A dream that was Rome
The perfect setup
We spend so much time haggling over ways to improve golf. We need a new tour. We need a new elevated series. The points are all screwed up. The playoffs are a joke. The money is too inflated. The money’s not enough. Aside from a few Sundays per year, so much of the focus is on how something should be changed or made better. (Hand up myself on this one, too!)
The Ryder Cup seems to be the one event that has it perfect. The number of players. The number of points. The number of matches. The number of times it’s played over two years. In terms of format, it has hit its peak; any change would feel anathema to everything we’ve come to love. It enjoys this status even as it’s on a run of relative blowouts over the past decade. It speaks to the drama and contentiousness of match play, the uniqueness of this event, and the inherent theater of it all that we don’t even need it to be close on Sunday to appreciate it every two years. Embrace the late nights and early mornings of the next few days.
Where can it go wrong?
Can you ever actually grow in perpetuity, remaining on a purely upward trajectory? What goes up must come down, right? The Ryder Cup, though, is more or less on a 40-year heater. Much of this growth is owed to the ascendancy of the European side, beginning with the “Famous Five” of the 1980s and the legacy they created for a subsequent generation. Let’s face it: the Europeans are the ones that elevated this event to its modern lofty status. That’s not to say the Ryder Cup is not extremely meaningful to the USA side. But the Euros have pushed the event to new heights thanks to their shared sense of purpose and the flair they have always played with.
Where the Cup could be diminished is if some of that team-centric European identity is lost. This is not a prediction; given the strength of their operation, they have a real chance to avoid these pitfalls. But we’re clearly in a transitional stretch for the Euro team, and for golf as a whole. Is there really a pure European Tour player anymore? The origin of this European ascendance lies with a motivation in playing for that tour, one that was largely unfamiliar to their American opponents, who often viewed it as inferior. That persisted into the next great generation of Ryder Cup success, even as the Famous Five gave way to American rosters that had many of the very top stars in the game.
Bob MacIntyre and Nicolai Højgaard come close to being pure Euro Tour players. The other two European rookies are fresh off the plane from Lubbock, Texas and Birmingham, Alabama. This is likely the future. So much of the focus is on the homogenization of the game — every Euro player admits there is no European style of golf anymore, as everyone typically plays the same way on similar courses — but a more pertinent issue could be the current homogenization of professional golf as a whole. (To say nothing of the impending future of beefed-up strategic alliances and NewCos.) The pride of playing for where you’re originally from, playing for Team Europe’s legacy, playing for the 11 others in the room with you, that won’t soon fade. But the adversarial element of having two foreign tours and two completely different pathways to the highest levels of pro golf has been diminished, and it will only continue to fade. Could that lead to a decline in the overall meaningfulness of the event, undoing decades of growth? Absolutely. But I really hope it doesn’t.
Measuring motivation is a nearly impossible task. But it’s clear that the American players have an opportunity in front of them to make real golf history this week. That opportunity exists at majors, of course, but how often is it a 50/50 proposition, give or take a few points due to the possibility of a tie? We’ve long heard that one of the great accomplishments in golf is to win a Ryder Cup on foreign soil. It would be a truly historic achievement. How often do we get that in this sport? Set against 30 years of failure in Europe, this year’s American side boasts a better process, better organization, and a younger, more talented team that has largely played no part in any of that ignominious past. Of course, I wrote much of the same in 2018. For a group that’s had its commitment and motivation questioned over three decades of drought, the stakes have never been higher. –Brendan Porath
Three notes on Marco Simone
Although I’m no great fan of the architecture at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club (narrow fairways bordered by thick rough will simply never do it for me), I think it will function well as a spectator venue this week. Here are three things that I believe fans will enjoy about the course:
Short par 4s – Marco Simone has not one, not two, but THREE par 4s that can be set up as drivable: Nos. 5, 11, and 16. All feature a lot of trouble around the green, so the decision to go for it won’t be taken lightly. My guess is that the 303-yard 16th will be the darling of the telecast.
Penal par 3s – The par-3 fourth at Marco Simone looks somewhat blah to me, but the other three one-shotters—Nos. 7, 13, and 17—appear to be hit-it-or-else propositions. I like penal par 3s on a match-play course; they establish clear dramatic stakes.
