GUIDONIA MONTECELIO, Italy – It was in the immediate aftermath of the United States’ Ryder Cup victory two years ago that the topic turned to the next edition of this biennial competition against Europe.
Several players brushed off the inquiry, choosing instead to relish in a record rout. Jordan Spieth, the American with the most overseas Ryder Cup experience, knew its significance, however.
Winning on the road was the next step for America’s program, one that been renovated and reimagined three years earlier to address years of futility. The United States’ 19-9 win on the shores of Wisconsin was the fruit of that work, the largest Ryder Cup victory in five decades. Steve Stricker, the U.S. captain that year, declared that day that the U.S. was entering “a new era.”
But Spieth knew one milestone still needed to be accomplished: a victory on foreign soil.
“It’s one thing to win it over here and it is a lot easier to do so, but it is harder to win over there,” Spieth said in his press conference. “If we play like we did this week, the score will look the same over there in a couple years, and that’s what we’re here for.”
The United States had not won in Europe since 1993. That streak was due to U.S. futility as well as a trend that threatened to make the competition as predictable as a Georgia-Samford football game.
This year’s team was aware of that history but also distanced itself from it. Five members of the U.S. Team at Marco Simone were not alive when the U.S. last won in Europe. Only four of the 12 had played a Ryder Cup overseas, with Fowler (three) and Spieth (two) the only ones with multiple appearances. Marco Simone Golf & Country Club was an opportunity for this new era to truly be ushered in.
The Ryder Cup has become defined by the home team’s dominance, and all of the enthusiasm, optimism and excitement from Whistling Straits could not end it. Europe’s 16.5-11.5 victory this week in Italy reinforces that something more is needed to win overseas.
A myriad of theories will be offered in the search for answers to this year’s confounding performance. The U.S. returned seven players from 2021. All 12 Americans on this year’s team are ranked in the top 25 of the world, including seven of the top 12, and the team featured three of this year’s major champions.
More importantly, the U.S. brought to Rome several bedrock pairings that had been successful in recent Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup competitions. Finding winning combinations is a mix of art and science, one that has often flummoxed the Americans. The emergence of Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, as well as Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, seemed to make Johnson’s job easier.
But America looked flat and feckless from the Ryder Cup’s start, falling behind by a record margin after the first day and never able to recover. The U.S. was swept in the opening session, won just one of the first 12 matches and would’ve needed an unprecedented Sunday comeback to win the Ryder Cup.
Was the U.S. roster too tight, the friendships having too heavy an influence on U.S. Captain Zach Johnson’s picks? Or was the U.S. not close enough, perhaps even a team divided? Was five weeks off after the TOUR Championship too long? Should the Americans have played the Italian Open? And what impact did the team’s mystery illness have?
In a game of miniscule margins, all of these factors can cost a team fractions of a stroke. Their impact should not be diminished. But they don’t change the fact that Rory McIlroy calls winning a road Ryder Cup one of the most difficult accomplishments in today’s game.
Dating back to 2006, the home team has won eight of the past nine Ryder Cup, outscoring the visitors 149.5-102.5 in that span. The “Miracle at Medinah,” when Europe overcame a 10-6 deficit on the final day in 2012, is the lone exception.
Seven times in that span – including each of the past five Ryder Cups – has the home team won by five or more points. Each team has become too adept at setting up the course to its advantage, which is increased exponentially by the intangible effects of momentum and the home crowd’s raucous support. Europe rode it to victory this week.
The success of Europe’s efficient back-room operation over recent decades has shone a spotlight on each team’s inner workings, often overlooking the simplest answer.
“This is a moment where you literally just have to accept that the European Team played really, really good golf,” said Johnson.
It started immediately, with Viktor Hovland chipping in on the first hole of the week’s second match. The hole-outs and long putts kept coming, scenes the U.S. had seen so many times before. Spieth called it “a perfect storm.”
While the U.S. rested from competition after the FedExCup Playoffs, Europe convened on the DP World Tour. Seven of the European Team members finished in the top 10 of the BMW PGA Championship, the DP World Tour’s flagship event, two weeks ago.
“They just were playing really good golf and then they carried it right into here, and they holed a lot of putts,” said Spieth. “They holed chips and they played really, really good golf this week, and they stepped on us early, and then the crowd was able to get behind them. Their rookies were able to see that. It made it an easier transition for the rookies.
