‘Unfinished business': In Rome, U.S. looks to end Europe’s 30-year Ryder Cup reign
ROME – Drinks were flowing.
Cigars were burning.
And the celebration had well begun for the victorious 2021 U.S. Ryder Cup Team as its members stumbled into the interview room that Sunday evening at Whistling Straits, having just recorded the greatest rout in modern Ryder Cup history, a 19-9 shellacking of the visiting Europeans.
These Ryder Cup victory pressers usually provide ample entertainment value, for a myriad of reasons, but interspersed among the lubricated answers are moments that stick with us – and this one was no different.
With Team Europe beaten so badly that it left Rory McIlroy in tears, it wasn’t difficult to feel like this new, young American core – led by Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and at the time Dustin Johnson, and with so many rising stars under 30 such as Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay, Collin Morikawa and Scottie Scheffler – had finally grabbed firm control of this biennial event. Of course, the continent-sized elephant in the room – like the following question – was still there to snatch that sentiment back down from such great heights: Do you feel like to really be that new wave you have to prove it over there?
Xander Schauffele, sitting front and center, quickly grabbed the microphone: “I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but we’re just going to enjoy now. You’re thinking too far ahead of us.”
But is that not the next step?
The follow-up might have fallen on deaf ears if not for Spieth, who calmly spoke up from his far-right chair in the back row, agreeing that before the d-word (dynasty) could even be muttered, the Americans would need to first win an overseas Ryder Cup, something that hadn’t been done in a very, very long time.
“I feel I can speak to this losing twice over there and also being part of the average age group, I think so,” Spieth said. “I think this is unfinished business. I think this was one of those first-one-in wins; I think we needed to win this one. And then I think it was a massive stepping stone for this team and the group that we have here that have really known each other since almost back to grade school to continue to try and work hard to be on these teams to go over there because it’s one thing to win it here and it is a lot easier to do so, and it is harder to win it over there, and if we play like we did this week, the score will look the same over there in a couple years.”
Fast forward to now and the reigning Ryder Cup champions have arrived in Rome with a similar arsenal of talent aiming to overthrow what is now a three-decade reign for the hosts on European soil.
Johnson, the first American in four decades to go 5-0 when he did so two years ago, is no longer in the fold, but all 12 of U.S Captain Zach Johnson’s team members rank in the top 25 of the Official World Golf Ranking, topped by Scheffler (1), Cantlay (5), Schauffele (6) and Max Homa (7). Conversely, Europe has world Nos. 1, 2 and 3 – Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland – but holds a 29.2 average world rank compared to the Americans’ 12.9 average while losing the 2023 major-championship battle 1 (Rahm) to 3 (Koepka, Wyndham Clark and Brian Harman). The home side, as McIlroy admitted Wednesday, is also in a “transitional period” having moved on from stalwarts Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter.
But history has a habit of repeating itself.
And Europe last lost a home Ryder Cup in 1993 when Ray Floyd, Payne Stewart and Corey Pavin led the U.S. to a road win at The Belfry. That was before five of the current American squad was even born. A few others were too young to remember.
“History speaks for itself,” Morikawa, 26, said. “You can’t erase history. Once it happens, it happens. We’re always going to talk about it. But it’s, how do you learn from that?”
Despite the horde of data now at teams’ disposals, Zach Johnson views the answer to that question a simple one: It’s hard to win, especially outside of your comfort zone and against a formidable opponent.
Sure, the U.S. can continue to solve its past woes in foursomes – the Americans took 6 of 8 foursomes points in 2021, but in the past two away Cups, they’ve gotten off to slow starts in the format, dropping Friday foursomes by a combined 0.5-7.5. (No wonder the Euros switched the foursomes to Friday’s morning session this year.)
Sure, there is the setup aspect, which typically is fashioned to punish the traditionally long-and-crooked Americans – though as McIlroy pointed out, most of this year’s European squad plays full-time on the PGA Tour.
But those who share Zach Johnson’s opinion would agree that at the end of the day it just comes down to who plays better golf – and the Europeans have just done that time and again at home.
“The European teams have been very stout, very good, very deep, and this year is no different,” Zach Johnson said. “It’s just difficult. I know what history says. I’m very aware of that. But at the same time, I can speak confidently, and talking to my team, these guys are ready and want to embrace that difficulty and want to just look at this as a great opportunity.
“The teams of the past are teams of the past. This is a new team with a new opportunity.”
That said, an answer could be gleaned from something McIlroy shared in his presser, when he shared an anecdote from Team Europe’s scouting trip to Marco Simone a few weeks ago.
“We played a practise round, and we got familiar with the golf course, but then the sort of time we spent off the course I thought was great, just sort of sharing stories around the fire pit and sort of describing our journeys in golf and what the Ryder Cup means to us,” McIlroy said. “Sort of just getting to know one another a little better, even people that I thought that I knew for a long time, sort of getting to know them a little better, too, was wonderful. I think Luke and his vice captains have really sort of tapped into that emotional connection around Team Europe this week, and we have all bought into it.”
McIlroy, on the eve of his seventh Ryder Cup, has come a long way since his 2009 comments as a 20-year-old in which he described the storied team event as an “exhibition” and “not that important of an event for me.” His emotional post-singles interview in 2021 told a different story, as McIlroy, after a career-worst 1-3 week, said, “It’s an absolute privilege. … [Ryder Cups] have always been my greatest experiences of my career.”
McIlroy is the elder statesman now after Europe’s mass exodus, and he’s part of the home side’s three-headed attack that also includes Rahm and Hovland – that trio has combined for 20 worldwide wins since the last Ryder Cup, and there is arguably no player in the world hotter than Hovland, who won each of the last two FedExCup playoff events.
Add in a handful of veteran Englishmen and some new blood, perhaps none possessing more potential and hype than Swedish phenom Ludvig Aberg, as well as some critics of U.S. picks such as Thomas and Sam Burns, and there’s a reason why the once-thought U.S. juggernaut has gone from hovering as low -200s favorites to now being the slight underdog in some markets.
Not only does history lean toward the home team; so, too, do the numbers.
Just don’t tell the Americans that.
“It’s not something we really care about, to be honest,” Spieth said. “Most of the guys weren’t on any of those losing away teams. I was on two of them, but I felt like I played good golf, and all you can try and do is have a winning record, and if everyone on your team does, you dominate the other team.
“… Individually, there’s a lot of freshness to this event within our squad.”
Spieth isn’t just blowing smoke. The U.S. Team does appear fresh.
Burns and Koepka are among those sporting mullet-style haircuts, with Burns even having a buddy straight-razor “USA” into the side of the buzzed part of his head.
Clark has not only given the Europeans some bulletin-board material by saying he felt like he was better than Rory McIlroy (“What am I supposed to say? If I say I think he’s better than me and he’s going to beat me, then I’m going to get ridiculed,” Clark contended), but the U.S. Open champ and Ryder Cup rookie added a second course by suggesting that the European players’ busy tournament schedules this month would lead to them potentially “leaking oil.”
Even Scheffler, who for months seemed frustrated by his lackluster putting and questions about it, was upbeat and relaxed as he explained recent work with putting guru Phil Kenyon.
“I’m excited, excited to go out there and compete,” Scheffler said.
Despite all the ancillary lead-up, there’s little doubt that once the first pegs get stuck in the ground, both sides will be locked in and focused. But only one will have decades of losing in this arena to overcome.
Thirty years have certainly felt like forever to the U.S. faithful. But maybe, just maybe, in the Eternal City, the Americans’ new wave will finally complete the task that so many forces before them have tried and failed, finish the business, and end the Europeans’ home-game supremacy.