Rory McIlroy’s perplexing Ryder Cup continued on Saturday

rory mcilroy

Rory McIlroy has not reached the 16th hole in any of his three matches this week.

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HAVEN, Wis. — It felt pretty cruel, what the locals did to Padraig Harrington Saturday morning, but they were just speaking the truth. The European captain walked onto the first tee alone and surveyed the scene with a smile, until a reminder of his boldest decision was bellowed into the air by thousands: 

“We want Rory! We want Rory! We want Rory!” 

They would have to wait, and they knew it, because Harrington had benched Rory McIlroy for the first time in his Ryder Cup career. After his name made 26 pairings consecutive European captains’ pairing sheets, it was left off the 27th. But he had dealt Harrington a crummy hand of cards. 

McIlroy dropped both matches on Friday, which was another first for his career: two losses, one day. He contributed one eagle in his fourball match, no birdies, and was waxed from the jump in foursomes, falling five down thru 5. When asked Friday night if he’d sit Rory, Harrington balked: “You know, you’re going to have to wait and see the pairings,” he said. “I’m not giving away anything, obviously.”

Obviously he didn’t want to say. Twenty-nine minutes later, the pairings spoke for themselves.

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What would a sitting McIlroy actually look like, anyway? This was new ground for all of us. Would he be out there on the 1st tee, hollering? Would he follow along inside the ropes, like the American golfers have? 

Negative, to all of that. McIlroy slept in, arrived at the Straits around 9:30 and remained in the clubhouse until just before noon, by which point the Americans had wrapped up a third consecutive 3-1 session. Sit him or start him, the Euros weren’t saving this Ryder Cup. But at some point, Rory McIlroy is still Rory McIlroy. The analytics team guiding all of Harrington’s moves would have screamed that at the captain. McIlroy was sent out for a third time Saturday afternoon, again with Ian Poulter, but contributed zero birdies to the cause and was beaten 4 and 3. He played the 16th hole Thursday in a practice round and hasn’t seen it since.

“Obviously disappointing,” he’d say later. “Disappointing not to contribute a point for the team yet.”

It’s been an arm’s-crossed kind of week for Rory McIlroy.

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As an armchair assistant captain, it would be easy to look at everything McIlroy has done this week and wonder if something is amiss with the 32-year-old. That’s what we do at the Ryder Cup, after all — this event is the ultimate exercise in hindsight, after all. On the course, he has had little to play off, gaining no momentum from his play nor from the few European backers on site. On the first tee, while his teammates have beamed to the cameras, arm in arm during introductions, McIlroy has played it somber, keeping his hands to himself. And for a player who typically dazzles the media with eloquence, McIlroy was abnormally short during his Tuesday press conference. He mentioned how he would keep his energy low on purpose early on, knowing that he ran out of juice late Sunday during the 2016 Ryder Cup. But an abnormal impatience peaked when he was asked if he thought the PGA Tour player of the year was on the European team or the American squad. “I don’t care,” McIlroy said. “I just care I’m on the winning team this week.” Next question.

McIlroy is not going to be on the winning team this week, and despite any rah-rah speech Harrington has planned, it seems McIlroy has accepted his fate for a no good, very bad time in Wisconsin. After his putt to extend the match slid by the 15th hole, he and Poulter embraced each other in defeat. Five minutes later, Poulter grabbed him in for another hug. Then a long embrace with his wife, Erica, and a third lengthy hug with his swing coach Pete Cowen. Everyone was putting their arms around Rory. He and Cowen broke down the match in one of those situations where body language tells it all. Shoulders slumped. Heads shaking. What can you do when your opponents shoot eight under over 15 holes?

Twenty minutes or so later, after the dust settled on the other matches, McIlroy climbed up the steps behind the 18th hole, where Sergio Garcia was waiting. The Ryder Cup legend slung his arm around Rory’s neck and guided him past the giddy U.S. Team room, where drinks were flowing and a Saturday night celebration was just getting started. Garcia and McIlroy kept that embrace going as the walked along the stone path where amateurs typically toast to their one and only time playing Whistling Straits. It was built as a happy place, of harmless woulda-coulda-shouldas. Later, Garcia shed some light on what he’d said.

“I told him the absolute truth,” he said. “I told him that not only me but the whole team is proud of him, no matter if he goes 5-0 or 0-5; that we love him and that we are always proud of the effort that he makes and the heart that he puts into his golf and into the team. It’s as simple as that.”

Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing blared over the loudspeakers as they dipped into the European team room, Garcia patting McIlroy on the back. 

Sean Zak

Golf.com Editor

A senior editor for GOLF.com, Zak joined the GOLF staff right after college graduation. He is the utility infielder of the brand, spanning digital, print and video. His main duty is as a host for various GOLF.com video properties and podcasts. When the Masters comes around, be sure to tune in to hear him and fellow staffers recount the most memorable tournaments in Augusta National history on A Pod Unlike Any Other.