Did Rory McIlroy kick-start the Ryder Cup five days early?
It certainly felt that way to his European team-mates who watched the Irishman defeat American Ryan Moore on the fourth hole of a sudden death play-off to scoop an €11.5 million (€10.2m) Tour Championship and FedEx Cup double in Atlanta on Sunday night.
The undisguised delight of Darren Clarke and the European travelling party gathered together on the eve of their departure for Minneapolis was such that you might have mistakenly thought a point on the board was being celebrated, rather than the world number four netting the biggest individual payday of his career.
This normally singular pasttime takes a strange hold on people every other year and McIlroy’s victory at East Lake will undoubtedly put a spring in the step of the Europeans at Hazeltine National when they begin team practice today ahead of Friday’s opening foursomes session.
McIlroy is clearly the most accomplished of Darren Clarke’s 12-man team with four major victories, three Race To Dubai titles and now a FedEx Cup to go with them, and if he was unaware of the bounce his Tour Championship win would give to the European camp, he was quickly brought fully up to speed in the wake of his success.
“I’ve had a couple of minutes just to go through some text messages,” McIlroy said on Sunday night at East Lake. “Paul McGinley, the previous captain, he texted me and said, this is sort of the first of hopefully a lot of momentum for Europe during the next few days.
“Hopefully, in some way, it helps the team. It helps the team sort of galvanise, and we can all get off on the right foot. I’m just looking forward to meeting up with the guys (on Monday) afternoon. I think they’ll get into the hotel around 4pm, and I’ll already be up there. I’ll be probably nursing a bit of a sore head, but apart from that...
“I’m looking forward to the day off tomorrow. It’s obviously been a long day, but really excited to catch up with the guys and get into that team mode and the team spirit and turn my attention to something else.”
With two wins in his last three starts, McIlroy is clearly in one of those upturns of the rollercoaster ride on which his career path seems destined to travel. It was a similar story in 2014 at Gleneagles when he arrived with two majors and a World Golf Championship under his belt having won the Open, the Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championships in successive weeks the previous month and contributed three points, including a 5&4 singles thumping of Rickie Fowler, to the 16.5 to 11.5 victory over the Americans.
That 2014 late summer spurt had followed an awful, winless 2013 and while not faring as bad this season, his lone win in 2016 had been at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in May and was accompanied by some mediocre major performances, by his standards, with missed cuts at both the US Open and PGA.
The emotion that accompanied his miraculous eagle from 137 yards at the 16th during his final round of 64 and the roar he produced when he sank the winning putt in the play-off with Moore at the same hole, suggests McIlroy is fully back in the groove and at the perfect time for a European side carrying six rookies.
The opportunities he spurned to end the play-off on each of the first two play-off holes, including a six-foot putt that saw the $11.5m trickle around the hole for a lipout, will be forgotten come Friday, for McIlroy’s putting appears less of a worry having turned to coach Phil Kenyon after his PGA disaster at Baltusrol.
“I think you need weeks like that (missed PGA Championship cut),” he said. “I’ve always benefited from things like that in my career, from low points. I always feel like from a low point you can work yourself back up, and you can really assess what you need to do. I think it was blatantly obvious what I needed to do after Baltusrol, in terms of trying to fix my putting or to at least address some issues in it.
“I started on a process to do that, and I didn’t think results were going to come as quickly as they have done really. I’ve played really, really well. But I’ve putted well also. I’ve converted more of my chances I’m giving myself.
“I think when I get myself in situations like this, I seem to, over the last couple of years anyway, produce my best golf when I need it. Yeah, I’ve obviously never gone into a Ryder Cup with this much excitement coming off the back of something like this. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to it. As I said, if in some way this helps the team a little bit, then I’m glad to be able to do that.”
It remains to be seen if the result will have the opposite effect on the Americans, including world number two Dustin Johnson, who had stood to win the FedEx Cup and $10m had Moore succeeded in that play-off. Moore’s impressive performance — he also shot a 64 in the final round to force a three-way play-off with 54-hole co-leader Kevin Chappell after Johnson had faded to a 74 — was enough to earn him the fourth and final captain’s pick for the US team from Davis Love III but he does so having lost out to a European he could well face in the white heat of matchplay this weekend. One up to Europe there.
And so too over Johnson, with McIlroy in no mood to apologise to the American for cruelly snatching the $10m from his grasp.
“No, because I’ve had this FedExCup taken away from me twice before. So I know exactly how he feels.”
No quarter given, then. The countdown is ticking toward Ryder Cup battle commencing on Friday morning but the games have already begun.
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