SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France—History has told us many times that the great generals have always been brave generals. And courage is exactly what European captain Thomas Bjorn displayed halfway through the opening day of the 42nd meeting between his side and the United States. Heading towards what would turn into a 1-3 deficit after the opening session of foursomes, the Dane had a big decision to make: Should he stick with the original plan and show faith in his charismatic talisman, Rory McIlroy? Or should he consign the clearly struggling Irishman to the sidelines for the afternoon foursomes?
Bjorn went with the former, a bold move given how badly McIlroy had performed in the morning. Heavily weighing down Ryder rookie Thorbjorn Olesen, the four-time major champion succumbed by 4 and 2 to Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler. Four times McIlroy was in his pocket and out of holes even before reaching the greens, the big issue his inability to find fairways from the tee.
Gone was the perfect rhythm he displayed while leading the crowd in a pre-match Icelandic “thunder clap.” Not once did he make a birdie in the 16 holes. So wayward was he - the misses invariably to the right - the erratic driving that so marked his play during the final round of the Tour Championship last Sunday began to look arrow-like.
The nadir was a mistake-strewn three-hole run from the 7th tee. After locating his drive in the right rough, McIlroy stepped a few yards to the side in order that Fowler should hit. When he returned to where he thought he had left his ball, the four-time major champion needed two more minutes to find it again, so deep was the lie. One thrash later, McIlroy was no more than six feet nearer the green. And five seconds after that, he picked up.
One hole later, the world No. 6 found the distant par-3 8th green with a beautifully flighted iron. Then, from no more than six yards or so, he three-putted. The 9th was not much better. Again the fairway was missed to the right and this time McIlroy required two hacks to get back into play.
All of which led to understandable speculation that Europe’s inspirational on-course leader would be dropped for the afternoon foursomes, a more stringent format that, with only one ball in play, asks more of a player’s accuracy off the tee.
“Rory will be feeling really rough,” said Nick Faldo, Europe’s leading points scorer in Ryder Cup play. “You come out as one of the key men on the team and you haven’t made a birdie. You’ve lost your point. There’s no timeouts in golf. You have to step up and face it.”
Which is pretty much what McIlroy did. Following a quick lunchtime lesson on the range with swing coach Pete Cowen, with whom has been working this week, McIlroy improved more than a little in tandem with Ian Poulter in the afternoon foursomes. Two down after five holes, the pair were an approximate level par in eventually seeing off Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson by, coincidentally, 4 and 2.
All over the course, McIlroy was better. The 380-yard 6th green was driven. Where the morning round had featured a plethora of missed putts, this time the vital ones fond the bottom of the cup.
“I left Rory a couple of testers today,” admitted Poulter. “And he managed to roll them in.”
There was even time to hit what was certainly his own ‘shot of the day,’ one that might even have been the highlight for anyone else on either side. After Poulter missed the fairway on the 415-yard par-4 13th, the ball finished on the bank of the water hazard on the right side. It was a result that apparently did not please the watching American skipper, Jim Furyk. The former U.S. Open champion was overheard complaining that he had wanted said bank shaved tighter. Had that been done, McIlroy would have surely been playing three from the edge of the hazard rather than facing an admittedly risky approach.
Risky, but not impossible. With the ball far below his feet and his stance maybe half as wide again as normal, the now five-time Ryder Cupper launched a remarkable shot over the hazard fronting the putting surface, the ball stopping perhaps six yards from the pin. Just to rub salt in the American wound, Poulter made the putt to go three-up with five to play. It was the decisive thrust and more than justified Bjorn’s faith in his star man.
“I had a plan and I stuck to it,” said the 47-year old Dane. “That's how I saw the day. That's how I saw the matches. Great players, when they don't perform to the standards that they want to have an ability to just go out and put it right. Rory did that this afternoon. I never have any doubt in Rory McIlroy. 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 to have him on the golf course this afternoon.
“Now he goes home for a rest and with a little bit of a smile on his face. We’ll see where he is tomorrow.”
At least in the morning, McIlroy will be playing alongside Sergio Garcia in a four-ball match against Brooks Koepka and Tony Finau. But after that, only Bjorn knows. He has a plan.