“All of a sudden, we were in a hole and had to try to fight back today.”
GUIDONIA MONTECELIO, Italy – Europe’s Ryder Cup team is known for impressive efficiency and data-driven analysis, but it also is wise enough to not downplay golf’s spiritual side. That’s the reason for all the inspirational videos and small gestures intended to strengthen the bonds between this year’s team and its predecessors.
It is easy to dismiss this sentimentality – such as the locker set aside for Seve Ballesteros in this year’s European team room – in a game that, at its core, is defined by the objective. But then there are moments like Friday, when the inexplicable happened on Marco Simone Golf & Country Club’s 18th green. Just when it looked like the lead Europe had built with its dominance earlier in the day was about to suffer a significant dent, three strokes reversed the Ryder Cup’s course and allowed Europe to relish in a historic margin.
Europe finished Friday by making two birdies and an eagle on Marco Simone’s 18th hole to salvage a tie in three of the four Four-ball matches. It allowed Europe to end the day with a 6.5-1.5 lead, tying the largest lead ever held after the Ryder Cup’s first day. Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland made long, curling putts while Justin Rose, the team’s wily veteran, wedged it close on the par 5 before holing a 9-foot birdie putt with the day’s final stroke.
“What we did going down 18 just shows the determination, the grit, the perseverance, kind of the unity of our team,” said European Captain Luke Donald. “They never gave up, and they kept pushing united the very end.”
Rose celebrated the putt by extending his index finger and jabbing it toward each of his teammates, shouting, “You!” at each one of them. It emphasized the ethos of the European squad. Rose knew the significance of the stroke, but also recognized that it was his European teammates who’d made this historic moment possible.
“Everyone is in it together,” Rose said. “Made the putt because I had 10 people willing it in behind me. Yeah, it’s for them, as well.”
It was another memorable moment in Rose’s long Ryder Cup career, reminiscent of the 10-footer he made to win his Singles match against Phil Mickelson during the “Miracle at Medinah” in 2012. Rose, 43, is playing alongside new teammates on a European side that is missing several players who formed its core over the past two decades. Rory McIlroy is the only player on this European Team with whom Rose has played in multiple Ryder Cups before this year.
Each new face that enters Europe’s locker room quickly becomes immersed in the team’s culture, though, and that was evident minutes earlier when Rahm’s rookie teammate inspired him by invoking the memory of the patriarch for this collection of the continent’s best players.
“What would Seve do?” asked Nicolai Højgaard before Rahm slammed his 30-foot eagle putt into the hole, his ball bouncing off the lip and going airborne before falling into the hole.
“I don’t know if he would have quite made it like that,” Rahm said, “but I’m sure glad that it went in.”
This is the first time the United States has gone an entire day without winning a match. Europe swept the four Foursomes matches in the morning session, but it looked like the United States was going to draw closer in the afternoon. In the session’s first three matches, the U.S. stood on the 16th tee with a lead. They didn’t win any of those matches.
It started with Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, one of the United States’ stalwart teams. They’d surprisingly sat out the first session but were 2-up in the second session’s opening match after Spieth’s birdie on the par-3 13th. The match was tied, however, after Thomas missed a 6-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole. Thomas faced a birdie putt of similar length on the final hole, presumably to win the hole after neither of his opponents could hit their third shots close on the par 5. But then Hovland’s 25-foot birdie putt rolled up a ridge, slowed and took one final turn into the hole. Instead of winning the last hole, the best Thomas could do was tie the hole and the match.
“To hole putts like Viktor did, like Jon did, and of course Rosey, right at the end, that is huge,” said Donald. “It really looked like 3-1 at one point for the U.S. To win that session, when it looked like (the U.S. would win) 3-1, is an unbelievable feat by my guys.”
Rahm’s eagle and Rose’s birdie from 125 yards also meant their matches ended in ties. The afternoon’s other match was a 5-and-3 victory by Europe’s McIlroy and Matt Fitzpatrick.
The day couldn’t have ended any better for the home team, which is looking to extend a three-decade-long winning streak on home soil. After losing the Ryder Cup by 10 points two years ago, Europe returned serve with its own historic performance Friday.
As the sun set on Marco Simone and fans streamed off the course, speakers blared an appropriate anthem: Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”