People often ask me: Elizabeth, do you watch golf because you enjoy the spectacle of finely tuned athletes performing feats of skill and precision that are practically inconceivable to the average mortal? Or is it because you are a messy bitch who lives for drama? The answer is yes. And boy, oh boy, was there a lot of both at the 2023 Ryder Cup in Rome.
In a forceful display of tactical and technical superiority, the European team won back the cup it had lost two years ago at Whistling Straits, blitzing the Americans to gain a nearly insurmountable 9.5-to-2.5 advantage by the end of Saturday’s morning session, and ultimately a 16.5-to-11.5 victory. Already during the early Saturday outing, strange things were happening at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club. The golf gods, in their capricious way, chortled as the Scandinavian pairing of Viktor Hovland and Ludvig Aberg destroyed world no. 1 Scottie Scheffler and five-time major winner Brooks Koepka 9 and 7, the single most lopsided beatdown in the history of the Ryder Cup and one that reduced Scheffler to a stream of salty tears.
"Anybody who thinks the Americans don't care about this, you're seeing it right here..." pic.twitter.com/AOduU7cLmR— Sky Sports Golf (@SkySportsGolf) September 30, 2023
There would be more oddities.
With its deep roster of accomplished stars, the U.S. Team had entered the week as a slight favorite to retain the cup, which would have made it the first American squad to do so on foreign soil in over three decades. Sentiment had been shifting in the Europeans’ direction though, and by early Friday morning, the reasons for this were obvious. Both teams’ captains, America’s Zach Johnson and Europe’s Luke Donald, were making their debuts at the helm, but it quickly became clear that one was more up to the challenge than the other. Johnson will get a lot of criticism for the Americans’ poor performance this week, and it will be well earned. From questionable captain’s picks (his selections went 4-12-4 on the week) to the decision to allow nine of his 12 players to rest for five weeks before cup play to his poorly chosen four-ball pairings to maybe or maybe not talking Jordan Spieth out of a driver and into a 3-wood on a hole in which his first shot went into the water, there wasn’t much Johnson got right in what will presumably be his one and only turn as the U.S. skipper.
Donald, on the other hand, appeared made for the moment. He was something of an emergency fallback option after Henrik Stenson decided he’d rather take $50 million from LIV than represent an entire continent, but Donald dived in headfirst and made what turned out to be bold and canny captain’s selections. He chose emerging stars Aberg and Nicolai Hojgaard and steadying veteran presences Justin Rose and Shane Lowry. And when it came to strategy, he rode his big hitters—Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, and Hovland—from the get-go and unleashed his peerless Fleetwood Mac pairing early on Friday, putting Rory with the brilliant and hirsute Englishman Tommy Fleetwood as they took two crucial points from the all-star American team of Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele. By Sunday afternoon, when the Euros raised the trophy, it was painfully clear that Johnson, who probably doesn’t know much about rock music, had been roundly outcoached.
But let’s get back to the drama. You know how you know when a golf tournament is really cool? When the most exciting part takes place in the parking lot. That’s exactly what happened on Saturday, when, fresh off a crushing four-ball defeat to the team of Cantlay and Wyndham Clark, McIlroy took umbrage with the American team’s boisterous (read: obnoxious) celebration of Cantlay’s 43-foot birdie, during which caddie Joe LaCava lingered in McIlroy’s line of sight as he prepared for a potential tying putt. By the time the teams were heading back to their respective accommodations, McIlroy was still seething over the breach in protocol and had to be restrained by Lowry. To quote the Jam, that’s entertainment.
A furious Rory McIlroy confronted a Team USA caddie in the car park, after he was spotted waving his cap in McIlroy's face when lining up his final putt on 18 pic.twitter.com/Ha4r5hDsGi— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) September 30, 2023
And then there was Cantlay—a natural heel who delivered on the promising likelihood that he would be the weekend’s most delightful antagonist—and the story of his hat. “What’s this you say about a hat?” those of you who didn’t follow any of this are wondering. Well, let me tell you. Ryder Cup teams wear uniforms, and part of the uniform is a team-issued cap. Twenty-three players played the first two days of the Ryder Cup wearing their caps. Patrick Cantlay did not. Jamie Weir of Sky Sports picked up on this and reported that Cantlay’s decision to go lidless was intended as a deliberate act of subversion related to his displeasure over the fact that Ryder Cup members don’t get paid for their participation. Cantlay denied this and said his hat just didn’t fit. But either way, this became a thing. The European galleries mocked Cantlay relentlessly during Saturday afternoon four-ball, waving hats at him as though hurling epithets. In response, he mugged and waved and sneered. Then he poured home hole-winning birdies on 16, 17, and 18 to win the match and further set off the fireworks. It was a villainous performance for the ages, and somewhere, Payne Stewart is smiling in his ridiculous knickers.
All of that gave both teams some extra fire heading into Sunday, even as the Europeans held a formidable 10.5-to-5.5-point advantage and needed just four out of a possible 12 points Sunday to win. Riding a palpable wave of umbrage, McIlroy waxed Sam Burns 3 and 1 to get the Euros a point closer and cement the weekend as a permanent part of his legend. Rahm halved his match against Scheffler (no tears), Tyrrell Hatton beat Brian Harman 3 and 2, and from there, it was just a matter of time. The Americans did make a spirited rally, ultimately taking half of the day’s points, but the mountain they’d created for themselves was too steep to scale, and Fleetwood finished matters off by taking a conceded half point from Rickie Fowler as an increasingly frantic crowd threatened to overrun the proceedings.
All in all, it was an appropriately operatic weekend from the land of Verdi and Puccini. Just as was the case for the Europeans after getting run out of Whistling Straits two years back, it will be incumbent on the American side to take a serious inventory of all that went wrong at Marco Simone and to adjust accordingly before getting their next crack at the cup at Bethpage Black two years from now. Fair or not, the book on the Yanks has long been that an air of entitlement and selfishness has been an underlying factor when they’ve failed to perform at the Ryder Cup, and the antics of Cantlay, LaCava, and Koepka (who at one point during the week called the respected Rahm “a child”) will do nothing to quiet that chatter.
Don’t get me wrong: I think the Americans can be selfish, arrogant, and entitled, but that wasn’t the story of the weekend this time around. No, this was about getting outthought, outworked, and outplayed by a gifted and balanced European team that took its precious home-field advantage and ran with it. This was about the way that the iconic triumvirate of Rory, Rahm, and Hovland delivered huge in the biggest spots. And most of all, this weekend was about Donald, the unlikely leader who took over the mantle and scarcely put a foot wrong. As they say: hats off.