Final hole misery leaves a sour taste for Rory McIlroy
Plugged bunker ball on 18th tilts titanic singles clash the way of USA rival Thomas
Rory McIlroy plays his second shot out of a bunker on the 18th during the singles Ryder Cup defeat to Justin Thomas at Le Golf National, Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, Paris. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire.
If only we could erase Rory McIlroy’s hellish torment on the 18th hole, scrub it from history as if it never happened.
He didn’t deserve his Ryder Cup to finish like that, not after the titanic blow-for-blow, punch-for-punch nature of his singles match at the top of the order with Justin Thomas. Two friends turned into enemies for a few hours only for it to end so messily.
“Unlucky,” whispered Thomas as they shook hands on the 18th fairway, after McIlroy had first called the American back and then waved him to retrace back his steps so that he could concede the hole, and with it the match, without ever making it to the 18th green.
The words of consolation from Thomas and the handshake from McIlroy provided a bookmark to their bout; the only times the American led in the match were after the first hole and then again after the 18th. Such is matchplay, and such was the enthralling battle the two fought ’til the death.
“It was a heavyweight pillow fight,” said Thomas of his duel that delivered on its star billing, adding: “It wasn’t a very fitting end to the match. I really felt bad about that . . . . I told Rory I’ve looked up to him for a long time, I’ve always respected him. I wanted to get a point, but I didn’t want to get it like that.”
That 18th hole provided a cruel finish for the unfortunate McIlroy, who had led early on by two and was one-up through 13 and stood all-square on the final tee box.
Yes, the 18th, in front of an amphitheatre, is made for drama; and unfortunately for McIlroy he became the lead character in a tragicomedy that had the packed grandstand and those on hillocks scarcely believing what unfolded before their very eyes. At this point, the top match mattered; it was a potential momentum mover, as Thomas and McIlroy sought to land the telling punch.
Thomas smashed a driver to the narrow neck of the fairway some 319 yards away; McIlroy, though, kept the driver in his bag, stuck to his game-plan of using a 3-wood with the intention of finding the fairway and then watched as the ball leaked right where it plugged at the top of a fairway bunker. Plugged!
One effort to extricate the ball proved fruitless, the ball briefly threatening to escape only to return to the sand trap, and his next recovery hit the lip and then skated across the fairway where it disappeared into the lake.
It was a calamitous end to his match. Thomas looked to see if that was it, was it over? But McIlroy prolonged his own agony. He got his caddie Harry Diamond to get a replacement ball from the golf bag and McIlroy went to the drop zone, hit his approach – his fifth shot – and only then seemed to realise the futility of it all.
Short game magic
“Hey, JT, JT,” he called to his friend, waving him back to concede the match. A one-hole win for the American; and, at the time, what looked like being a crucial momentum-driver for the USA.
McIlroy had set out with a spring in his step, as the on-course leader of Team Europe; the one ordained to set the pace. The grandstand by the first tee rocked to the sounds of one chant after another. The chorus of Ole-Ole-Ole rang out, La Marseillaise stirred the heart-strings , the Icelandic thunderclap thundered and the armed Gendarmerie stood by and soaked up the atmosphere.
The Northern Irishman’s response to an opening birdie from Thomas was to win the second and third holes to claim a lead he held to the turn. Thomas birdied the 10th to get the match back level, only for Thomas to three-putt the 13th to give McIlroy a one-hole advantage again.
Through it all, McIlroy showed some exemplary short game magic. His flop shot on the seventh for one, another flop shot from rough on the 17th. But McIlroy also had chances to take control, only for birdie putts to graze the hole, refuse to drop and stubbornly stay above ground as that homeward journey brought ultimately his fate on the 18th hole, where all the good of the previous 17 holes unravelled like a cheap piece of jewellery.
McIlroy – who finished up with two points from five having played in all five sessions – became the first European player to compete in five Ryder Cups before his 30th birthday and he has been on four winning teams.
“It’s incredible to be a part of a winning team again. We took a tough loss at Hazeltine [in 2016] and that stung. That was my first experience of what it feels like to be on the other side, nobody wanted to feel like that [again].
“I think the leadership has been great, the rookies have been phenomenal and we’ve all just stuck to our jobs . . . . it’s the culmination of two years of very hard work and I’m delighted for everyone that’s a part of it,” said McIlroy.