GLENEAGLES, Scotland (AP) — “Rory’s going to get you!” hollered the Ryder Cup crowd as Rickie Fowler stepped up to drive off the first tee.
And get him, Rory McIlroy did. Like an ogre swatting flies.
In five or 10 years, with another 10 major championships under his belt, it will become time to have the conversation about how McIlroy’s achievements compare with those of Tiger Woods.
When that moment comes — and everything McIlroy is doing on and off the golf course suggests it will — his Ryder Cup feats will tip the argument in his favor.
McIlroy’s quick-march 5-and-4 demolition of Fowler — from first tee to final handshake took less than three hours — meant Europe drew first blood in singles on Sunday, setting in motion a wave which it surfed to Ryder Cup victory a few hours later.
Needing to turn around a 10-6 deficit after the pairs’ matches on Friday and Saturday, the U.S. team hared out of the blocks. Captain Tom Watson put his rookie hotrods, 21-year-old Jordan Spieth and 24-year-old Patrick Reed, out first and they started to put U.S. red on scoreboards. Spieth was mauling Graeme McDowell on the first nine holes. Reed was toe-to-toe with Henrik Stenson. The embers of American hope, seemingly cold the night before, were beginning to glow.
Then came McIlroy, as sobering as the ice-bucket challenge, as solid as the rock in raging seas that Europe captain Paul McGinley posted in a photo outside their team room.
Seemingly nerveless, too. As the United States has learned to its regret, having top-ranked players isn’t sufficient at Ryder Cup: they have to perform, too. As golf’s No. 1, McIlroy knew Europe was depending on him. Plus, he wanted to make this fun.
“Rory, Rory, give us a dance,” beseeched the gallery at first tee. He obliged with a hip wiggle. Then he thumped his shot down the fairway hemmed in by dense crowds and, with flawless golf, quickly put himself out of sight. Four birdies and an eagle put him 5-up after six holes and made Fowler look as helpless as a gnat in a hurricane.
Fowler, who had top-five finishes in all four majors this year, is among those talked about as a possible rival for McIlroy, the 25-year-old boy-wonder helping wean golf off its over-dependency on Woods’ now fading star power.
But when McIlroy is making holes look as large as saucepans and fairways as broad as highways, he is in a stratosphere all of his own. His tee shot on No. 2, playing toward majestic hills and valleys in the distance, travelled 50 yards further than Fowler’s. After hitting into sand on the ninth and from there into thick grass, he dug himself out of trouble with an exquisite approach that plopped onto the green and a 12-foot putt which he celebrated with a fierce “Come on!”
McIlroy said he felt more fired up than when going into the final Sunday of the two majors he won this year, the PGA Championship in August and the British Open in July. They took his tally of majors to four — 10 short of Woods. But when it comes to bragging, Woods hasn’t been a key contributor to three successive Ryder Cup victories, as McIlroy now has.
“I knew what was expected of me and I knew what I expected of myself,” McIlroy said. “I was just so up for it, there was no option other than to win. I played my best golf of the week. I mean, I started so well, 6 under through six holes. That built a comfortable lead that I was able to hang on to.”
In his first three Ryder Cups, in 1997, 1999 and 2002, when he was ranked No. 1 or No. 2, Woods won six points for the U.S. team, winning five matches, halving two and losing eight. Woods has been on six losing teams and one victorious one, in 1999.
The point he delivered in beating Fowler was McIlroy’s eighth in three Ryder Cups, where he has won six matches, halved four and lost four. He hasn’t lost a singles match. Woods, then ranked No. 2, lost his singles in what proved to be an agonizingly close U.S. defeat in 1997.
Still only 25, McIlroy is already a leader of the Europe team. As veterans such as Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter approach the end of their Ryder Cup lives, it will fall increasingly to McIlroy to be the wise man of the team room, taking rookies under his wing and playing the big dog role.
Striding down fairways on the PGA Centenary course, in shoes emblazoned on their heels with the European flag, he looked comfortable with the responsibility. Always walking ahead of Fowler, he gobbled up the yardage with his bouncy, purposeful strides.
And he’s getting handy in spraying celebratory Ryder Cup bubbly, too. Woods wishes he could say as much.
“He’s had more champagne this summer than any of us combined,” said teammate Justin Rose as they swigged yet more during the post-victory news conference.
“Yeah,” agreed McIlroy, “all this winning isn’t good for my health.”
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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