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For the first time in his endlessly dramatic Ryder Cup career, Rory McIlroy has lost two matches on the same day. To compound his humiliation on this grisliest of Fridays, neither of his defeats even extended beyond the 15th green.
As if it were not chastening enough that he succumbed 5&3 in foursomes alongside Ian Poulter, the man with whom he once detonated the miracle of Medinah, he fell to a 4&3 fourballs loss with Shane Lowry just a few hours later. He might style himself as Europe’s alpha male, but surely his exalted status within this team must now be questioned.
This nightmare under cornflower Wisconsin skies was uncharted territory for McIlroy in every respect. Never before had he ended a Friday or a Saturday without half a point in this contest. While he had been on the wrong end of a 4&3 scoreline with Poulter in Paris three years ago, this double dishonour was unconscionable.
Padraig Harrington had regarded him as undroppable, fielding him in both sessions here despite his dismal morning showing. But as the sun set over Lake Michigan, he looked less like a linchpin than a liability.
There is no over-dramatising McIlroy’s travails. It was alarming just how scattergun he became. Quite apart from his dreaded two-way miss, the very flaw that his coach Pete Cowen was enlisted to remedy, his short game lacked any of the silkiness of old.
That McIlroy is not a morning person is a matter of record. This is the person presented with a comically outsized watch by his team-mates nine years ago after sleeping through his Sunday alarm call. But his early lapses alongside Poulter here at Whistling Straits were unforgivably dozy. At the break of dawn, the autumn sun revealing every quirk of this links on steroids, he played as if he was still half-asleep.
Throwing McIlroy and Poulter back together always looked like a nostalgia act, a desperate attempt by Harrington to draw more magic from the pair who electrified the 2012 Ryder Cup. And yet this was one experiment that belonged firmly in the past.
The two were dreadful, mixing ragged play with downbeat body language, en route to a 5&3 thrashing by Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele. The afternoon would take a similarly bleak turn, with McIlroy and Lowry floored by a barrage of back-nine birdies from Tony Finau.
From the very first fairway, McIlroy was wretchedly out-of-sorts. Horribly miscuing his chip, he left Poulter 30 feet from the pin as the Americans snaffled the first of five straight holes. Trish Johnson, co-commentating on BBC Radio Five Live, could not suppress her concern. “That was b----- awful,” she blurted, without realising she was on-air.
It was far from the only blunder by McIlroy, who could find neither accuracy with his irons nor touch with his putting as Europe’s final alternate-shot match descended into a tailspin. They lost their fifth consecutive hole when Cantlay drained a 30-footer, and could easily have fallen six down after six had Schauffele not dragged his birdie attempt.
Worryingly, this once-lethal duo seemed in denial about their own deficiencies. According to Poulter, “we actually played quite well,” while McIlroy claimed: “All you can do is praise the way Xander and Patrick played. I don’t know if anyone could have beaten them today.” A pairing who did not rack up 39 on the front nine might have been a start.
While McIlroy’s wife Erica, following close behind, looked crestfallen, basketball superstar Steph Curry, Team USA’s unofficial lead cheerleader, was cock-a-hoop. This had always felt a daunting ask for McIlroy and Poulter, even if their Medinah exploits had turned the unforgettable 2012 contest on its axis.
Cantlay has just won over £10 million for his FedEx Cup title, having played last month’s BMW Championship in an astonishing 27 under par, while Schauffele has an Olympic gold medal to show for his summer.
Close friends off the course, the two Californians set off on such a tear that their wizened opponents had no response, ultimately succumbing at the 15th. Cantlay, for his part, did not disguise his delight at having trounced such a marquee pairing.
“We were excited when we saw that pairing – all the pressure is on them,” he said. “They have seen it all and they are expected maybe to have a little veteran edge,” he said. As it turned out, McIlroy and Poulter were the bluntest of instruments.
As for Poulter, the mind might be willing, but the body is unlikely to co-operate much longer. His average driving distance is 286 yards, a weakness shown up without mercy by two members of the US bomb squad who regularly surpass 300. At 45, he has reluctantly accepted that this could be his last rodeo.
When we next see Poulter at a Ryder Cup, it will, in all probability, not be as a player but as Europe’s captain at Bethpage in 2025. While he clings to his mantra that “the postman always delivers”, the standard of service was far from first-class this time.
He and McIlroy mustered some fleeting defiance, reeling off three birdies in four holes from the 10th, but the damage was impossible to repair. As soon as the Americans sensed a fightback, they produced iron play of unanswerable quality. By the end, McIlroy and Poulter could not only stare helplessly into the middle distance. A partnership that was once thrill-a-minute had been buried in the sand.