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Home course is too advantageous at Ryder Cup; here are some fixes

GUIDONIA MONTECELIO, Italy – The exuberant Europeans had barely cleared their collective throat to celebrate, when the American handwringing began.

Q. Zach, if you can go back five, six days, what two or three things would you do differently?

Q. So you didn’t defer to your gut more as the matches went on?

Q. Most of your team haven’t played for five weeks. Given the slow start on Friday, do you feel that was a factor at all?

It’s the twisted nature of the Ryder Cup that the captain is always at the mercy of the result and when your team suffers the worst Friday in the U.S. side’s history at the matches and endures another lopsided decision, 16 ½-11 ½, there’s little room or interest in nuance.

“There may be some changes in there that I maybe could have done or nuanced or altered or whatever it may be,” conceded U.S. captain Zach Johnson on Sunday at Marco Simone.

There’ll be plenty of time to unpack the U.S. team’s issues, particularly its Black Friday effort that didn’t include a single full point and led to a debilitating deficit (6 ½-1 ½) the Americans were never able to overcome. And the intrinsic brilliance of the “Hindsight Cup” is the bottomless fountain of content.

But the desire to pick apart every decision Johnson and the American team made is to miss the point. There’s nothing wrong with the U.S. team – or the European team, for that matter – that a change of venue can’t fix.

At his defiant best, Rory McIlroy addressed the lopsided elephant in the room when he was asked why there is such a homefield advantage in the biennial matches that has seen eight of the last nine Ryder Cups won by the home team.

“I’ve said this for the last probably six or seven years to anyone that will listen: I think one of the biggest accomplishments in golf right now is winning an away Ryder Cup. And that’s what we’re going to do at Bethpage,” McIlroy said.

In simplest terms, Johnson touched on the obvious: “It’s really hard,” he said. But the need for answers, and solutions, demands more.

The U.S. side will huddle in the weeks to come to pick apart what worked and didn’t work at Marco Simone, but the larger question goes beyond individual performances. The difference between last week’s side and the ’21 American team, which boat-raced the Europeans, 19-9, can’t just be Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, two of the U.S. team’s top performers at Whistling Straits who didn’t make the trip to Rome after joining LIV Golf.

The question demands more than “it’s hard” and if both sides, Europe and the United States, want to take road parity seriously there are ways the collective could attempt to even the playing field.

The obvious starting place is the timing of this year’s matches. Most of the U.S. team hadn’t hit a meaningful shot since last month’s Tour Championship and it showed on Friday, when the red, white and rust led to Europe’s stranglehold on the cup.

There’s nothing the U.S. team can do about Scottie Scheffler’s putting or Jordan Spieth’s ball-striking, but it can assure the calendar matches up with the Ryder Cup to make sure players are both rested and ready.

“If you asked us when we would like to play the Ryder Cup relative to our schedule, I think we would probably say, give us a week after the Tour Championship or two weeks after and then go, instead of five [weeks],” Spieth said.

It’s also time to create a neutral setup. Although the Marco Simone layout wasn’t nearly as extreme as Paris in ’18, it clearly favored the Europeans with slow green speeds and narrow fairways lined with thick rough. It was a similarly biased setup in ’16 at Hazeltine National, with virtually no rough and PGA Tour-quality green speeds that clearly favored the home team.

Instead of Ryder Cup Europe and the PGA of America being in charge of Ryder Cup setups, it would likely even the playing field if a neutral party handled those duties. For matches in the United States, let the USGA set up the course; in Europe, it could be the R&A’s responsibility.

Officials should also give the visitors more flexibility in building the right team by allowing the captain 12 picks, with the home captain getting six. Instead of being hamstrung by automatic qualifiers who might not fit the team, the course or the team room, give the visiting captain complete autonomy to bring the appropriate 12 players.

Finally, although the “blind draw” of the pairings is a hallmark of the Ryder Cup, it doesn’t favor either side and often leads to blatant missed opportunities. We end up with McIlroy playing Sam Burns on Sunday instead of, say, Patrick Cantlay for what would have been a gloriously intense continuation of Saturday’s fourball bout.

Officials could require the home captain to publish each sessions pairings an hour earlier to give the visiting captain a chance to match with his best lineup.

There’s a good chance officials on both sides of the transatlantic divide don’t see a problem with the home team bias and the lack of parity. There’s also a good chance that McIlroy and Co. arrive at Bethpage in New York in two years as favorites and end the run of home winners. But until a visitor makes a statement, the biggest problem with the Ryder Cup is its location.