The Colosseum holes – Dave Sampson, the lead architect at Marco Simone, describes the valley in the middle of the property as a “Colosseum,” with golf holes along the low ground and plenty of space on the surrounding hills for hospitality buildouts. I expect this area of the course—which contains the first, seventh, 12th, 16th, 17th, and 18th holes—to be quite loud this weekend. –Garrett Morrison
Other storylines we’re tracking
The captain’s pick heard ‘round the world
One of the biggest storylines in the run-up to this year’s Ryder Cup has been the selection of Justin Thomas. This week, after months of debate and discussion, the focus will shift to JT’s play on the course. Without a doubt, he will be the player most under a microscope this week.
2023 was a bad year for Justin Thomas on the course by any measure, possibly his worst as a professional. He addressed that during his Ryder Cup press conference, saying “I did not feel like I could win golf tournaments this past year with the state that I was in mentally.” Thomas went on to suggest he’s in a better place now, and his T5 at Napa could be evidence of that. However, a sleepy PGA Tour fall event that doesn’t hand out playoff points is a far cry from the Ryder Cup. The golf world will be locked in on Thomas’s play, and it sounds like we will see a lot of it, if Fred Couples can be believed. (A big if these days.) JT turning in a strong performance would certainly give the American team a big boost. But if he shows up in Rome and plays like he did for most of 2023 across multiple sessions, it might be too big a burden for the United States to overcome. –Andy Johnson
“So to me, shooting 40 percent at the foul line is just God’s way of saying that nobody’s perfect. If I shot 90 percent from the line, it just wouldn’t be right.” – Shaquille O’Neal
I’ve thought about that quote this year whenever Scottie Scheffler’s putting comes up as a discussion point, which means I’ve thought about that quote a LOT. Shaq was an absolute force. But there was one part of his game that lingered like a cold sore for his entire career: the man just couldn’t make free throws.
Scottie has lived in this space the last two years. The best ball-striker in the world. The best driver in professional golf. Just can’t putt.
A lot has changed since Scheffler was a sexy captain’s pick at Whistling Straits in 2021, including a Masters victory and ascension to the No. 1 player in the world.
It’s easy to forget that Scheffler was a disappointment at last year’s President’s Cup. He went 0-3-1, and was one of just two players on the U.S. team who failed to win a full point for the week. The putter, as it has this season, held him back. If Scottie’s putter doesn’t show up at Marco Simone, the Cup will not be making the return trip to the United States. –Shane Bacon
Where’s the beef?
With the likes of Ian Poulter, Phil Mickelson, and Sergio García unwelcome at the Ryder Cup this year, we’re in need of a new batch of irritants. The obvious contenders include Justin Thomas, since we already know the Euros are bothered by his antics, as well as the duo of Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton, both liable to fly off the handle at any moment. But my pick for an emerging pot stirrer: Patrick Cantlay. He could not give less of a sh*t about what people think about him, he has the propensity to make faces that could piss someone off in the right moment, and the European fans are likely to chirp at him a bit for a variety of reasons. Cantlay isn’t about to go out of his way to cause trouble, but I think it may just follow him around this week. –Will Knights
This year’s wildcard
Ryder Cup teams of yesteryear were able to hide players and ride their horses, but that’s not exactly how things work these days. Both the U.S. and Europe, in addition to relying on their top guys, need to find a hot hand or two in order to pull out a win. A couple names to keep an eye on: Sam Burns and Ludvig Aberg. Burns and teammate-to-be Scottie Scheffler *have* to earn points when they play together, otherwise the U.S. is losing points with one of their stallions. And this may be proven wrong, but it sure seems as though Aberg is going to be trusted as a big-time player for Europe. Remember, he was playing college golf four months ago. He’s undoubtedly a stud, but this is a huge stage for a rookie. On the flip side, the U.S. is in a world of trouble if Aberg can pull down 3.5 or 4 points. –Will Knights
For the record
Here are the Fried Egg Golf team’s picks:
Andy Johnson: 16-12, Europe wins
Brendan Porath: 15.5-12.5, USA wins
Joseph LaMagna: 15-13, USA wins
Garrett Morrison: 14-14, USA retains, American Twitter users suddenly like ties
Cameron Hurdus: 18-10, USA wins
Will Knights: 15.5-12.5, USA wins
Shane Bacon: 15-13, Europe wins
Meg Adkins: 14.5-13.5, Europe wins