Rory McIlroy and the Saturday night pep-talk that may yet change his fortunes
The years have been ticking by and many of us have been waiting, somewhat impatiently.
The manner in which Rory McIlroy won his first four Majors, between 2011 and 2014, brought around the inevitable Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus comparisons.
Seven years on from McIlroy hoisting the Wannamaker trophy, as PGA champion, for the second time, he remains at four majors. There have been many highs, on and off the golf course, but the true golfing greats are measured by Major wins.
Anyone that has followed the game for the past decade will have seen McIlroy fighting to get back to something like his best. That fearlessness of youth has been replaced by uncertainties and hard truths. Some feel the 32-year-old should take a sabbatical from the game and return when he rediscovers the hunger that drove him over his first seven years as a professional.
McIlroy had a real low-point in 2019 when he failed to make the cut at Royal Portrush when it hosted The Open. He delivered an emotional, raw interview with Sky Sports after a superb second round almost saw him make the weekends' play.
That disappointed looked to have steeled him and he returned in fine form at the start of 2020. He was back to the sort of form that could see him threaten at Majors. Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck. 2020 was seriously disrupted and, when it returned, McIlroy had lost the zeal. Lost the fire.
2021 has not been great. There was a Quail Hollow victory at the Wells Fargo Championship, in May, but that was it. He finished in a tie for third at the Olympics, but missed out on a medal for Ireland when he was eliminated from a seven-player playoff.
He has changed caddie, changed his swing coach and tried everything under the sun to get back to his best. The Ryder Cup, he must have hoped, would have provided that spark again.
At Whistling Straits, though, it was grim. McIlroy was the weaker partner in his matches with Shane Lowry and Ian Poulter. None of the three matches he played, on Friday or Saturday, even reached the 16th tee.
Captain Padraig Harrington had dropped him from the Saturday morning foursomes and may have sensed McIlroy's confidence was shot. It is unclear who made the final call, but McIlroy was originally slated to go out 11th in the Sunday Singles. He had, one may recall, led the Team Europe singles vanguard in 2016 and 2018.
Jon Rahm may have been the European talisman, but it was still concerning to think the out of form McIlroy would be sent out to play with the competition already likely to be decided. Team USA were, after all, leading 11-5 on Saturday night.
It was in the team room of the European side, according to CBS reporter Kyle Porter, that several of McIlroy's teammates approached him and told him they wanted him to lead them out on Saturday. Having gone 0-3 in his three outings so far, this was a big show of faith, and friendship.
According to Porter, it was that moment, and the fact that he was able to justify it by defeating Olympic champion Xander Schauffele 4&3, that brought on those post-round tears and his emotional interviews with NBC and Sky Sports.
"I said to Rory McIlroy before we went out this morning. ‘You’re Rory f***ing McIlroy. You’re already one of the best players of all time, and you’re 32. Go and show it today.’ And he did."
McIlroy will know that he came back to form when it was pretty much too late. Only Rahm and Sergio Garcia exceeded expectations against a fiercely talented American side.
You can see how invested so many are in McIlroy's journey. As both sides lined up to shake hands, on Sunday, Phil Mickelson shared these words with the Northern Irishman:
"I think the world of you, as you know."
The beauty of The Ryder Cup is that it is not going anywhere. We will all be glued to it, in Rome, when it swings by again in the autumn of 2023.
"The more and more I play in this event, I realise that it's the best event in golf, bar none," McIlroy declared, on Sunday.
"I love being a part of it. I can't wait to be a part of many more. It's the best. I don't think there's any greater privilege (than) to be a part of one of these teams, European or American. It's an absolute privilege.
"I've gotten to do this six times. They have always been my greatest experiences of my career. I have never really cried or got emotional over what I've done as an individual. But this team and what it feels like to be a part of... I was emotional because it's a highly charged event and it sucks to lose, it really does."
The Holywood native has been given a mighty jolt, and it will be interesting to see how he finishes out 2021. Does he show up at tournaments and keep tweaking, or does he head to Florida to spent time with his young family and do more surgery on his game before a 2022 return?
As always, we will be watching closely.