Wrinkles in Rory's game still a worry
We were back revisiting the paradox of Rory McIlroy's season last night after a day that never quite subdued the impression of a man trying to solder gaping cracks in his game.
He got a foursomes point on the board in Ian Poulter's company, America enduring a humiliating afternoon meltdown. And that, at least, silenced the ripples of anxiety that had tip-toed around McIlroy in his morning fourball defeat alongside Danish rookie Thorbjorn Olesen.
But will it carry him through the weekend?
McIlroy's game looks short of control just now. The driving gremlins that spoiled his final round in Atlanta last weekend were written all over his morning play with five of his opening 10 tee-shots veering luridly right into the kind of rough David Attenborough could turn into a TV series.
On the seventh, his ball was so deep in jungle he momentarily lost track of it again after the marshals had walked away. When he eventually hit it, the ball looped up maybe 10 feet before flopping back into the Amazon. Sensibly, he picked up.
True, he'd driven the 380-yard, par-four sixth, but what followed aptly communicated the confusion in his head. Electing to chip rather than putt, he ran the ball six feet past, missed the one back, leaving Olesen to halve with birdie.
In 16 holes, the world number six would not beat par once. He was the leader who could not lead.
Walking back to the team-room, he was caught in a paternal embrace by Thomas Bjorn, the team captain clearly feeling a need to offer wise counsel.
Bjorn revealed later: "You know the only thing I say to Rory is, 'We go again!'. And that's what we do. It was a bad morning. He didn't play well and you go again. You go out there and you bring a different type of game.
"This afternoon, he went out with a guy that he's got history with; that they love playing golf together. So they went out and did what they can do this afternoon. That was great to see.
"But I made clear all along that I'm not in any way, shape or form qualified to tell Rory McIlroy how to play golf. But I'm qualified to lead him in a direction with the people he's surrounding himself with this week to get good things out of him. And he is that guy that he only needs very short comments and then he goes again."
Which, to be fair, he duly did, summoning some wonderful shots in that afternoon collaboration with Poulter, notably a magnificent recovery with the ball in sticky rough under his feet after the Englishman's drive on 13 finished just two feet short of the water.
Poulter duly sank the birdie putt to put them three up and almost out of sight against an out-of-sorts American pairing that would be three-over par for the holes played.
And that was the over-riding narrative of a crushing afternoon. The partnerships of Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose and that of McIlroy and Poulter both won their matches comfortably with level-par golf.
Sergio Garcia and Alex Noren were three-under in theirs, Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood one-under.
The Americans? A cumulative 11-over.
So any suggestion that McIlroy resolved the issues in his game as the Parisien breezes stiffened might not really stand up to rigorous scrutiny.
It took him 24 holes yesterday to finally sink a birdie putt and the distance was just six feet.
Otherwise, his touch on the greens gave the impression of a man for whom the short grass might as well have been slippy lino.
Bjorn revealed that McIlroy had gone straight to the range after that morning match and he was certainly less wayward off the tee on his return.
But, all season, there's been a sense of McIlroy getting into contention at tournaments largely on the back of flair and that inordinate length off the tee.
At East Lake last Sunday, he welcomed the opportunity to go head-to-head in a final round with Tiger Woods only to return a card scarred by three bogeys and a double. From his last six occasions in the final group, he has no victories.
On the contrary, Rory's Sunday record is resolutely poor, apart from that surging 64 at Bayhill when winning the Arnold Palmer.
It may seem unreasonable to question the competitive solidity of a man with 14 titles won on the PGA tour, seven in Europe and, of course, four Majors.
But McIlroy makes clear his desire to be judged by the standards of legends and there's no doubting the respect he engenders here in Europe's team-room. With his day ending back on 16 again, the chant of "Rory, Rory, give us a wave" drew a broad smile, he and Poulter closing out that 4&2 victory over Webb Simpson and Bubba Watson.
Asked afterwards about the mental toughness in that team-room, McIlroy responded enthusiastically, "Yeah, I mean a big thing for us this week is, as Ian said, resilience.
"But also persistence. You have to persist. Persist, persist, persist until it turns around for you. And this morning wasn't ideal (Europe trailing 1-3 after the fourballs), but it was still a better start than the one we got at Hazeltine (0-4).
"We just needed to put our heads together, go out there and hit good golf shots. Foursomes on a day like this is a very, very tough format to play. It was an incredible afternoon for Europe, one we haven't really had since Gleneagles I guess."
First out this morning with Sergio Garcia against Bruce Koepka and Tony Finau, McIlroy will certainly hope his fourball contribution surpasses the meagre three pars for halves he delivered in tandem yesterday with the courageous Olesen.
He was certainly unfazed by the first-tee madness, even directing an Icelandic clap before both sessions in a riotous atmosphere generated by close to 20,000 people flanking a single golf hole.
