Comment: Rory McIlroy's nightmare morning leaves Team Europe unsettled and fearful of what is to come
There’s a particular pathos to Rory McIlroy when he’s not playing well. The gait becomes taut and sullen, the expression hangdog, the movements jerky and impulsive. As he and Thorbjorn Olesen succumbed to the first defeat of the morning, 4&2 to Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler, it was a side of McIlroy we saw a lot. The 42nd Ryder Cup was up and running, but he most certainly was not.
The failure of McIlroy to bring his A-game, or indeed any of the earlier letters in the alphabet, was the one big surprise on the first morning in Paris. His direction off the tee was consistent and unerring, albeit largely into the right rough. By the end of his round, McIlroy had spent so long with his right arm extended that he was in danger of developing a balance problem.
Remarkably, he was the only player of the 16 on display not to record a birdie. And by early afternoon you wonder if European captain Thomas Bjorn was in the invidious position of considering whether or not to bench his team’s biggest star. Ultimately, he gave him another shot, partnering McIlroy with Ian Poulter in the foursomes and continuing his record of never missing a session in the Ryder Cup.
But that it even felt remotely like a gamble is a measure of just how bad McIlroy was out there. The nadir probably came on the 9th hole, when McIlroy found the thick rough to the right of the fairway and could only bunt the ball about 20 yards forward. Fortunate to be 1up at that point, the Europeans lost four of the next five holes as Bjorn’s attempt to re-engineer McIlroy’s wildly successful partnership with Thomas Pieters at Hazeltine in 2016 fell sadly flat.
There was precious little chemistry, either, between McIlroy and Olesen, who while not out of his depth never quite gave the impression of feeling entirely comfortable either. And the wider question here is what McIlroy’s evident lack of form means for a European team already chasing the game after a tough morning. It’s hard to see Europe regaining the Cup without a strong showing from their talisman, not just because of the points he reaps but because of the performances he inspires in others.
Equally, of course, McIlroy is one of those mercurial players whose hot streaks rarely announce themselves in advance. He can be both wildly good and wildly bad, often in the same round, occasionally on the same hole. And after a bad morning from McIlroy, Europe need him to come good in the afternoon, else things could turn ugly.