGA at Kiawah in August by eight shots, he talked about a second-round 75 “that could easily have been a 77 or 78,’’ then added with a cocky smile, “Still wouldn’t have made a difference.’’

That Rory is not worried about having a target on his back. He relishes it. And if McIlroy gets on a roll, Team USA could find itself in a dangerous shootout.

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