There had been something surreal about the pencil-grey silhouettes of the world's best golfers, the sun yet to rise, on a putting green behind the vast grandstand, thrumming to 'Let's Get Ready to Rumble'.
Yet, McIlroy will know too that it was Olesen, having put his drive in the water, who steadied most, firing three birdies to keep them in that game with Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson.
That will surely irk a man who speaks so openly of always wanting "a crack" at golf's big cats when great prizes are on the line.
His grin at the close of business yesterday seemed that of someone coming out from the fog of an anaesthetic.
"Rory is Rory," said Poulter after. "He would have been frustrated with that morning and he didn't need any geeing up at all. He needed slowing down if anything!"
Pádraig Harrington had followed that fourball match and would, presumably, have had little positive to report to his captain about McIlroy's form. But Bjorn did not hesitate to send him back out and, clearly, believes he has the full McIlroy here.
"You know great players," the captain said last night. "When they don't perform to the standards that they want to, they have an ability to just go and prove themselves. And he did that this afternoon.
"I never have any doubt in Rory McIlroy. Because if I start doubting him, then I probably shouldn't be doing this job. I believe in him and it was great to see his response today. But that's more on him.
"I was never in doubt that I wanted him on the golf course this afternoon."
Day 1 - how the drama unfolded
Justin Rose & Jon Rahm v Brooks Koepka & Tony Finau
A SUPERB Rose approach to the first set up a tap-in birdie and Finau chipped in for an eagle on the sixth before Rahm’s birdie on the eighth doubled the lead. Most memorable was Finau’s water-bound tee shot which hit a wooden sleeper on the edge of the hazard and bounced to within three feet of the 16th hole. Rose found the water approaching the 18th allowing the US duo to win.
USA won by one hole
Paul Casey & Tyrrell Hatton v Jordan Spieth & Justin Thomas
SPIETH had birdies on the third, fifth, sixth and seventh before Thomas got in on the act with a birdie on the par-five ninth. Casey birdied the ninth and 10th simply to limit the damage and made it four in a row on 11 and 12 to close the gap before Hatton’s birdie on the 13th remarkably got them back on level terms. However, Thomas birdied the daunting 15th to edge the Americans back in front and that proved decisive.
USA win by one hole
Rory McIlroy & Thorbjorn Olesen v Dustin Johnson & Rickie Fowler
OLESEN put his opening tee-shot into the water and they were lucky Johnson missed a three-footer to win the first. Europe made the first move when Olesen won the short eighth with a par three but the Dane then found water again at the ninth and with McIlroy unable to advance from deep rough, they dropped the first of four holes in five to go three down and the match was conceded on the 16th when Johnson hit it close.
USA win 4&2
Francesco Molinari & Tommy Fleetwood v Patrick Reed & Tiger Woods
REED dumped his approach at the first into water, and Molinari birdied from eight feet. Woods levelled things up without even having to attempt a short birdie putt with the Europeans in the bunker. Reed flirted with the water at the 16th while Woods went in it and Fleetwood holed a huge putt across the green to go one up. With the American pair failing to find the 17th green in regulation, Molinari birdied from 15ft.
Europe win 3&1
Henrik Stenson & Justin Rose v Dustin Johnson & Rickie Fowler
A PAIRING which won all three of their matches together at Gleneagles in 2016 were reunited as Europe tried to come back from the morning woe and they delivered another point against sub-par opponents. The US pair were five-over par for the first 11 holes and although a first birdie of the round on the 13th reduced the deficit, Stenson and Rose closed out for victory.
Europe win 3&2
Rory McIlroy & Ian Poulter v Bubba Watson & Webb Simpson
McILROY made up for his morning woe to win Europe’s second point of the afternoon. His first birdie of the day from eight feet arrived at the sixth to get back to one down. They were level when Simpson failed to hole a 15-foot par putt on seven and when Simpson’s par putt lipped out on eight, McIlroy holed from four feet to go ahead. Watson missed a six-foot par putt on ninth and Europe turned two up having won four in a row.
Europe win 4&2
Sergio Garcia & Alex Noren v Phil Mickelson & Bryson DeChambeau
Par was enough to win the second hole and the European duo were gifted the next as well when Mickelson hooked his tee-shot into the water, but the Swede and the Spaniard combined to birdie four of the next six holes to move seven up. They lost the 10th after Noren drove into the water and also the 13th when Garcia did the same, but that was merely delaying the inevitable and victory was secured on the 14th.
Europe win 5&4
Francesco Molinari & Tommy Fleetwood v Justin Thomas & Jordan Spieth
Fleetwood got things going with a birdie at the third and a 15-footer for par at the fifth was enough to extend their lead. The English man’s 12-footer at the sixth put them three up. They were four up through 10 before Molinari’s shot into the crowd at the 11th lost the hole. Spieth found water at 13 to put Europe four up. before Molinari’s birdie on 14 secured victory.
Europe win 5&4