Marching forward: With LIV guys gone, long live the Euros
GUIDONIA MONTCELIO, Italy – Decisions have already been made.
Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson faced the prospect of never again representing Team Europe and instead chose Saudi riches.
Their lives, their careers, their choice.
“But this week of all weeks,” Rory McIlroy said, “it’s going to hit home with them that they are not here, and I think they are going to miss being here more than we’re missing them.”
McIlroy wasn’t necessarily taking another shot at those European stalwarts, not like he has in the past.
It’s just the reality, he said, as he sees it on the ground. McIlroy might be proudest of his individual accomplishments, but the most enjoyable moments of his career have come at the Ryder Cup – and those living legends almost certainly agree.
The FOMO will be real.
“I always thought leading up to this week is when it’s going to hit home that they’re not going to be here,” McIlroy said.
The 2021 Ryder Cup, after the worst defeat in history, always felt like a transitional moment for Team Europe, with the core of the team largely aging out.
Stenson served as an assistant captain for the first time at Whistling Straits.
Garcia was turning 42.
Westwood and Poulter, both in their mid-40s, combined to go 2-4.
Justin Rose was left home.
Their collective decision to join LIV last year increased the likelihood that they’d donned the jersey for the final time, with the players resigning their European tour membership and Stenson famously being stripped of the captaincy in favor of Luke Donald. (Garcia apparently had second thoughts as recently as this summer; the Telegraph reported that the Spaniard, who has earned the most Ryder Cup points in history, contacted DP Tour chief executive Keith Pelley about being reinstated in a last-ditch effort to be on the team, but was denied.) Though they were no longer as relevant between the ropes, the belief was that a greater void would be felt in the team room, the four players combining to make 33 career Ryder Cup appearances. At that stage in their careers, Westwood, Poulter and Garcia were essentially playing captains – valuable resources able to answer rookies’ questions about the first-tee jitters, to squire around a newcomer in foursomes, to deliver an impassioned speech if the group faced adversity.
Those outsized personalities are now gone, and though the feeling in the team room might be strange, and it might be different – that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worse.
“I think it’s a natural progression for everybody,” Tommy Fleetwood said. “I don’t think anybody really has to step up in particular, or talk about it, or take it upon themselves to do anything different. It’s just a natural cycle of what happens in those teams and the Ryder Cups. It’s different, but it’s nice to see the progression of what happens to guys.”
Setting the framework for a successful unit this week is Donald and his assistant captains, with influential figures like Paul McGinley still deeply connected to the European side. Donald amassed a 10-4-1 career mark in these matches, and the soft-spoken Englishman twice served as a vice captain before assuming the top job. All members of his back-room staff, from Thomas Bjorn to Nicolas Colsaerts, were either part of a victorious team as a player or captain, usually both.
“There’s a lot of winning culture still in the team,” Justin Rose said. “There’s obviously transition phases, where you need to look to new leaders, and what would be great is if you can slip through that period of transition unaffected and start to look to the next generation to come through and start to have that winning culture.”
Said Donald: “I don’t think you necessarily need large voices within the team room; you just need pretty good clarity on why you’re here, and what the reason is, and how you’re going to accomplish your goal. These guys are very motivated, and they seem very unified. They seem like a great group of guys that are really getting along with each other and already creating that sort of unbreakable bond between the 12 of them.”
That’s why most of the responsibility still lies with the current players, particularly McIlroy, Rose and Jon Rahm.
Rose is 43 – nearly twice the age of 22-year-old Nicolas Hojgaard – and feels one of his chief duties this week is to have an “open-door policy,” to make the newcomers feel as comfortable as possible. Rahm remembers his first Ryder Cup, in 2018, when he didn’t ask any questions of the veterans. The bigness of the event can feel daunting for even the most self-assured players, and then they step into a locker room full of legendary figures with impeccable résumés.
“It’s very easy to really be in your mind and your feelings because you don’t know how to process a week like this,” Rahm said, “so ask as many questions as you can from anybody. There’s no such thing as a stupid question – just that curiosity is going to get you somewhere.”
Rahm made headlines a few weeks ago when he said it was “stupid” that Team Europe, as a whole, wasn’t leaning on Garcia’s experience in some capacity. Whether Garcia, Poulter, Westwood and Stenson will ever be welcomed back into the fold is an open question – the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and Saudi backers of LIV are working toward a definitive agreement – but in the meantime Rahm has taken it upon himself to tap into those resources. He spoke with Garcia as recently as this week, and Poulter before that, to gain insight into how the Europeans can continue its three-decade run of dominance on home soil.
“To hear them talk about what they thought and what they felt,” Rahm said, “is obviously invaluable information.”
But the central figure this week, as usual, is McIlroy, who is making his team-high seventh appearance. Earlier this month, before the BMW PGA Championship, the entire European team visited Marco Simone on a scouting trip – the first time that they’ve gone early for a sneak peek of the host venue. To hear McIlroy, the extra stop was important more for team camaraderie than any statistical intelligence they gained from playing 18 holes. Around the fire pit they shared stories about the Ryder Cup and their journeys in golf, about the experiences that bond them.
In the run-up to the matches, McIlroy said it’s always been a priority to make himself more available to his teammates. That isn’t always easy to do during the weekly grind of the Tour, when the players get caught up in their routines and their preparation and their own personal teams. But during weeks like the Irish Open and BMW PGA, McIlroy has tried to connect with the newcomers – particularly Ludvig Aberg, Bob MacIntyre and Hojgaard – to make sure they’re ready for Rome.
“That’s the future of our team and the future of the Ryder Cup,” McIlroy said, before adding: “I want them looking over to me; I don’t want them looking up to me in any way. I want them to see me like I’m on their level. There’s no hierarchy on our team. We’re all one part of a 12-man team, and we all go forward together.”
Fair or not, this week feels like a referendum on what the European team can and should look like moving forward.
If they falter at home for the first time in 1993, it feels inevitable that there will be calls, in some corners, to reincorporate the most important figures of their generation.
And if it’s simply business as usual, another victory in a long line of them, then the transition might feel complete.
All of which has created an intriguing scenario – that those with the most at stake this week just might be the ones watching from home.