CHASKA, Minn. – Rory McIlroy is swinging like a champion at this Ryder Cup.
Like Conor McGregor.
With right and left crosses, uppercuts and roundhouses, McIlroy stalked the Americans at Hazeltine Saturday like a prize fighter looking to make the Europeans the first team to win this biennial event by TKO. He punctuated his great play with more celebratory punches than McGregor typically throws in a Mixed Martial Arts bout.
“It's a tough environment for us to come and play in,” McIlroy said. “We expect that. It's the same for the U.S. guys when they come to play in Europe. You have to keep your concentration out there. It's been a long day and sometimes emotions run high.”
McIlroy teamed with Thomas Pieters to rout some American stars in a pair of partnered matches Saturday.
They beat Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler, 4 and 2, in morning foursomes and put away Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, 3 and 1, in afternoon fourballs.
The McIlroy-Pieters team is 3-0 for the week.
While it wasn’t enough to keep a European rally going with their teammates fading late Saturday afternoon, McIlroy put on a show that left a large impression on European and American fans alike.
An atmosphere that included taunts and barbs from American fans brought out a fight in a clearly irritated McIlroy like we’ve never seen from him before.
McIlroy is officially the face of this European Ryder Cup effort now, a snarling, pugnacious combination of Ian Poulter and Colin Montgomerie.
McIlroy said afterward that he used the American taunts as fuel.
“It fueled me a lot,” he said. “The more they shouted, the better we played. I hope they shout at us all day tomorrow.”
McIlroy had a heckler ejected for a foul taunt as he walked to the eighth tee in afternoon foursomes, and then he birdied the ninth and 10th holes.
After sticking a 9-iron to 2 feet at the ninth, McIlroy cleaned up the birdie and then whirled to the grandstand, face twisted with gritted teeth, and he cold-cocked the air with a pair of punches. After holing a 12-foot putt for birdie at the 10th, he howled and threw another celebratory punch toward the grandstand.
American fans taunted McIlroy, singing “Sweet Caroline” while he was on the front nine, a pointed barb at his breakup with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki two years ago.
“The heckling just pumps us up,” Pieters said.
Ryder Cup heat can make some players wilt. It did something else this week to McIlroy. It peeled back a veneer, allowing the world to glimpse the fight and fire that has driven him to win four major championships, none of them, however, with the outward fury he’s showing at Hazeltine.
McIlroy played like the Americans needed to be as well versed in the Marquess of Queensbury rules as they do the Rules of Golf.
“Rory’s been unbelievable,” American captain Davis Love III said.
McIlroy, 27, and Pieters, 24, look like they could be a problem for the Americans beyond this week’s Ryder Cup.
“I think we may have this team for a while,” Pieters said.
McIlroy liked hearing Pieters say that.
“Yes, look for us in Paris in two years,” he said.
McIlroy and Pieters played 49 holes together this week and never trailed. They were 22 under par together.
While Pieters wasn’t as outwardly fiery as McIlroy, he was equally formidable with his ball striking on Saturday. In the afternoon fourballs, he drove the fifth green, a 352-yard par 4, and holed the putt for eagle. He was 7 under through 17 holes in that fourball victory.
“It was incredible, just like yesterday,” McIlroy said. “We dovetailed really well all day. This guy showed his class at the end.”
With McIlroy hitting a drive out of bounds at the 15th and an approach shot in the water at the 16th, Pieters stepped up. Pieters clinched the afternoon match with a birdie at the 17th.
If the Europeans are going to overcome a three-point deficit going into Sunday singles, they’ll need a lot of the fight McIlroy and Pieters showed Saturday.