What a week for Team Europe! Captain Luke Donald seemingly pulled all the right levers to get the most out of his team, which had some question marks coming into the week.
Big time players made big time plays
Much gets made about strategy and pairings, but the most vital aspect of any Ryder Cup is whether or not your players compete at a high level, especially your star players. This week, European stars Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland were sensational. Leading up to the week, discussion centered on how they might be the three best players in the event. That appeared to be the case, as the trio combined for a record of 9-2-2, and all were forces to be reckoned with. It had to be enticing for Luke Donald to potentially pair two of the three together to create a super team, but by spreading them out it allowed the Europeans to have the best player in the vast majority of team matches.
Putting players in a position to succeed
Not only did the European stars show up, but the Euros also put the rest of their team in a great position to succeed via proper pairings and preparation. Assisting Luke Donald was Eduardo Molinari, a noted stats guru. Together they were able to create pairings and a setup which amplified strengths and helped to hide team weaknesses.
As mentioned, the Europeans spread their stars out. A strength that McIlroy, Rahm, and Hovland share with most other superstars: supreme approach play. For the more strategic foursomes format which Europe won 7-1, Donald paired each of these superstars with Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton and Ludvig Aberg. All of those players excel at driving the ball and in Fleetwood and Hatton’s case, finding fairways. This ensured the likes of Rahm, McIlroy and Hovland would play from the fairway as often as possible. Contrast this with the decision of Zach Johnson to play the pairing of Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth in foursomes. Both are stellar iron players when they have it going, but both also struggle to find fairways, so it was unlikely that they would maximize their approach abilities. The same could be said about the Sam Burns-Scottie Scheffler pairing on Friday morning. Scheffler, perhaps the best iron player in the world, rarely played from the fairway with either Burns or Brooks Koepka, his partner on Saturday.
Donald’s bold move to lead off the event with foursomes was brilliant, preying on the sharpness advantage that Europe had on Americans. In the lead up to the Ryder Cup, most Europeans played a handful of European Tour events, culminating with the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. Most Americans took the month off. Foursomes is a relentlessly challenging format, requiring players to find a rhythm without a safety net. The format is usually a Euro advantage already, and forcing the rusty Americans to open with it helped set the tone for the entire event.
— Ryder Cup Europe (@RyderCupEurope) October 2, 2023
Marco Simone’s setup was tailor-made for the European roster. One of the key traits for success at Marco Simone was driving. It was a huge advantage to be long and accurate. The rough punished misses, and playing well off the tee was required on the many short par 4s and gettable par 5s that populated the routing. After 2021 at Whistling Straits it seemed unthinkable that the Europeans would have the advantage in this department, but both rosters saw major changes that allowed them to run circles around the Americans.
Matt Fitzpatrick and Viktor Hovland became much better drivers of the golf ball, each adding substantial length without sacrificing much accuracy. While Fitzpatrick didn’t have his best stuff off the tee this week, that length came in handy on the drivable 5th. It required booming tee shots to reach, and Fitzy did so twice, converting an eagle both times.
The Europeans also added some powerful young players to the mix with Ludvig Aberg and Nicolai Hojgaard.
The penal nature of the rough played into the hands of Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton, who aren’t the longest off the tee but rank among the most accurate drivers in the world.
Also contributing to the driving disparity was who the American team decided to bring to Marco Simone. The 2021 team featured one of the greatest drivers of the era in Dustin Johnson as well as the powerful Bryson DeChambeau, who swung matches with his ability to reach greens. They weren’t considered because of their affiliation with LIV.
On top of those two players not being on the team, Zach Johnson used a couple of his captain’s picks on players who are neither long or accurate off the tee, names like Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Sam Burns and Rickie Fowler. Johnson left Cameron Young at home despite Young being arguably the best American player off the tee and ninth in Ryder Cup points. Other players on the bubble like Keegan Bradley and Lucas Glover fall into the Hatton/Fleetwood category of highly accurate but not overly long, solid options for the Alternate Shot format and players who could have excelled at giving players like Scheffler looks from the fairway.
The Europeans had five of the six players who gained more than 2 shots on the field off the tee for the week. They did what seemed unthinkable after Whistling Straits: dominating the United States with the long ball. If they keep that up it should bode well for them at Bethpage Black in 2025.
It was a masterclass by Luke Donald and the Europeans, from their exceptional play down to the small but important strategic moves that gave their players the best chance to play well. The leadership was so good, it might honestly be worth exploring a second term for Luke Donald at Bethpage.
This piece originally appeared in The Fried Egg newsletter. Subscribe for free and receive golf news and insight every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.