Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Jack Nicklaus may have strolled Hazeltine at the Ryder Cup on Saturday, but there was really no question who the alpha male was across the sloping Minnesota property. Rory McIlroy, in a way those sports icons often did, embraced the role of villainy, creating enemies, goading them, asking for an adversary, either imagined or real. Then he'd crush their hopes and dreams and dance on 'em.
This day was max Rory, turned all the way up to 100 and in a way we've never seen from him. We know he runs hot, but the Ryder Cup is that rare opportunity to play as either a home or away team and he owned the adversarial moment. It has been a frustrating season at times for Rory. He was the lead dog in the game, then Jordan Spieth and Jason Day intervened last year. This year was supposed to be a re-ascendance to the throne, but the form that delivered back-to-back majors in 2014 just did not show up when he needed it most. There were aspects of his game that remained dominant, specifically his immense power off the tee. But either his putting or wedge game would go on him. He'd miss major cuts, break clubs, bristle in press conferences, and storm away looking as exasperated as ever. He was too good to be missing these opportunities.
With that backdrop of frustration for much of the summer, Rory arrived this week on a heater. He hired a putting coach. They started rolling in and he won two of the four FedExCup Playoffs events, including the overall postseason and that grand $10 million prize. The real Rory arrived in time for the Ryder Cup and there was no question as he moved with those long strides all around Hazeltine this week that he was vibing. It was all there and so obvious -- the frustrations were gone but this is someone at the point of an accomplished career who, whether frustrated or confident, does not have to give a f**k and will happily just hammer drives, say whatever he feels, and cocksurely move on about his day.
We are so, so blessed to have peak Rory back and just in time for this rare biennial stage for strutting. Saturday he said "the more they shouted, the better we played." And Rory teed them up on almost every hole, asking for it, confronting it, and playing his ass off in a major statement to remind us that he's still the most overwhelming talent in the game and undisputed alpha in a collection of 24 of the best superstars, hall-of-famers, and players from both sides of the Atlantic.
McIlroy went back at the crowds and his opponents across two sessions. It was a mix of beautiful golf shots and a person knowing he was the most talented player on the course. At the 7th hole in the morning foursomes session, McIlroy had to take a drop after his partner Thomas Pieters blasted his drive through the fairway and into a creek. After waiting around for Phil Mickelson to figure out his shot, and then finally hitting it, Rory swiftly took his drop, quickly addressed the ball, and stuffed it right on top of the flag. There was about 30 seconds from the moment Phil hit to when Rory hit. These pros usually take several minutes to make a drop and assess their options.
Rory knows he's on form and quickly pulled it off while hecklers encouraged him to put another one in the water on his approach shot. The Euros would tie the USA on the hole, which really had to feel like a win given the hazard and penalty shot. Before Pieters hit his putt to match the USA, a fan shouted right as he was about to make his stroke. He had to back off the ball, go through his progression again and then drill the putt. After it went in, Rory turned in the direction of the grandstand where the shout came from and screamed back in confrontational celebration.
Welp. pic.twitter.com/fN0oRbDWfQ— Golf Channel (@GolfChannel) October 1, 2016
The entire sequence -- the quick and confident penalty drop, perfect shot, and scream at the crowd -- summed up Rory's iconic day at Hazeltine. After that scream back at the crowd, we were off and running, and it became a regular sighting at just about every hole.
.@McIlroyRory— Golf Channel (@GolfChannel) October 1, 2016
Not screwing around. pic.twitter.com/2x8vlm5NjM
When they didn't win a hole he thought was theirs, such as the very next No. 8, he'd walk off the green with steam coming off his head. Sometimes, like after a missed putt on No. 14, he'd shout expletives, and in such a demonstrative way as to make sure you could read his mouth. This is a different era of the Ryder Cup from the goodwill days of the past. For better or worse, this is the modern competitive Ryder Cup and it's what makes it so special and living up to the hype every two years.
Rory responding to the intemperance of the crowds only turned them up more and increased the venom. They cheered his rare missed shots as loud or louder than a great shot by the home American opponent. The roar that came up when he put one in the water at the 16th toward the end of the day was one of the loudest on the property, and more emphatic than the cheers for Brooks Koepka's preceding shot that sliced into the center of the green in two on the long par-5.
There was no let up. At one point, he (and Pieters during the alternate shot session) was 17-under through his first 30 holes on Saturday. Every time Rory's team won a hole, and it was often, he felt the need to let the crowd know about it. There was a fist-pump toward the crowd at No. 9, barking at the group on No. 10, waving facetiously at others after being told to "put a smile on your face" as they won another hole. It got ugly often and sometimes went way over the edge, such as:
Fans getting brutal out here. After 7th green, some idiot yelled "Suck a d---, Rory!" right in his face. He grabbed security had him tossed.— Kevin Van Valkenburg (@KVanValkenburg) October 1, 2016
Aside from that one really ugly incident, he almost always embraced it and used it to dominate the next opportunity. He even decided to sing along when fans tried to bring up his ex.
Fans serenade Rory with the chorus from "Sweet Caroline."— Ryan Lavner (@RyanLavnerGC) October 1, 2016
He yells back: "GOOD TIMES NEVER SEEMED SO GOOD!"
The crowd was as relentless as Rory, only there was nothing they could really do to respond like he was with his shotmaking.
The 2-0 day of domination also didn't come against some weak links of the American side. He whipped the superstar duo of Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler in the morning and did the same to Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson in the afternoon. Rory said the win over Phil was "personal" and that he exclaimed "Yes!" when he saw he got Mickelson, someone who has gotten the better of him at the Ryder Cup, on the other side of the draw.
The Koepka-DJ pairing was one that USA fans wanted, putting two of the longest hitters on the planet together. It was a dream powerhouse pair that never led McIlroy and Pieters and in fact trailed by multiple holes most of the afternoon. Rory even found the time to sit down next to my colleague Chris Solomon of No Laying Up, a strong advocate for putting DJ and Koepka together, to tell him "you got your wish." Trolling while in the middle of kicking ass in the most pressurized setting in golf! Four of the best Americans, all crushed by a player who consumed the course and the crowd for a stretch on Saturday in a way that we haven't seen since Tiger.
It was a Rory experience we've never encountered and will always remember. His game is already the most intoxicating in golf, but now we were adding this!? It owned the entire competition until Patrick Reed got hot late in the afternoon. None of the other matches mattered. We just wanted to see how Rory would play the next hole and how he'd react for the crowd when he did. Every 15 minutes was a new chapter and new opportunity to watch the best in the world do his thing, and then the drama didn't lie in what shot he'd pull off, but how he'd taunt the hecklers. The Ryder Cup is theater, a show that's so different from every other golf week on the calendar. On this Saturday, Rory delivered the performance we'll never forget.