From dejection to da man, quite a turnaround for Rory McIlroy at Ryder Cup

PARIS -- Rory McIlroy's two rounds Friday finished on the 16th green, and both times, captain Thomas Bjorn met him with a hug. The first, after the morning's session, was one of consolation. A few hours later, it was an embrace of affirmation and admiration.

The McIlroy we saw bouncing around the course at the end of the afternoon's matches, having secured a 4-and-2 win with Ian Poulter, cut a sharp contrast to the one we saw earlier. The morning McIlroy was the one who grasps the back of his neck, anxiously plays with his hair and wears the expression of a pained man as things fall apart a little.

The course, fittingly called the "Albatross," had given McIlroy nothing in the four-balls. As he walked disconsolately off the 16th, having lost 4-and-2 alongside Thorbjorn Olesen, Bjorn consoled him. McIlroy gave the crowd a half-wave, having finished a miserable round by being the only player not to card a birdie. But instead of letting him stew, Bjorn stood by his man and threw him straight back into the cauldron. Bjorn had chosen his pairings before play started and was not going to second-guess himself.

"I never have any doubt in Rory McIlroy, because if I start doubting him, then I probably shouldn't be doing this job," Bjorn said. "I believe in him, and it was great to see his response today. I was never in doubt that I wanted to have him on the golf course this afternoon."

By the time the afternoon foursomes rolled around, the temperature had lowered, the wind had picked up and Poulter was alongside McIlroy. On the sixth, McIlroy finally made a birdie putt to get his Ryder Cup back on track. With that came the bounce in the step, and then the magic returned.

On the 13th, McIlroy was awkwardly positioned in the rough on the bank of the water hazard, but he chipped to within a handful of feet from the pin. As the ball settled, Poulter turned to face his partner, poised like a snake, giving McIlroy a look of steely determination and admiration. He gave McIlroy a bum-tap, and McIlroy responded with a punch to Poulter's chest. Then Poulter slotted the put.

McIlroy's return to form was a testament to Bjorn's faith as you could have forgiven the captain had he decided to sit McIlroy for the afternoon. But playing alongside Poulter offered McIlroy the chance to press the reset button, as he benefited from sharing the pressure with the man known in these parts as Monsieur Ryder Cup.

"I didn't need to say anything to Rory McIlroy," Poulter said. "Rory is Rory. He would have been frustrated enough this morning with that loss. I didn't need to gee him up at all. He needed slowing down, if anything. I could barely keep up with his little legs."

In the morning, the spotlight was solely on McIlroy, who played alongside Olesen. He was a rookie looking to McIlroy for advice; all the while, the crowd chanted, "Rory, Rory." There was nowhere for McIlroy to breathe, as he went from rough to rough, growing increasingly frustrated with his own game and probably tiring out his right arm as he flagged wayward tee shots. He ended up tying himself in knots and looked troubled. On the 16th, he needed to nail his putt to keep his pairing in the match. He left it short, when it needed aggression.

But with Poulter -- the chest-thumping darling of the European fans -- McIlroy looked comfortable. The crowd's adulation and attention was divided, and the burden of expectation was shared, both using muscle memory from previous Ryder Cups to help settle nerves and actually allow themselves to enjoy the moment.

Their enjoyment was to Bjorn's credit. Of the four groups Bjorn sent out in the afternoon, only one looked to be a bit of an unknown: Sergio Garcia and Alex Noren. Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson played together in the past two Ryder Cups and had a 4-2 record together. McIlroy told Rose to "give me something to chase" and start the afternoon with a win.

McIlroy and Poulter followed Rose and Stenson's storming start, while Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood already had a victory from the morning and went last. Sandwiched in third were Garcia and Noren, who on the face of it looked a bit of a gamble but answered with a commanding 5-and-4 win against Phil Mickelson-Bryson DeChambeau.

Jim Furyk's afternoon calls looked -- with the benefit of sporting hindsight -- knee-jerk, while Bjorn's were set in stone. The calm Dane's trust won the afternoon as Europe completed its first session whitewash in 29 years.

Before the morning session and the first tee shot, Poulter led two thunderclaps, and the crowd responded in perfect time. McIlroy later followed suit, just before he got his morning off and running with Olesen. As he stood in the same spot as Poulter, McIlroy stood with his arms outstretched and dummied a clap. Those watching fell for it. It was a jarring, awkward moment amid a time of harmony, and the rhythm would not return until the afternoon.

By the close of play, with the leaderboard covered in blue, Poulter and McIlroy had the crowd clapping to their own beat.

As the afternoon sun cut through the autumnal chills, Bjorn again hugged McIlroy on the 16th green. But this time, smiles broke out across each other's faces. "You know, the only thing I say to Rory is we go again, and that's what we do," Bjorn said. "I made quite clear all along that I'm not in any way, shape or form qualified to tell Rory McIlroy how to play golf, but I'm qualified to lead him in a direction with the people he's surrounding himself with this week to get good things out of him.

"Now he goes home with rest and a little bit of a smile on his face, and then we'll see where he is tomorrow."

Bjorn was asked at the end of Friday whether the action he had seen had swayed his thoughts for pairings. "Not really," he responded. It's hard to question the man, with McIlroy to play alongside Garcia, another to benefit from Bjorn's trust. Bjorn's gut instinct worked, as over the space of nine hours, McIlroy underwent quite the Ryder Cup renaissance.