Watch Out, America, Rory McIlroy Isn’t Backing Down

October 2, 2016

CHASKA, Minn. — Padraig Harrington has played in a half-dozen Ryder Cups. He’s heard fans mock and taunt players. He’s heard them boo good shots and cheer bad ones. He’s heard them get personal.

But it’s been a while since he’s heard a Ryder Cup gallery like this one. Seventeen years, in fact.

“I’d say you’d have to go back to Brookline,” Harrington, a vice captain for the Europeans this week, said behind Hazeltine’s 17th green, minutes after he’d watched Rory McIlroy and Thomas Pieters close out Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, 3 and 1, in the Saturday afternoon four-ball session of this 41st Ryder Cup. You remember that week — the fabled Battle of Brookline — when the pitchfork–toting mobs were so merciless to Monty and the boys that Payne Stewart felt compelled to publicly admonish them. No one’s saying Hazeltine has exceeded those levels, but, man, has Rory gotten an earful this week.

“One guy yelled at him and called him average,” Harrington said with a sly grin. “I don’t think Rory’s ever been called average in his whole life. That was a serious fail.”

A fail not only because it was a weak barb but also because McIlroy has been feeding off the crowd’s jeers like a tiger shark feasting on a shoal of fish. The more the U.S. faithful goad him, the better he seems to play. One example of that, Harrington said, was on the 14th hole, where McIlroy channeled his rage into his tee shot. The blast rolled out to 381 yards (Harrington’s estimate), leaving McIlroy just a flip wedge into the 448-yard par-4.

“I hope they shout at us all day tomorrow,” McIlroy woofed after making four birdies alongside an equally energized Pieters, a cold-blooded 24-year-old Belgian who has been one of the breakout stars in this competition. When Pieters was announced on the first tee in his first-ever Ryder Cup match Friday morning, he did not exactly ooze confidence — in fact, he looked as if he might lose his breakfast right there on the tee box. Pieters and Lee Westwood went on to lose that match, but all the long-bombing Pieters has done since then is win three consecutive matches, all with McIlroy.

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Credit stellar play by Pieters, but let us also praise the resurgent McIlroy, who after a shaky season (up until the past few weeks, anyway) has firmly established himself as Europe’s fiesty, growling alpha dog.

It’s a new side of the Ulsterman. Sure, we’ve witnessed McIlroy obliterate courses and embarrass opponents and win majors by eight. But we’ve never seen him endure such hostility — and thrive on it. Just about every putt of consequence, of which he’s holed many on this rolling Robert Trent Jones design, has been punctuated by a flurry of violent fist pumps and throaty “COME ONs!” The metamorphosis has been positively fascinating to watch, like Bruce Banner bursting through his clothes and morphing into the Hulk.

On the tee at the par-5 16th Saturday, a pack of hecklers directly behind the tee box blurted out a reference to McIlroy’s ex-finacee, the tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. Moments later, as McIlroy addressed his ball, one of the yahoos cried out, “Oh, you’re just a little guy, aren’t you?” McIlroy responded in kind by annihilating a drive up the right side of the fairway. With his ball still airborne, he strode purposefully toward his broken tee and booted it off the tee box. The message to his antagonizers was clear: How you like me now?

McIlroy, it must be noted, is not a real golfing villain, certainly not in the mold of Seve, say, or Ian Poulter – or, for that matter, Patrick Reed. He is simply Europe’s best player this week and ergo an easy target for pent-up American fans who are tired of seeing their team get whipped. McIlroy knows it, and he’s taking great pleasure in fanning the flames.

“A lot of people out there, a lot of noise, energy,” NBC Sports reporter Jimmy Roberts said to McIlroy after the round. “How would you describe the crowd? Spirited? Tough? Over the line? Ugly?”

“Probably a combination of all of those,” McIlroy said.

After smashing his drive on 16, McIlroy had a go at the slender green, which is guarded by a pond in front. If there weren’t 10,000 people around the hole, it certainly looked and sounded like there were. McIlroy pulled a long iron, took a rip and tugged a low hook into the pond. The crowd erupted into a fit of hooting and hollering. An incredulous Pieters shook his head, raised his arms and stared icily at a mass of boo-birds on the far side of the fairway.

Deep down, though, the young Belgian was feeding on it.

“The heckling, it just pumps us up,” he allowed later. “So hopefully the same for tomorrow.”

With Europe in a three-point hole, Pieters will face J.B. Holmes in a singles match at 11:26 a.m. Sunday, but all eyes will be on the first match of the day: Reed versus — you guessed it — McIlroy. The crowds will be huge and loud and full of venom for the Northern Irishman.

Reed could be in trouble.