It was one of the most memorable duels in Ryder Cup history. That it fizzled out after just nine holes, though, was disappointing for Rory McIlroy. If he gets the chance of a last-day re-match with Patrick Reed here on Sunday – and it’s a distinct possibility – the Northern Irishman is determined to have “some energy in reserve” this time around.
The encounter overall in Minnesota saw McIlroy more animated on a golf course than he’s ever been in his career. He was screaming and shouting like never before and, pushed too far by some of the stuff being aimed at him from outside the ropes, he angrily confronted one fan on the Saturday for overstepping the mark with a comment.
Sent out first in the singles by his captain, Darren Clarke, McIlroy found himself up against Reed, the man dubbed Captain America in this event. Trailing by three points, Europe needed McIlroy to try to set the tone and, at the same time, silence a boisterous home support.
In an epic tussle, the pair traded birdies over the opening seven holes before turning the place absolutely nuts at the eighth. McIlroy rolled in a 60-footer for birdie, cupping his ear in a goading gesture to the crowd and shouting: “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you”.
Unfortunately for him, Reed then calmly rolled in his 20-foot putt for a half, sending those home fans wild with delight, the pair providing a fitting end to one of the most dramatic few minutes in the event’s history as they touched knuckles in a show of respect for one another before heading for the next tee. Reed eventually came out on top in a match that went the distance, helping the home team run out convincing 17-11 winners.
“I could play it for nine holes, and then it suddenly hit me,” said McIlroy, speaking at Le Golf National ahead of this week’s match, in reply to being asked if he’d been surprised how well he’d played that day when both players were so pumped up by the occasion and the potential importance of their match. “It sort of reached its crescendo on the eighth green, and the last ten holes wasn’t quite as good.
“When I look back at those videos and I look back at the last Ryder Cup – it wasn’t just Sunday, it was Friday and Saturday – I’m surprised I had a voice left at the end of the week. It looked tiring to have to play golf like that for three days. So I think I learnt a lot from that.
“It’s good to get excited and it’s good to have that, but, at the same time, if I need and have to be called upon to play a late match on Sunday or whatever it is, I want to have all my energy in reserve, so that I can give everything for 18 holes because I did hit a wall on that back nine on Sunday, and it cost me.”
At Hazeltine, McIlroy was paired with one of the rookies, Andy Sullivan, in the opening session, which Europe lost 4-0. He then joined forces with another debutant, Belgian Thomas Pieters, the pair hitting it off as they delivered three points. Pieters didn’t make the team this time around, leaving McIlroy seeking a new partner in crime. Jon Rahm, the fiery Spaniard, is widely expected to be saddling up alongside McIlroy in Friday’s opening fourballs.
“It was a weird one because Thomas and I didn’t actually play a practice round together at Hazeltine,” recalled McIlroy. “It was sort of a bit of a ‘throw us together at the last moment and see how it goes’. It obviously worked. We played great. We won the three matches that we played with each other. I’d love to find another partner that I could go so well with again this week. You know, I’m not going to give away who we are going to be playing with or our pairings or anything. You’ll see who we practise with on the course each day (McIlroy and Rahm have been in the same group for the two practice sessions so far), and you can figure it out from there.”
Referring to Rahm, he added: “He definitely has the fire of a Seve [Ballesteros]. He’s got that passion that the Spanish are known for. We’ve had this WhatsApp group going, all the Ryder Cup players and vice captains and captains for the last few weeks, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at Jon’s input into it.
“It’s been really cool to see how much he wants this and how he cares about the Ryder Cup and how proud he is to be European and to be Spanish and to really be a part of this.
“I wasn’t quite as vocal in my first Ryder Cup as he’s been, but I wasn’t as good a player in my first Ryder Cup as he is. So I’m expecting some great things from Jon this week and, if we do play together at some point, that would be something I’d really look forward to.”
At 23, Rahm is the youngest member of this European team by two years. That fire in his belly has seen him get over-excited at times since he burst onto the scene over the past couple of years. He knows that himself and, therefore, expects to have someone almost as a chaperone when the gun goes off.
“If I were to play with Rory, we’ve played a lot together, I think we know each other’s game very well and we have a very similar game plan in mind,” he said. “I think the one thing that you can say about both of us is that we are both fearless. We really complement each other very well.
“I think I will be paired with an experienced player. They are not going to put two rookies up on Friday morning. So I will be playing with somebody who can most likely keep me under control on a Friday morning. I feel like I’m going to have electricity coming out of me, so you can imagine I might tee off with somebody who is a little more calm than me, which is not hard to do.”