Superhero McIlroy falls to earth as Americans shatter his aura
00:13 GMT, 29 September 2012
00:13 GMT, 29 September 2012
Take me on, he challenged. And they did. They took him all the way to the last at Medinah Country Club on Friday morning. Then they took him and his mate to the cleaners in the afternoon. They massed the forces of American golf, and then some, to take out the world No 1.
The United States threw everything they had at Rory McIlroy on the first day of the Ryder Cup.
They threw the inspirational presence of Michael Jordan in the gallery, they threw the boisterous barracking of those famed Chicago sports fans, they threw the player American captain Davis Love regards as the greatest putter in the world right now: Brandt Snedeker. All to no avail. And then they threw Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, the hot streak pairing in the morning foursomes. And, finally, they found a way through.
Under pressure: Rory McIlroy feels the heat
Captain Love caught a break when his form partnership ran into McIlroy and Graeme McDowell as the second match out in the afternoon fourball competition and made them look ordinary. It is a different ball game from here.
Former Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger compared McIlroy's current status to that of Seve Ballesteros, and perhaps in McIlroy and McDowell, European captain Jose Maria Olazabal felt he had an echo of his old alliance with Ballesteros, too. By close of play on day one, however, Mickelson and Bradley had gone some way to dispelling that idea.
They paraded round the amphitheatre that is the 17th like conquering heroes after Mickelson had put his tee shot to within three feet. The Northern Irish pair, two down with two to play, conceded immediately. The Americans had put Rory in his place. Today is now a big one for him.
Chip off the block: McIlroy finds the hole from the edge of the green and celebrates with partner McDowell (below)
Perhaps weakened by a game won on the last hole that morning, McIlroy and McDowell struggled from the first. They were three down after three and fell to four adrift after eight, the final score of 2&1 barely doing America's domination justice. Once behind on the first, at no time did the scoreboard for the match show any colour bar red.
It could not have been more different from the morning session when McIlroy and McDowell took a confident three-hole lead, handed it back, and then rallied to win defiantly on the last. At the end of those 18 holes, McIlroy was upright, the bull's-eye on his back unmarked, his first point of the Ryder Cup on the board. From there, however, it became very clear how tough it will be to operate as the main man at a tournament that inflames such nationalistic passion.
'Get in the hole' became 'get in the water' when McIlroy was over the ball. It did not help that his partner McDowell seemed to be obeying those instructions at key moments. The Ryder Cup is golf's great team contest but, even so, being Rory must have felt very lonely at times.
McIlroy is plainly relaxed in McDowell's company and tried his best to smile through the tension, but he will not have had many harder days than this. The first game, against Snedeker and Jim Furyk, was hardly easy, but the hush as McDowell sank the decisive putt on the 18th green told the story of a psychological point won. America had taken their best shot at McIlroy and friends and missed. They then found their range in the afternoon, it must be said.
Talk had been of the blow that could be struck by defeating McIlroy in his first game, but it was America's form guy who blinked under pressure. Snedeker is in superb nick, but his wayward tee shot on the last allowed Europe's victory.
Snedeker retired hurt from the afternoon action, while McIlroy and McDowell were rushed into battle once more. By then, however, the complexion of the scoreboard was changing. Peter Hanson and Paul Lawrie were losing hugely to Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson, and when the second American pair streaked ahead it put Europe into a tight spot. 'We're coming for you, Rory,' they shouted from the bleachers, and suddenly it did not sound like an empty threat.
Controversy: Graeme McDowell (C) remonstrates with Jim Furyk over a ruling at the second
How different from earlier, when McIlroy's strength of character dominated. The first shot of the 39th Ryder Cup revealed the exquisite torture of team golf, a mighty hook from McDowell that took leaves and twigs from a tree and nestled just north of Captain's Club II, but short of hospitality tent 36, belonging to the Aeroterm Vanquish Group.
It could have been golf's equivalent of Steve Harmison's first ball of the 2006-07 Ashes. Instead, McIlroy strode deep into corporate land and left his recovery shot just short of the green. Europe halved the hole. It set the standard for McIlroy's morning turn, his determination further cemented by a little episode on the second.
McIlroy's tee shot came to rest near a sprinkler. McDowell immediately claimed relief, America – Jim Furyk in particular – objected. The chief referee was summoned. He sided with America. Furyk looked McIlroy straight in the eye. 'You do understand, don't you' he said. He might as well have added 'sonny'. Furyk has close to 20 years on McIlroy.
Sandman: McIlroy plays from a bunker during Friday morning's Ryder Cup foursomes
So fractious was the mood that the
pairs could then not agree on whose turn it was to putt, and the pin was
used to measure distance from the hole.
'It's not going to be a nice match
now,' said Darren Clarke's mum, part of a large European entourage
following the game. 'I've never seen anything like that at the Ryder
McIlroy, though, grew from the incident. Faced with a difficult chip from the back of the fourth green, he sank it with a master craftsman's precision. His celebration – fist clenched, face unsmiling and defiant, eyes coldly furious – would not have been out of place on the football pitch. That sprinkler nonsense had made him angry and, like The Hulk, America wasn't going to like him when he's angry.
Yet even before the afternoon session there were signs of mental fatigue. Three up standing on the 13th tee, Team Northern Ireland were comfortable. Even when Furyk sank a par putt to claw a hole back, Europe's win seemed assured. But 15 is the ultimate risk-reward hole, a short par four with a green that can be taken on from the tee, but is guarded by serious water.
Stars and stripes: Phil Mickelson celebrates with wife Amy (R) after defeating McIlroy and McDowell
Furyk went bold, almost drove the green. McDowell tried to follow him, found the lake. It seemed a poor call. He could just as easily have laid up and trusted McIlroy to target the pin. Now the crowd were raucous and the lead cut to one. At the next, Snedeker put his second shot to three feet. All square.
And that was how it remained until the last, when Snedeker cracked, sending his tee shot wildly right. McDowell found sand with his second. Now it was McIlroy's moment. He stepped into the bunker and lofted the ball close.
McDowell did the rest. It was gladiatorial golf at its finest. They started an argument: he finished it.
By the afternoon, though, the scoreboard had been painted red. McIlroy looked exhausted. McDowell had struck his last shot of the day in the drink. 'Oh baby, I wish I could go 36 more,' said Bradley. Then again, he doesn't have a dirty great bull's-eye on his back.