How else to explain why McIlroy would plan his savage victory celebration before he rolled in the 20-foot eagle putt that capped Europe’s stirring afternoon comeback at Hazeltine?
“I wanted to put an exclamation point on that session for us,” he said afterward. “I knew it had a good chance of going in. 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.”
To celebrate the 3-and-2 victory over Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar on Friday afternoon, McIlroy turned to the stunned crowd and bowed twice. It was a macho move that likely won’t be forgotten by the Americans.
Not that McIlroy cares.
Asked if he’s worried that his brash gesture might rile up the home crowd, and the home team, McIlroy shrugged.
“No worries on my part,” he said. “I bowed to them, said, ‘You’re welcome for the show,’ and we move on.”
After giving Pieters a big bro hug, McIlroy breezed through the rest of his post-match duties, shaking hands with his opponents but unintentionally stiffing Johnson’s caddie, Austin. Even Phil Mickelson, who was standing just off the green, looked surprised by the snub.
McIlroy didn’t even realize he’d left Johnson hanging until he was informed by a reporter. “Oh, did I not?” he said. “I guess I just got caught up in that whole scenario.”
And for good reason.
Though Danny Willett might be subjected to more abuse than usual this week after his brother’s inflammatory remarks, no European player will draw the ire of the impassioned (and oftentimes inebriated) fans like McIlroy. After all, he’s Europe’s best player. The most recognizable star. And, from an American perspective, the biggest threat.
With usual foil Ian Poulter relegated to cart-driving duties, McIlroy has taken it upon himself to transform into Europe’s primary agitator.
And so it was Friday morning, with McIlroy in the second group off with Andy Sullivan. The Europeans’ bad shots were cheered, their good shots jeered. Some even yelled, “Get in the water!”, and sure enough, one of Sullivan’s tee shots did, with the match all square on the 17th hole. McIlroy and Sullivan lost that match, 1 up, but McIlroy didn’t forget what he later said was “disappointing” breaches of etiquette.
“We’re obviously not fazed by anything that is said by the crowd,” he said, “and not fazed by anything that the U.S. team throws at us.”
It showed in the afternoon, when McIlroy was even more animated. With his team trailing 4-0, he let loose on a few occasions, celebrating with the normally demure Pieters and inciting the crowd as they jumped out to an early 4-up lead in fourballs.
“It’s a hostile environment that the people out there don’t want you to hole a putt; they don’t want you to hit a good shot,” he said. “So I think when you do hole a putt or hit a good shot, it just makes it that much more satisfying.”
None, of course, was more satisfying than his majestic, 226-yard 4-iron that set up his 20-foot eagle putt. When it dropped, Europe had won the session and trimmed its deficit to 5-3 heading into Day 2.
“We’re not going down without a fight,” he said. “We’ve pulled it back a good bit, and we plan to pull it back even further tomorrow.”