CHASKA, Minn. – The Europeans can take a punch.
And, boy, can they counter punch.
The Europeans didn’t just get throttled 4-0 by the Americans in the morning foursomes at Hazeltine Golf Club. The Euros felt pushed around by a rowdy, boisterous American crowd before they pushed back in afternoon fourballs to cut the U.S. lead to 5-3.
McIlroy was asked if his celebratory punch was an attempt to let the American crowd know the Europeans are unfazed.
“Yeah, for sure,” McIlroy said. “Obviously, not fazed by anything that is said by the crowd and not fazed by anything that the U.S. team throws at us.
“We were 4-nil down going into this afternoon, and I thought the whole team showed a lot of heart out there. We played for each other. We went out there with the mindset of if we could just win this session somehow, we would be right back in it.”
McIlroy carved a 4-iron from 226 yards to 20 feet at the 16th. He was so determined to hole the eagle putt, he said he was actually thinking about how he was going to celebrate before he holed it. After the ball disappeared in the hole, he bowed one way to the crowd, then turned and bowed another way . . . and then balled up his fist and cold-cocked the air.
“It’s a hostile environment out there, and I just want everyone that's watching out there to know how much this means to us, how much it means to me personally and obviously us as a team,” McIlroy said. “And we’re not going down without a fight.”
The Americans looked ready to turn this into a laugher sweeping the foursome session, but the European turnaround was stunning. They won every fourball match except one, with Americans Brandt Snedeker and Brooks Koepka rolling over Danny Willett and Martin Kaymer, 5 and 4.
McIlroy heard some fans rooting against, rooting for him to hit bad shots, but no European faced a tougher time Friday than Willett.
With his brother, Pete, penning an article back in England that ridiculed American fans as “fat, stupid, greedy, classless bastards,” Willett found himself booed at the first tee in his first Ryder Cup appearance. His brother’s rant on American eating habits, including their love of hot dogs, became a popular topic among fans following Willett in fourballs.
This from a man at the third tee: “Danny, you’re brother’s an idiot!”
This from a man in the gallery at the sixth fairway: “I love hot dogs and I drink pissy beer! I’m literally the guy your brother was writing about!”
And this from a woman in the bleachers behind the sixth green: “I fill my fat, jelly face with hot dogs. Don’t let it bother you.”
Hazeltine is packed with crowds estimated at more than 50,000, and like Willett, McIlroy heard fans rooting for him to hit bad shots.
“I'm all for people cheering for their team as much as they possibly can,” McIlroy said. “That was a little disappointing in my eyes, that that happened. But again, it's a minority of people, and you know, most people out there are being respectful and respectful of the etiquette of our game of golf.
“As we say, we want this Ryder Cup to be played in very sportsman like conduct, and a sportsmanlike conduct that the great late Arnold Palmer would be very proud of.”
While the Americans may take a 5-3 lead into Saturday, the Europeans take terrific momentum.
“They showed a massive amount, in my opinion, of desire and the fight in them to get themselves right back into it again,” European captain Darren Clarke said.
With Sergio Garcia inspired by his teaming with fellow Spaniard Rafa Cabrera Bello, with Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose’s Olympic-like effort and with McIlroy launching missiles with big-hitting partner Pieters, the Euros rejuvenated themselves playing their own balls.
“The mood in the team room just there was quite buoyant and definitely feels like there was a shift in momentum,” McIlroy said. “Hopefully, we can carry that into tomorrow morning.”
The Americans also took a 5-3 lead into Saturday the last time the Ryder Cup was played on American soil. Back in 2012, the Euros made a historic Sunday comeback to win.
The Euros have overcome first-day deficits in two of the last three beatings they’ve put on the Americans.
Stenson and Rose helped swing momentum back Europe’s way in the leadoff fourballs match.
“It makes it sweet when you beat the guys you lost to in the morning,” Stenson said.
Stenson and Rose teamed to birdie seven of the first 11 holes.
The Spaniards have been a formidable part of Europe’s rise to power in the Ryder Cup, and they were an integral part of Europe’s rally on Friday.
Garcia and Cabrera Bello won the first hole and never trailed the rest of the way, defeating J.B. Holmes and Ryan Moore, 3 and 2. Garcia’s putter was on fire. He made three consecutive birdies on the back nine, five on the day. Making his first Ryder Cup appearance, Cabrera Bello birdied the first hole to jump start the tandem.
“I love this,” Garcia said of the Ryder Cup. “This is very special for me. Sorry, I said that the wrong way. This is very special for us. Rafa was a rock out there. He gave me so much confidence to go for shots and putts.”
The Euros will be looking to build on their momentum change to battle the Americans and the home-field advantage the Euros are finding so challenging.