The week Rory McIlroy came of age

If you were only interested in the final outcome of the Ryder Cup, then this one was pretty much decided as early as last Friday morning once Europe lost the opening series of foursomes to the USA 4-0.

The week Rory McIlroy came of age

In truth, with six rookies on their team and playing away from home, Europe were always going to be up against it, in a tournament where experience counts for so much, but the manner in which new heroes like Tomas Pieters and to a lesser extent Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Andy Sullivan and Chris Wood have now emerged, it suggests that Europe has much to look forward to in future Ryder Cups as it transitions out some of its more established players.

Over the week, I have been struck by a number of interesting decisions made by the European captain Darren Clarke, the first being his call to pair his most dynamic and on-form player Rory McIlroy with a rookie on Friday morning.

Clarke would have known the importance of getting two points at least from the morning foursomes – as much to get a little momentum into the team as anything – but by gambling with his pairing of McIlroy and Sullivan he opened a window of opportunity to the Americans. One they were only too happy to take!

My second observation was that neither of Clarke’s veteran picks Martin Kaymer or Lee Westwood delivered anything of real substance.

To give Clarke credit, his hand was already forced by the European team having a smaller margin for error than his opposition, but his unfounded belief and “blind faith” that the visibly out of form duo would “deliver” for Europe on Saturday afternoon, proved instead to be a game changer. It decisively shifted what was growing momentum away from Europe while restoring what was a virtually unassailable three-point advantage for the Americans.

Those disappointments aside, it was especially nice to see the emergence of new talents like Rafael Cabrera Bello and Thomas Pieters, both of whom looked very relaxed and comfortable on this stage.

Pieters, in particular, impressed. He has both the youth and talent to go to the very top of the game but he will also have gleaned so much experience and confidence from the man he will partner in many more Ryder Cups, the talismanic Rory McIlroy.

Quite simply, this was a coming of age for McIlroy. Already Europe’s, if not the world’s, best golfer, it was wonderful to witness the way - much like Seve Ballesteros and Colin Montgomerie of old - he took ownership of the on-course team affairs, spearheading a fightback from the front, with rookies by his side all the way.

He didn’t have, or it seems want, the comfort of playing with other experienced players - the likes of Rose, Garcia or Stenson, who could perhaps have guaranteed him more points. This was a team effort and he would be its leader.

Lest we forget, Rory McIlroy is a product of humble beginnings – a man who has fought long and hard (pouring his heart, his sweat and his tears into his game), to get himself to where he is today. As one of the world’s greatest golfers, he understands all about the burden of expectation but this week it was not about him – instead it was about his pride in representing Team Europe, that shone most.

On the course, he played like a man possessed overpowering his illustrious opponents, as much with his skill, as his sheer force of will. Emotionally he cared, making sure that there would be no complacency or capitulation on his watch and he courted the crowd’s aggression, with celebration and huge defiance.

Leading from the front, he almost single-handedly dragged Europe back from the brink time after time despite the fact that he would have known that he alone was powerless to stem the prevailing US tide.

It will have gutted him to lose his singles to another great warrior from the USA, Patrick Reed, yesterday as Reed too has been the US’s talisman this week - but unlike McIlroy, Reed has had the comfort of others to carry or share a greater portion of the team’s burden.

So McIlroy should be proud of his effort. In fact, by demonstrating more shotmaking brilliance, more short game prowess, more maturity and more leadership that anyone else on either team, it now suggests that Europe’s leading light will once again be the dominant force in world golf as long as he can stay sufficiently motivated.

Judging on last week, that shouldn’t be a problem

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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

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