hMid-afternoon on Saturday something unexpected happened: the United States finally appeared in this Ryder Cup. And when the top of the scoreboard turned red, and the chants of “USA! USA!” grew in volume and intensity, Rory McIlroy and Patrick Cantlay were locked in a battle for the ages. It was one that wreaked havoc on the course – and, dramatically, later on the parking too.
Because of the characters involved, a fourballs match between McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick against Cantlay and Wyndham Clark always promised flavor. But when the American team sensed an opportunity to cut into Europe’s lead as the game approached the 18th minute, the situation became much more heated and visceral than that.
And the lingering tension finally boiled over when Cantlay’s caddy, Joe LaCava, celebrated as his man holed out from 43 feet just in front of the line where McIlroy had a putt to halve the match. Screams were heard. Fingers pointed. The anger on the European side was palpable… and understandable.
There were echoes here of Brookline in 1999 when the American team celebrated Justin Leonard’s hole-in from long distance when the putt by José María Olazábal was still missing. McIlroy was also later seen pointing the finger at Justin Thomas’ caddy Jim “Bones” Mackay in the parking area, while Shane Lowry and Justin Rose also looked clearly unimpressed.
This Ryder Cup It’s been a long time coming for some excitement, and it certainly got it. And with Cantlay and Clark’s victory, he now has a slim chance of competing as well. The American team now trails by 10½ to 5½. Suddenly, Sunday’s singles carry a small element of danger.
The tension was already clear as the players walked to the 14th tee. McIlroy was greeted with loud cheers. Meanwhile, Cantlay was bombarded with chants of “Where’s your hat, Patrick?” – A reference to the rumor that he was apparently angry because he wasn’t paid to play in the Ryder Cup and refused to wear a helmet.
At this point, the contest had come down to McIlroy versus Cantlay, hero versus villain, the team’s best player versus a man rumored (and denied) to have caused a divide in the American locker room.
The tension was such that Clark took his ball out of bounds, before Fitzpatrick did the same. Meanwhile, Cantlay was on the street, ready to swing the knife. But the time comes, McIlroy arrives, or so it seemed.
First he launched a 376-yard drive up the middle. Then, after a textbook sand wedge, came a nerveless putt that put Europe up one with three to play. But Cantlay, who is nicknamed “Patty Ice” for a reason, refused to leave.
He first made a 10-foot putt on the 16th to cut it in half with a birdie. He then tied the match with a birdie from 9 feet on the 17th. Before, finally, a stunning 43-foot putt gave him another birdie and the American victory.
“I wasn’t really thinking at the time,” Cantlay explained later. “It was just raw emotion. She was just feeling it. She felt like the group had birdied close to every hole on the back nine, and it felt like every putt was life or death.”
As he celebrated a hat-trick of birdies, the American players waved their hats with joy. However, Cantlay later denied not wearing a hat in protest of not being paid, pointing out that he had done the same at the last Ryder Cup. “It just doesn’t fit,” he added, dismissing rumors of a split in the American team after their disappointing first day. “It’s as simple as that. That’s all it is.”
McIlroy, meanwhile, understandably looked gutted at not being able to get a win or a draw in the end. And he was clearly furious at the way the Americans celebrated at the end, with some words exchanged between Shane Lowry and LaCava as well. But he insisted that the incident would only serve to encourage Europeans.
“They played a great game,” he said. “And yes, some scenes there in 18 and just fuel for tomorrow’s fire.”
However, the Northern Irishman can certainly hold his head high after taking three points from four matches, including a 2 and 1 win with Tommy Fleetwood over Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas on Saturday morning.
It is an especially significant achievement given that McIlroy was in tears after Europe were thrashed at Whistling Straits two years ago because he felt he had let his team-mates down.
As the skies over Rome began to darken, American captain Zach Johnson insisted that he believed strongly in momentum, in a way that made it sound as if it could swing back and forth like a grandfather clock.
Cantlay also senses an opening. “We’ve been a little bad this week,” she said. “But we finally have a moment where we can celebrate a little bit, and we’re going to take that opportunity and try to turn it into some momentum for tomorrow. Hopefully, we have a ray of light and we can take advantage of this session and try to get a big win.”
Maybe on Sunday night we will all talk about the Miracle of Marco Simone. But right now this is still the game Europe must lose.