“Thirty-five years of overachievement, it’s unbelievable,” Rory McIlroy said with a smirk and a shrug in a quiet corner behind the 18th green at Marco Simone Golf Club. “It just keeps happening.”
It was a reference to Europe’s recent Ryder Cup dominance in team golf, with Sunday’s dominant victory over the USA the 10th in the last 14 editions. McIlroy was bouncing towards the trophy presentation. A stark difference from his demeanour following Whistling Straits two years ago. Then, there were tears, despite victory over Xander Schauffele in the singles, as the USA completed a crushing victory.
“I just can't wait to get another shot at this,” he remarked at the time. And true to his word, the Northern Irishman and Europe stormed out the gates in each session, securing “redemption” in the process.
"The scoreline [at Whistling Straits], 19-9, that hurt, it really did,” McIlroy insists. “I didn't give my best performance for the team that week. There were a few of us on that team that wanted to come back. Revenge? This wasn't about revenge, this was about redemption.
“This has been a process, a plan in place, we have known months in advance, the gameplan and how to execute, then it comes down to getting on the course and being ourselves, this is the result. It's amazing.”
While Europe can rely on fiery Spaniard Jon Rahm to deliver and Viktor Hovland’s ascent to world No 1 is now just a matter of time, McIlroy is the beating heart of European golf, with all three players topping DataGolf’s strokes-gained rankings this week.
The Ryder Cup allows the best golfers in the world to revel as rockstars for a week, in an otherwise cordial sport, and Europe’s fans danced to McIlroy’s tune.
His fans serenaded him throughout 17 holes against Sam Burns. “No one hits it further, than Rory McIlroy,” thousands of fans in Rome sang. “Ole, ole, ole.”
The singles match will be long forgotten by the delirious scenes that followed, which saw a European fan dash past security and take a celebratory bath in the greenside lake. But McIlroy displayed a composure that should elevate him to more major success, battling distraction more so than his opponent.
There was immense satisfaction in the way he banished the demons of Saturday night when McIlroy was riled by Patrick Cantlay’s caddie Joe LaCava after defeat to the Americans. An emotional McIlroy was later seen being bundled into a car by teammate Shane Lowry as tempers flared.
But there was no lingering tension from Saturday night’s squabble after just one hole. A lead secured, McIlroy never left the door ajar with the match closed out 3&1 by his laser-like iron into 17.
With the tension released and evident satisfaction secure, McIlroy embraced his teammates, including Hovland, who lifted the Northern Irishman clean off his feet. Then, as Europe’s fans sang, McIlroy cried: “Patrick, where’s your hat?”
A pantomime villain, and an immense player under intense pressure following speculation surrounding his motivation to compete for USA, Cantlay provided an engrossing spectacle made possible by the rare environment created by the Ryder Cup. Financially compensated or not, McIlroy has shown these precious moments are priceless; maybe the Americans will reflect on that over the course of the next two years.
Before any raucous scenes could take place, USA briefly threatened a miracle from their 10½-5½ deficit overnight.
Max Homa rallied once more, edging out Matt Fitzpatrick 1up to force Europe to delve deeper down the leaderboard and the final three matches for an elusive half-point. Jubilant scenes surrounding an expectant procession had turned to nervous tension, illustrated perfectly by Alex Fitzpatrick. He joked about how his brother would be suffering under the most intense pressure to close out a Ryder Cup, while their mother could barely watch the match conclude by the greenside bank.
The Sheffield man’s putt to clinch the cup slipped by, but it was not only the Europeans suffering. Homa, Scottie Scheffler, Sam Burns and Collin Morikawa had grouped together to watch the conclusion of Justin Thomas vs Sepp Straka. Thomas spurned a putt on 17 to close out his match, eventually winning 1up, but amid the boisterous atmosphere, the American quartet appeared frozen at the prospect of the Austrian stealing a half-point. Fitzpatrick and Ludvig Aberg, both licking their wounds from defeat, leapt up in hope, underlining the team spirit required to thrive on this stage.
Raw emotion resonates with McIlroy, after seven European appearances. Never satisfied, that fire inside still burns bright — with a clear goal on the horizon.
“You realise how bad it feels when you lose them,” McIlroy explains. “Time goes by, my seventh Ryder Cup, will I play in another seven? I don’t know, I’m on the back nine of my Ryder Cup career.
“Every one is really meaningful. Fitz and Tommy as my partners this week. Everything we do as a team. It started a year ago when Luke was made captain. We did that practice trip two weeks ago. We sat around the fire pit and we chatted and we got to know each other really well.
“And that was an amazing experience. I got to know things about these guys; I thought I knew them for a long time, but I got to know something different about them.
“I think that really galvanised us as a team, and I think just spending time with these guys is becoming more meaningful because I know I don’t have that many left. To see guys like Ludvig come in here and be an absolute stud and take everything in stride, I wish I was in his position again, looking forward to playing in 15 or 20 Ryder Cups or whatever it is he’s going to play in.
“I’m just so proud to be a part of this team. It is, it’s very, very meaningful. I said this for six or seven years, one of the biggest accomplishments in golf is winning an away Ryder Cup and that’s what we’ll do at Bethpage.”