James Lawton: Better late than never – Rory McIlroy creates his own time zone of brilliance at the Ryder Cup
World No 1 shows resilience to overcome the odds against Europe's scourge Bradley
For Rory McIlroy there will be safer, more serene days when the world will see only the easiness of his talent and a boyish refusal to take life too seriously but yesterday was not about safety or serenity or anything that did not make the blood race and the art of the possible stretch beyond all reason.
His European team stunned the world of golf and much of the rest of sport with the greatest comeback on foreign soil in the 85-year history of the Ryder Cup and there, amid all the improbable glory and sustained and brilliant nerve which would have delighted the man to whom it was dedicated, the great Seve Ballesteros, McIlroy's place was quite extraordinary.
It was, after all, the day when the watch on his wrist almost wiped out his vital place in this great tournament by displaying a different time zone, a day which he not only survived without ridicule but also saw him make a huge contribution to Europe's astonishing decision that they would indeed rise up from the dead.
After beating Keegan Bradley, who had become the scourge of Europe, McIlroy declared: "I was lucky there was a State Trooper outside when I realised I was on the wrong time. He gave me a ride and maybe I was lucky that I didn't have too much time to think about what was in front of me."
But then would it have mattered so much? Would he not once again have operated solely on his own instincts – and would that not have been enough?
When the world's No 1-ranked player arrived with his police escort so perilously close to tee-time, and came out of his car looking rumpled enough to have spent the night on a bench at the local bus station, his pivotal match against the new American golf beast suddenly resembled more a morality tale.
However, for quite a while the moral of the story seemed to be that if you have as much talent as McIlroy you can probably show up pretty much when you like and maybe even while still wearing your pyjamas.
However, as he raced to a frequently brilliant outward nine of 32 – and went two up over the player who had not only been the relentless hammer of the European team but also the man who had helped provoke Phil Mickelson into some of his best form of his Ryder Cup career – there was also a sense that he had never carried so much pressure to deliver some of his most luminous talent. As Bradley received a rapturous reception at the first tee, McIlroy heard derisive cries of "Wakey, Wakey, Rory".
At the same time, his team captain of two years ago, Colin Montgomerie, was raging about how unbelievable it was that both the player, the world's best as it happened, and team officials had come so close to arguably the biggest self-inflicted catastrophe the great event would ever know.
Nor was Montgomerie's successor, Jose Maria Olazabal, exactly a picture of contentment. Depressed by a shortfall of the passion he had called for in the name of the late Ballestros, besieged by some deep-running criticism of both his strategy and handling of some of the team's more tender sensitivities – the Swede Peter Hanson was enraged when he was told, while he warmed up, that he wouldn't be involved in Saturday's fourballs – the captain spoke with the most pained precision.
He said: "I didn't have this in mind. We suddenly realised Rory was not here. He arrived by police escort with about 10 minutes to spare."
There was no time for the niceties of golf ritual – nor to make some final consideration of the challenge he faced in the 26-year-old Bradley, the former PGA major title winner who had been cutting down some of the best ability that Europe could raise, and not least McIlroy's partnership with Graeme McDowell in Friday's fourballs.
But if Bradley was the new hero of American golf, someone who had displayed both the nerve and relish for battle which had been so elusive for a whole generation of his countrymen in this competition, if he was sent out by his team captain to heighten emotion on the first tee some 20 minutes before his own official appearance there – and while his opponent was still being sped to the course – there was something, it was clear soon enough, that he could not quite control.
It was the genius of the young Irishman who many believe is already more than half way towards pushing the great Tiger Woods off the old highway of sports history.
Bradley was the example of supreme effort, a superb willingness to draw from himself every ounce of his natural ability. McIlroy was the man who had, given the chaos of his preparation for yesterday's challenge, the possibility of doing anything that was required.
That it was to beat the American hero of this Ryder Cup was, we saw quickly enough, not the greatest chore to afflict the 23-year-old who had already won the US Open and the US PGA.
The Americans in the gallery called that jibe, "Wakey, Wakey," but it was a jeer that didn't so much injure as incite – a most self-defeating ploy when you are desperate to pile pressure on someone with the range and the instinct of a golfer who has already shown an astonishing capacity to re-make himself in almost any circumstances.
McIlroy had to hold together the European effort at a key place in the 12-match line-up; he had to underpin the game of Luke Donald which was so wonderfully solid this day as it dismantled that of the emotional epicentre of American crowd affection, Bubba Watson, and also the apparently inexhaustible willingness of Ian Poulter to take the battle to the Americans under the most unpromising conditions. No one could guarantee anything more than some brave resistance, some serious pursuit of respectability but after the days of American domination, the seeping red of the scoreboard, these were indeed heroic moments.
In the case of McIlroy, it was an extraordinary re-affirmation of that knack of defiance which he displayed in the few months between a catastrophe at the US Masters and an extraordinary triumph at the US Open. He won this year's PGA title by a mile and yesterday he was again the most psychologically resilient of modern golfers.
Briefly he was pinned back on the 12th and 13th holes, when Bradley brought the battle to all square, and there seemed the desperate possibility that the man from Vermont would again assert his ability to take down any European opponent, however distinguished his reputation and his natural ability.
Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and McIlroy himself had been among Bradley's victims but yesterday there was no question that the Irish virtuoso would yield. His time-keeping might have been awry and in this his performance was less than you would expect from some buttoned-down young professional in charge of the golfing universe.
But then he was quite untouchable in both his skill and his bravura and when he delivered victory by 2&1 on the 17th green he could not have done more to underline his new status.
He was the player on whom you could place all the pressure in the world – and for what? It was the extraordinary sight of his finding a way to win, anywhere, any time. Whether it was enough to help produce one of the most extraordinary comebacks in the history of the Ryder Cup was far from sure as we moved towards the final passage of a magnificent tournament. But that it proved to be was maybe the least of the astonishments of the day.
What no one could have doubted was that Rory McIlroy was indeed a young champion who could make his own rules – and create his own zone of both time and brilliance.
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