The world number three helped bring a smile back to European faces on a glorious sunny evening in Minnesota as he closed out a 3&2 fourball victory with rookie Thomas Pieters over leading American pair Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar to complete a comeback from 4-0 down after the opening foursomes to end the day just 5-3 in arrears.
Despite the two-point deficit, there was no doubt that the momentum had been taken away from the United States and was now behind Europe, proof, if any further were needed, coming with McIlroy's extraordinary celebration of his eagle from around 14 feet, the Irishman calmly taking a couple of bows to the galleries packed with stunned American fans before exploding into a roar and fist pump.
“Reactions like that on the last, I just want to let people know how much it means to us,” McIlroy said, before praising playing partner Pieters. “This guy beside me all day was absolutely incredible. It's his first Ryder Cup and he played so well. A lot of credit has to go to Thomas, as well.”
Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson had exacted revenge on Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed for their foursomes defeat to the same pairing by winning the top fourball match 5&4 while the Spanish duo of Sergio Garcia and Rafa Cabrera Bello had taken down JB Holmes and Ryan Moore 3&2 in the second match.
Davis Love's third pairing out, Brandt Snedeker and Brooks Koepka prevented a European whitewash with a big 5&4 win over Martin Kaymer and Danny Willett before McIlroy and Pieters saw off their men to subdue a passionate crowd of more than 50,000 spectators jammed into Hazeltine National and keep alive their bid for a fourth successive Ryder Cup victory.
We needed that comeback performance this afternoon. 5/3 is a lot better than 4nil. Here's tomorrow's foursomes draw pic.twitter.com/gClsO7tQh2— Padraig Harrington (@padraig_h) October 1, 2016
“That's the Ryder Cup,” Europe captain Darren Clarke said. “That's what all these people come to watch. You know, historically, Europe have probably been stronger in the foursomes and America have always been stronger in the fourballs and that was completely turned on its head.
“The guys were disappointed with the way they played this morning and the way they performed. But they showed tremendous bravery and heart and desire to go out and play the way they have done this afternoon. As a captain, I'm extremely proud of them.”
Opposite number Love praised his own players but could not help but give credit to the European fourball effort.
“They seemed to birdie every hole,” Love said. “They played really well. We played really well in the morning, and we actually played pretty good this afternoon. They just made a bunch of birdies. Obviously Rory made a ton of them.
“We just ran into a couple of buzz saws. Our guys still played really well and I'm proud of them for fighting all day.”
The European rearguard was a result of a disastrous opening foursomes session for Clarke's team as the US stormed out of the blocks and delivered a 4-0 sweep of their visiting opponents.
Despite quickly falling behind the fast-starting Americans in two of the four morning foursomes contests, Europe had led the two middle matches going into the closing stages, only to let victory slip from their grasp.
Aside from Rose and Stenson's 3&2 defeat to Spieth and Reed, Clarke's captain's picks Lee Westwood and rookie Pieters were mismatched against world number two Dustin Johnson and Kuchar, the Americans quickly dispatching their foe in a 5&4 rout, Westwood looking off form.
Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer had been one up with five to play against Jimmy Walker and Zach Johnson in a scrappy third match while McIlroy and rookie Andy Sullivan were in a stronger position against Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler, two up with four to play. Both matches would be lost, Walker and Johnson winning the final five holes for a 4&2 victory while Sullivan compounded a Euro wobble by sending his tee shot at the par-three 17th into the water to fall one behind going to the last, the Americans winning 1up.
Europe had been chastened by the morning's events and Clarke changed things up for the afternoon fourballs, although he kept faith with Stenson and Rose. Westwood was jettisoned, with Pieters partnering McIlroy, while Kaymer teamed with Willett and Garcia with Cabrera Bello.
“That was very much what I wanted to do this afternoon,” Clarke insisted. “That was what I was looking to do. With six rookies on the team, you have got to get them out and get them playing. Nothing was different from this morning. If it had been 4-0 our way, it would have been the same pairings going out this afternoon.”
Whatever the thinking, it worked, Rose and Stenson overturning their rivals' early lead and then dovetailing wonderfully to put the first point on the board for Europe.
Snedeker and Koepka added another point for the US but it was to be Europe's evening and having trailed 5-3 after day one at Medinah four years ago, they will not be daunted by their deficit this time around as Love, also the US captain in 2014 when his team let slip a 10-6 Saturday night lead to lose 14.5 to 13.5, conceded.
“It was a long day, frustrating a little bit to not come out a little bit further ahead. I know Darren is happy with the momentum.”