For three straight days and five exhausting matches, Rory McIlroy didn’t just fight against the 12 Americans who were determined to end years of Ryder Cup futility. He also went toe-to-toe with the screaming, rowdy crowd that gave previously serene Hazeltine the feel of a blood-thirsty football stadium.
Pumping his fist after every long putt and defiantly staring down heckler after heckler, McIlroy did everything he could to try to lead Europe to a record fourth straight victory in the biennial showdown. It all caught up to him on the back nine on Sunday. And when he faded in a fiery tussle with Patrick Reed, any chance Europe had of another improbable rally all but ended as well.
“I just ran out of steam on the back nine,” McIlroy said after Europe lost 17-11 to the United States. “Not physically, but mentally just a little. I was trying to summon up energy. I was trying to do everything I could. … It just wasn’t meant to be.”
Europe entered the day with a three-point deficit against an American team that finally appeared to have its act together after so much dysfunction and disorganization over the last decade. That made the hill to climb just as daunting as their “Miracle at Medinah” in 2012, when they overcame a 10-6 deficit on Sunday to stun the U.S.
European captain Darren Clarke front-loaded his lineup, hoping McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Thomas Pieters and Justin Rose could put some European blue on the board early and turn up the heat on the desperate Americans.
There was hope early as McIlroy was 5 under through eight holes. He and the equally emotional Reed threw decorum out the window, exchanging wild celebrations every chance they had.
It reached a fever pitch on No. 8, when McIlroy holed a 60-foot putt for fourth straight birdie, let out a guttural howl and held his hand to his ear while yelling to the gallery, “I can’t hear you!”
Reed followed with a 35-footer of his own to keep the match all square, and the Texan wagged his finger at McIlroy as the two walked off the green toward the ninth hole. McIlroy managed just one birdie – and had three bogeys – from that point on, and Reed outlasted him for a 1-up victory that set the tone for the rest of the day.
Europe won only four of the 12 matches, giving the U.S. its largest margin of victory since 1981. But McIlroy and Co. hardly felt like they got steamrolled. In a rollicking postgame press conference filled with jokes and laughter, they promised to return emboldened in 2018.
After all, the Europeans didn’t play poorly. They just didn’t play quite as well as the United States.
Sergio Garcia was 9 under on Sunday in an exceptional performance. But 46-year-old Phil Mickelson matched him shot for shot, posting 10 birdies to halve the match.
Lee Westwood, one of Europe’s most accomplished Ryder Cup players, went 0-3 for the weekend, but was 2 up with three holes to play on Sunday. Then Ryan Moore eagled 16, birdied 17 and sunk his par putt on 18 to surge to victory.
“I love the Ryder Cup,” Garcia said. “There’s nothing like it. I loved every minute of it. Even all the bombs that Phil was making on me. But you know, it was another great week. And so many great things that I will never forget.”
There seemed to be little concern in the room that the Americans, with their vaunted task force that was formed after Europe’s rout at Gleneagles in 2014, had finally found the secret formula for Ryder Cup success.
Europe took six rookies to Hazeltine. Outside of a superb performance from Pieters, who went 4-1-0 for the best debut performance in European history, the newcomers struggled.
They feel like they will be better for it in France, where they will be show up in an entirely unfamiliar position as Ryder Cup losers. But unlike the vanquished Americans in Scotland, the Europeans feel no need to form a task force, lobby for more input from their players or do any soul searching.
They shrugged their shoulders, had a laugh and will get ready for next one.
“It is disappointing,” McIlroy said, “I wish we could have the feeling that we had in Gleneagles two years ago. But it will make it that much better when we have that feeling again in Paris.”