SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – The smiling, bouncing, ebullient Rory McIlroy has gone missing this year.
The brooding started when he got blown away by Patrick Reed at the Masters. It continued with forgettable final rounds at Carnoustie, Firestone and Aronimink. And it rolled right into the Tour Championship, where on Sunday, with a face-to-face showdown against Tiger Woods, he offered little resistance and limped home with a 74.
That months-long malaise seemed to bleed into the first session of this Ryder Cup, where on Friday morning McIlroy played arguably his worst 16 holes of the year. Needing to show rookie Thorbjorn Olesen the ropes, instead it was McIlroy who appeared out of his depth. Even with three par 5s, he couldn’t muster a single birdie, a performance so bleak that it led to an unthinkable question:
Do you possibly bench Rory on Friday afternoon?
The eventual answer was no, but only because European captain Thomas Bjorn had his Friday lineup established and wasn’t going to be swayed by either McIlroy’s putrid play or the team’s 3-1 deficit.
“I never have any doubt in Rory McIlroy, because if I start doubting him, then I probably shouldn’t be doing this job,” Bjorn said. “I’m not in any way, shape or form qualified to tell Rory McIlroy how to play golf, but I’m qualified to lead him in a direction with the people he’s surrounded himself with this week to get good things out of him.”
And so, teaming in afternoon foursomes with Ian Poulter, McIlroy soon played more like himself. He drove the green and holed the crucial birdie putt on the sixth hole to finally get on the board, then helped Poulter win six more holes to dominate Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson, 4 and 2, during a windy afternoon at Le Golf National.
“Great players, when they don’t perform to the standards that they want to, they have an ability to just go and put it right,” Bjorn said. “And he did that this afternoon.”
Indeed, McIlroy was part of a remarkable European resurgence, as the home team swept a session for the first time since 1989 to build a 5-3 advantage after Day 1.
Standing on the 16th green, McIlroy was downright giddy afterward.
“A big thing for us is resilience and persistence – persist, persist, persist until it turns around for you,” McIlroy said. “It was just what we needed after this morning.”
And it was just what he needed, too.
After the disastrous start, McIlroy easily could have been sent to the bench, putting even more negative thoughts into what has been a cluttered mind. His Sunday retreats suggest a vulnerability that didn’t exist when he was running away with majors and the clearest threat to dominate the sport, but Bjorn’s faith has never wavered.
Though McIlroy wasn’t at his best Friday afternoon, he finally seemed to play with the childlike joy that has been sorely lacking. His teammates noticed.
“I just think getting out on the golf course to get straight back at it was good for him,” Poulter said, “and it was inspiring for me, too.”
McIlroy’s highlight of the day came on the tricky 13th, after Poulter left him in an awkward spot off the tee, his ball coming to rest on a grassy side slope in the hazard near the pond. To even have a swing, McIlroy needed to basically squat down to the ball. He chased after it and hoisted the ball out of the juicy rough, then backpedaled up the hill to track its flight. Somehow, his shot landed on the front edge and ran out 20 feet past the hole. He shrugged sheepishly at Poulter.
“I had full faith in Rors to put it somewhere on the green,” Poulter said, smiling. “Maybe 60 feet away.”
Now facing an unlikely putt to win the hole and go 3 up, the Englishman buried it, screamed, “Come on!” and pounded his chest.
As McIlroy glided toward the 14th with his familiar strut, about two dozen delirious fans danced and sang, “La, la-la-la-la, Europe’s a fighter!”
And so, too, is McIlroy.
On the final few holes, with the result no longer in doubt, he played to the crowd, raising his wedge when they serenaded him and imploring them to make even more noise.
For one afternoon, at least, he looked the happiest he’d been in months.
There’s no better sight for Team Europe.