Throwing Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter back together always looked like a nostalgia act, a desperate attempt by Padraig Harrington to draw more magic from the pair who detonated the miracle of Medinah. And yet this was one experiment that belonged firmly in the past, as the two delivered a dismal performance, mixing ragged play with downbeat body language, en route to a 5&3 thrashing by Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele.
That McIlroy is not a morning person is a matter of record. This is the person presented with a comically outsized watch by his team-mates nine years ago after sleeping through his Sunday morning call. But even by his standards, his early lapses alongside Poulter here at Whistling Straits were unforgivably dozy.
From the opening fairway, he horribly miscued his chip, leaving Poulter 30ft from the pin as the Americans snaffled the first of five straight holes. Trish Johnson, co-commentating on BBC Radio Five Live, could not suppress the voice of horror in her head. “That was b—– awful,” she blurted, apparently without realising she was live.
It was far from the only blunder by McIlroy, who could find neither accuracy with his irons nor touch with his putting as Europe’s final foursomes match descended into a tailspin. They lost their fifth consecutive hole when Cantlay drained a 30-footer, and could easily have fallen six down after six had Schauffele drained his 12ft-putt for birdie. The more they stumbled, the more the vast galleries barracked Poulter under pristine Wisconsin sunshine.
Worryingly, this once-lethal duo seemed in denial about their own deficiencies. According to Poulter, “we actually played quite well,” while McIlroy claimed: “I don’t know if anyone could have beaten Xander and Patrick today.” A pairing who did not play the front nine in 39 might have been a start.
While McIlroy’s wife Erica, following close behind, looked crestfallen, basketball superstar Steph Curry, Team USA’s unofficial lead cheerleader, was cock-a-hoop. This had always felt a daunting ask for McIlroy and Poulter, even if their Medinah exploits had turned the unforgettable 2012 contest on its axis.
Cantlay has just won more than £10 million for his FedEx Cup title, having played last month’s BMW Championship in an astonishing 27 under par, while Schauffele has an Olympic gold medal to show for his summer.
Close friends off the course, the two Californians set off on such a tear that their wizened opponents had no answer, ultimately succumbing at the 15th. Cantlay, for his part, did not disguise his delight at having trounced such a marquee pairing.
“We were excited when we saw that pairing – all the pressure is on them,” he said. “They have seen it all and they are expected maybe to have a little veteran edge,” he said. As it turned out, McIlroy and Poulter were the bluntest of instruments.