On Friday at Whistling Straits, European Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington said that he could not have asked for more from Rory McIlroy, words surely meant as a vote of confidence for his star man after he endured a pair of drubbings in the day’s matches.
McIlroy, presumably aware of his lacklustre play, didn’t need reminding. A golfer’s ego, even that of a four-time major champion and former world No.1, is a delicate thing, particularly on one of golf’s most pressure-filled stages.
But with just one day remaining in the 43rd edition of the matches and Europe trailing 11-5, Harrington might want to ask the 32-year-old Northern Irishman, as his former caddie once famously did, one particularly pointed but effective question:
“You’re Rory McIlroy. What the f**k are you doing?”
Through two days and three matches, McIlroy has contributed zero points to the European cause. On Saturday, after being benched for the morning foursomes session, he and Ian Poulter were drubbed for a second straight day in four-balls, this time by Dustin Johnson and Collin Morikawa, 4 and 3, in the afternoon’s anchor match.
“We were up against it again,” McIlroy said. “DJ and Collin are a good team and they played very, very well. Even though we tried to throw a bit at them at the back nine, they always seemed to answer it. Collin closed the match out with two really good birdies on 14 and 15.
“Obviously disappointing. Disappointing not to contribute a point for the team yet. So hopefully just go out [Sunday] and try my best to get a point, and hopefully we can rally and at last give them something to maybe sweat about tomorrow in the middle of the afternoon.”
It used to be that when you tuned in to watch McIlroy you often expected something spectacular. In full flight, his game is performance art. But with just one win since 2019 (earlier this year) and major-less since 2014, these days you sort of just hope for it.
More concerning with respect to this week though is that McIlroy has a record of just 11-12-4 in what is now his sixth appearance. That includes a 2-7 mark in his last nine matches, which also includes three losses with Poulter as his partner.
Just as worrying is how few birdies McIlroy has made. Each of the past four years, he has ranked in the top-20 on the PGA Tour in birdie average, including ranking first last season. Saturday, he made none on his own ball, same as the day before.
Part of the issue, of course, has been his opponents.
In the opening foursomes session on Friday, Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele rattled off seven birdies, an impossibly good performance to overcome. In Friday’s fourballs, McIlroy eagled the par-5 fifth but he and Shane Lowry were dusted by a red-hot Tony Finau and Harris English, who combined for five birdies, four of them coming from Finau.
Saturday, he and Poulter ran into Johnson and Morikawa, who combined for three birdies and an eagle in the first eight holes.
Still, McIlroy’s usually dependable driving has been absent. Ditto his iron play and short game. Par-5s? A non-factor.
He is, of course, hardly the only European player to struggle this week—Poulter, Paul Casey, Lee Westwood, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Bernd Wiesberger have combined to go a big, fat 0-11-0 this week. But McIlroy is, as Harrington rightfully noted, one of this team’s leaders, in the team room and outside it.
“We know we need a big performance with him in the singles,” Harrington said.
The same can of course be said of almost everyone else, too. But McIlroy getting on the board early would be a good place to start.