On a Friday that began shrouded by fog and lacked only a Scottish bagpiper for atmosphere, the U.S. Ryder Cup team’s perfect morning in foursomes play gave way to warm autumn sunshine and a rousing afternoon European comeback at Hazeltine National Golf Club.
When European star Rory McIlroy ended the day by making a clinching eagle putt surrounded by the masses at No. 16’s amphitheater green, he did what any virtuoso might do after delivering a curtain-closing performance on his craft’s biggest stage.
He took a bow.
Trailing 4-0 by lunchtime, reigning British Open and Olympic champion Henrik Stenson’s ball-striking and rejuvenated McIlroy’s audacity helped lead the Europeans back to just a 5-3 deficit heading to Saturday’s 36-hole partnered play.
McIlroy and afternoon partner Thomas Pieters’ play helped quiet a crowd believed to surpass 50,000 fans, many of whom miffed McIlroy by cheering when a European player’s shot went astray.
In Friday’s finale, he delivered what he called an “exclamation point” on the afternoon session, in what he called a “hostile environment” before he sent traveling European fans headed to their buses singing off-key.
“On behalf of the European team as a whole, we’re absolutely delighted to go into tomorrow with not quite the deficit that we were facing going into the afternoon’s four-balls,” McIlroy said.
The Americans became the first of either team since a guy named Arnold Palmer was 1975 to sweep the first morning matches. They did so after young, fearless Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed trumped Olympic medalists Stenson and Justin Rose in the day’s opening match and after the May-December pairing of Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson won its match over McIlroy and first-time Ryder Cupper Andy Sullivan with a late charge.
They did so after truly walking out of a fog during a morning when U.S. captain Davis Love III looked for sign, a day after a private service was held for golf icon Arnold Palmer.
“I was kind of hoping they’re would be a hint of a rainbow through the fog,” Love said, “like there was at Arnie’s funeral the other day.”
By nightfall Friday, the Europeans had cut their deficit in half.
“I like being ahead,” Love said. “You know, there’s no two ways about it. Being ahead is great. I keep telling our guys, there are eight points a day and 12 on Sunday. There are a lot of points out there still. Even after two days, Sunday is very, very important.”
As the sun set on Hazeltine, someone asked Europe captain Darren Clarke whether it’s better to have a small deficit and the momentum or the lead without it.
“As I’m sitting in my seat right now, after the position we were in at lunchtime, I would definitely say it’s better to have a small deficit with some momentum,” Clarke said, “because we didn’t have much at lunchtime. … That’s the Ryder Cup. That’s what all these people come to watch.”
Both captains sent the same pairings out to start the afternoon session, and this time Stenson and Rose reversed course, beating Spieth and Reed soundly, 5 and 4, after putts that lipped out in the morning fell in the afternoon.
The only point the Americans managed all afternoon was Brandt Snedeker and Brooks Koepka’s convincing victory over Martin Kaymer and Danny Willett.
By the time McIlroy and partner Thomas Pieters came to Hazeltine’s climactic 16th hole on the verge of closing the Americans out for the afternoon, McIlroy contemplated how he’d celebrate even before he rolled a downhill 20-foot putt in for an eagle 3.
“I honestly actually thought about the celebration before I hit the putt,” McIlroy said. “I knew it had a good chance of going in. I just had to get it started on the right line, and gravity did the rest.”
McIlroy left July’s PGA Championship looking completely lost about his golf game after he missed the cut in two of the last three majors. He went to the English studio of a renowned putting coach, figured out what Clarke had called a “misbehaving” putter and now has already won twice in September, including an $11.5 million payday for winning the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup playoffs in the same day.
Now he is showing he’s back. He’s also showing what the Ryder Cup means to him.
“Look, it’s a hostile environment out there,” he said. “I just want everyone who’s watching to know how much this means to us, how much it means to me personally and obviously us as a team. You know, we’re not going down without a fight.”
After the eagle putt dropped, McIlroy turned toward a hillside packed with thousands of fans, bowed and then delivered an exaggerated fist punch toward partner Pieters.
Love said he wasn’t bothered in the least by McIlroy’s emotional celebration.
“That’s what is so fun about the Ryder Cup,” Love said. “I’m not going to get Rory not to celebrate when he plays well, and I’m not going to get Patrick Reed to not celebrate when he plays well. Patrick’s running around shushing people. We’re having fun. You know when you hole an eagle putt on the last hole, it’s pretty fun.”
McIlroy was asked later if his celebration might fuel the Americans’ fire, both players and fans presumably.
“No worries on my part,” McIlroy said. “I bowed to them, said, ‘You’re welcome for the show,’ and we move on.”
And here comes Saturday, another two-session day with foursomes in the morning and four-ball in the afternoon. This time, the Mickelson-Fowler will lead off for the U.S. team and the Reed-Fowler pairing will bat cleanup in the fourth and final spot while Clarke is going back to the McIlroy-Pieters and Sergio Garcia-Rafa Cabrera Bello twosomes that worked so well Friday afternoon.