Since his 2010 debut, no Ryder Cup captain has ever resisted the temptation to select Rory McIlroy for a session, morning or afternoon. It’ll be interesting to see if that survives this weekend in Whistling Straits.
Match play golf is all about momentum, we are often told. Friday went against Europe and, rather specifically, McIlroy. Twice he suffered losing streaks that led to significant losses.
In the morning foursome, he and Ian Poulter were behind by five after the first five holes, a setback that would always prove irreversible. Then, along with Shane Lowry in the afternoon, the Irish pair lost control of what had been a tight match, losing holes eight, nine and ten and once again giving up all hope of victory. It was the first time that McIlroy had lost twice in a Ryder Cup on the same day.
Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy never recovered from a bad start in the opening session
Things didn’t improve for McIlroy in the afternoon session alongside Shane Lowry
It was the first time that McIlroy had lost twice at the Ryder Cup on the same day
This was in many ways like watching one of those Thursdays at a major tournament when McIlroy pulls himself out of the fray, before showing the world what could have been for the next three days.
It could also be that way here, of course. McIlroy has the game to make the positive impact that Friday was missing. But is it already too late? This was a fantastic day for America. The first time since 2010 that they won both the opening foursome and fourball sessions.
America didn’t win that year, it can be argued. But then the gap between the teams after eight games was two points. This was different. This was more serious.
A 6-2 deficit is the worst opening day performance since the start of the European team. Significant damage was done to European pride and some important European egos.
Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay shake hands after beating Europe’s dream team
Poulter, the postman, did not deliver. Lowry, eager to impress as the captain’s choice for his friend Padraig Harrington, was repulsed. And McIlroy, who is considered such a key player, suffered two of the worst setbacks: 5&3 in the morning, 4&3 in the afternoon. He hasn’t gotten past the 15th hole yet. It was a thoroughly miserable day.
And of course it wasn’t just about Europe’s shortcomings. McIlroy also encountered two very good American combinations. In the morning, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay were already five under par playing alternating shots when the match was shortened with three holes to play.
In the afternoon Tony Finau’s putter suddenly caught fire in a way it rarely does at major tournaments, and neither McIlroy nor Lowry had an answer.
McIlroy and Poulter faced the dreaded possibility of a 10&8 after a bad start
Finau took some putts to close three consecutive holes — nine, ten and 11 — and almost nothing within 15 feet of the hole was left standing as America’s lead widened past the back nine. When Finau finally missed a putt from that distance at 14, it was before the game.
The inevitable slowed down briefly and McIlroy reached the 15th tee in exactly the same position as in the morning, with the Americans dormie four. McIlroy’s body language at this stage was well known to those who have watched with increasing sadness and frustration his recent appearances at major tournaments.
Shoulders slumped, cheeks swelled as another putt went wrong. The crowd wasn’t ugly, or very hostile, but it still wasn’t pleasant out there. Lots of crowing, lots of US and lots of noise from elsewhere that would have suggested this wasn’t Europe’s day.
Previously, Poulter and McIlroy – a dream team reunited from the Miracle of Medinah – had been ominously defeated by a few rookies. A Ryder Cup legend and a four-time Major winner. Padraig Harrington had hoped that together they could unleash some of the old magic. The key word in that sentence is unfortunately old.
Lowry and McIlroy collapsed between the eighth and tenth holes to throw the game away
Poulter’s age and experience are well known, but at Whistling Straits McIlroy also looked worn out. Older than this generation of young Americans looking to bring their vibrant match play game to Europe.
McIlroy played 30 holes of match play and his team led for one of them after taking fifth in the afternoon session. He missed a short putt on sixth to immediately give that lead back and it was never regained.
At halftime on the first day, America was leading 3-1, but it was the point awarded by game four pairing that hurt the most. Some of Europe’s losers went down fighting. Paul Casey and Viktor Hovland led briefly; so did Jon Rahm and Tyrell Hatton.
Lee Westwood and Matt Fitzpatrick tied in the back nine. Still, McIlroy and his partners drowned at Lake Michigan’s shoes, from the first hole. That was when McIlroy played a hopelessly bad chip, giving America the immediate advantage.
From there, his association with Poulter never recovered. One down by the first to five down by the fifth. As margins grew, the record books were consulted. Europe’s biggest foursome loss ever? It was 7 and 6. Poulter and McIlroy were in a somber trot that raised the dreaded possibility of 10&8.
Harris English (left) and Tony Finau celebrate on the 15th after beating McIlroy and Lowry
That didn’t happen. The bleeding was stopped by a succession of halved holes and then on the back nine there was some kind of revival. McIlroy and Poulter were in 13th, trailing just three.
The problem with such a drastic backlog, though, is that if the holes are eaten up, the end is just one bad shot away. It came properly on the 14th tee. Poulter took liquids and snacks on board to prepare for the battle ahead. McIlroy stood above him, on a huge raised tee.
The cry of ‘Fore, right’ indicated impending doom. Poulter arrived at the ball, in the rough, on a devilishly difficult downhill slope. He joked with the audience, changed his attitude several times. It seemed like an impossible shot.
Poulter did, got his ball, not just on the green, but with a real chance of birdie. McIlroy missed that. Schauffele drank the equivalent. Dormy four. It was time to map out a route back to the clubhouse.
And there will be many who claim to have seen this coming with Poulter’s roster. He was his captain’s choice and always a gamble. Poulter may be capable of extraordinary feats in match play golf, he may be the postman, the daddy, the governor when it comes to this match.
But no athlete can outrun the passage of time. He’s smaller than any American off the tee, and young opponents won’t bow to reputation. He doesn’t intimidate them, no matter how brutal his behavior. They know him from the PGA Tour, not the Ryder Cup. They do not acknowledge his threat.
Poulter was almost occasionally dragged down in the morning session by his partner McIlroy
However, what should be concerned here is that Poulter wasn’t really the problem. He was dragged down by McIlroy. His energy would be bolstered by McIlroy’s brilliance, but there was no spark.
The pairing with Lowry was another designed to shoot at shared nationality like Rahm and Sergio Garcia. Nothing again. Despite being the third pair, McIlroy and Lowry lost first in the afternoon.
It was always going to be difficult here with so much pressure from the gallery, but talking about a bear pit was rather over the top. Yes, this was a partisan arena, but mostly genius. Of course they cheer when a European shot goes wrong, but only because it usually means their team wins.
They love McIlroy, and if he, or Europe, has a good chance, they’re grateful and encouraging. There just weren’t enough to make this generosity noticeable.