On a burning hot day in Rome, the scoreboard finally turned red and with it, the Ryder Cup ignited.
The catalyst was a bizarre news story which sparked a chain of events that turned America’s Patrick Cantlay into a pantomime villain. First, he was sarcastically serenaded by thousands of fans as he walked down the 16th fairway, then he caused members of both teams to exchange angry words on the 18th green, culminating in Rory McIlroy swearing furiously and needing to be held back by his teammate Shane Lowry, of all people.
The story broke around lunchtime that Cantlay was not wearing a Team USA cap on the course as a kind of silent protest against the lack of payment for Ryder Cup players. Cantlay later strenuously denied it, but not before European fans had took the opportunity to heckle him at every hole with shouts of: “Where’s your hat, Patty?”
As his delicate chip rolled agonisingly past the cup on the fourth green, a voice from up on the hill shouted: “You want money for that?” The joke spread and snowballed across Marco Simone Golf Club so that by the time he reached the 16th, a giant swathe of spectators were waving their hats in the air like they were bidding farewell to the Titanic, singing “hats off, to your bank account” as he walked down the fairway. After keeping a poker face for much of the day, he finally broke into a smile.
But Cantlay was clearly irked, and when he coolly sunk a long putt on the 18th green, he was quick to doff an imaginary cap in the direction of fans. His caddie, Joe LaCava, took the celebrations a step further, waving his own hat around wildly to incite angry boos. McIlroy was trying to line up his own putt, and he glared at LaCava, who stepped back. Lowry and other European teammates watching on were furious, shouting at LaCava to show some respect.
“When Patrick made that putt, Joe was waving his hat,” said Europe captain Luke Donald. “Rory politely asked Joe to move aside, he was in his line of vision. He stayed and waved the hat and I think Rory was upset with that.”
McIlroy and his teammate Matt Fitzpatrick both missed their putts to confirm USA’s much-needed point, and amid the post-match handshakes there were words exchanged. First between McIlroy and LaCava, and then between Lowry, Justin Rose and the caddie coming under fire. Caddies are supposed to protect their player at all costs and it was hard to know whether LaCava had taken the heat off Cantlay or simply increased it.
That was not the end. Later, Lowry was filmed restraining McIlroy in an angry exchange outside the clubhouse involving another US caddie, Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay. McIlroy was seen pointing and swearing at somebody off camera.
Asked about the video of an enraged McIlroy, Donald said: “Rory is a passionate player, I’ll speak to him later about it.”
After the match, McIlroy had said clashes on the 18th green would merely add motivation to his desire to succeed on Sunday. “Obviously they had a great finish and Patrick made three great putts at the end to seal the deal, so hats off to them. They played a great match, yes, a few scenes there on 18 and just fuel for the fire tomorrow.”
Cantlay was peppered with questions in an awkward press conference, but refused to comment on the conduct of his caddie. “He is the best,” he said of LaCava. “That is all there is to say.”
It was no surprise that tensions spilled into conflict in what is always an emotional rivalry. In 30C heat, on a golf course where some fans had been drinking all day, there were bound to be flash points, and McIlroy’s heavyweight contest with Cantlay was always the most likely scene.
There were four matches in progress through the afternoon, yet seemingly half the population of Italy were walking alongside this one. Captains and vice-captains, players’ friends and family, glamorous wives being chauffeured around. Marshals with bibs, police officers with guns, photographers and journalists and radio broadcasters whispering into microphones. Niall Horan. Justin Timberlake. Peter Jones from Dragons’ Den. An unrelenting stream of well-dressed Italians who, presumably, were friends of fashion designer and course owner Lavinia Biagiotti.
The match contained world No5 Cantlay, US Open champion Wyndham Clark and former US Open champion Fitzpatrick, but this was The Rory Show, a travelling circus surrounding him as he put on little solo performances. Like on the fourth green, when fans filling a stand and a steep bank created a mini-amphitheatre. Silence descended and the only sound was McIlroy’s feet stalking around his birdie putt. He made it, pumping his fists and exiting through a little tunnel to deafening “Rory!” chants. It sent Europe one up.
Like his tee shot on the par-four fifth which set off on a mission to impale the sun. “Good lord,” muttered one of the US vice-captains, not as quietly as he thought. Like on the sixth, where only his head could be seen over the lip of the greenside bunker, and he splashed out and almost holed it.
All around, the atmosphere was spiky, and Cantlay was the primary target. He played brilliantly, matching McIlroy stroke for stroke, and the Europeans’ birdie on four was cancelled out by Cantlay’s on 11. Then, when Cantlay put himself 15 feet from the 14th hole, McIlroy hit a beautiful approach inside him to six feet; Donald had his finger raised in celebration before the ball had finished dropping out of the sky. Cantlay’s putt whistled just past the edge of the cup, showing McIlroy the line, and he made it to send Europe one up again.
But Cantlay’s final three putts were sensational. He clinched the 16th with another birdie, despite that almighty hammering from the crowd down the fairway, to level the match. He held his nerve over another on 17 to halve the hole and send them all square down the last. And despite knifing his chip to the back of the green, he proceeded to nervelessly knock in his final putt to give USA the slightest sniff of hope going into Sunday’s singles. Europe lead 10½ – 5½ with 12 points left to play for.
By then the sun was sinking behind the hills, casting long shadows across the green. The crowd was becoming an unruly mob and the teams were at each other’s throats. It had been a long and surreal day and it was clearly time everyone went to bed. Tomorrow is another day.