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Ryder Cup roundtable: Experts debate the burning questions heading into Rome

15 Min Read


Ryder Cup roundtable: Experts debate the burning questions heading into Rome

    Written by Staff, PGATOUR.COM

    The 44th Ryder Cup at Rome’s Marco Simone Golf & Country Club is almost here, and boy, do we have questions. Can a U.S. Team finally get it together and win on the road, breaking a 30-year drought? Or will rough-choked Marco Simone be an Italian version of Le Golf National in Paris, which handcuffed the U.S. side in 2018? Or has the Ryder Cup become next to unwinnable for visiting teams, which haven’t won since Europe’s 2012 “Miracle at Medinah?”

    Here, our panel of experts weighs in on the approaching trans-Atlantic tussle.

    1. Rory McIlroy has said that winning a Ryder Cup on the road is one of the hardest things in golf, and it’s gotten especially lopsided lately. The U.S. enjoyed a 19-9 laugher at Whistling Straits in 2021, and Europe clobbered the U.S. 17 ½-10 1/2 at Le Golf National in Paris in 2018. Should we expect anything different at Marco Simone, and why or why not?

    Sean Martin: The Ryder Cup is at risk of becoming too predictable, in part because the teams have become experts at setting up the home site to their advantage. The home team is 7-1 in the last eight Ryder Cups, with the only aberration coming from Europe’s historic comeback at Medinah in 2012. But there is one way in which Marco Simone could favor the United States. The hilly terrain – U.S. Vice Captain Stewart Cink called it “the most demanding physically of any Cup course I’ve ever seen” – and high temperatures will limit the ability of players to compete in all five sessions. “I think guys are going to be happy to rest,” Cink said. If that’s the case, then a team’s depth becomes more important, and depth always favors the U.S. Team. I give a slight edge to Europe, expect a close cup and wouldn’t be surprised by a U.S. win.

    Cameron Morfit: Europe is in too much of a transitional phase to expect a runaway, but I still expect them to win. The home-team advantage has been pretty pronounced for a while now. Just look at The K Club in 2006, when Europe won 18 ½-9 1/2. The strangest result, in light of this, was in 2004, when Bernhard Langer’s Euro squad creamed Hal Sutton’s U.S. Team 18 ½-9 1/2 at Michigan’s Oakland Hills.

    Will Gray: Cam leading off with a K Club reference means he’s out for blood. In reality, though, the streak has reached 30 years for a reason – and much of it hinges on McIlroy’s assessment that it’s just hard to win a road game. The United States hasn’t won in Europe since 1993. The oddsmakers give the U.S. Team a tangible edge, but the gap has narrowed significantly in recent weeks as the rosters have been finalized. I think the Americans need nearly everything to go right to snap the streak, and ultimately, I expect more champagne (prosecco?) for the Euros by Sunday.

    Kevin Prise: I never understood the betting line being so heavily tilted toward the U.S. Team on the front end. The Americans have more depth top-to-bottom, but they only play eight each session until Sunday, and Europe has arguably the world’s three best at the moment in McIlroy, Rahm and Hovland. That trio will power the Euros to a comfortable advantage heading into Singles with plenty of cushion to withstand a late U.S. run. The score might end up close, but in a garbage-time-touchdowns type of way.

    Paul Hodowanic: The proclamations of a U.S. dynasty following the 19-9 win at Whistling Straits were always overblown. Two years is a long time. Teams rarely stay the same, and there are always newly emerging players (Ludvig Aberg). That said, this feels like a new era for the Americans, particularly in Europe-hosted Ryder Cups. This is the first U.S. Team since 1993 that won't feature Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, who underperformed in this event, and this crop of Americans lack the scar tissue from a 30-year drought. The Europeans have the advantage of setting up the course, but with 22 of the 24 golfers playing a majority of their golf on the PGA TOUR, European Vice Captain Edoardo Molinari said, "It’s not so much of a huge difference as it used to be 10 years ago.” It will be a close Ryder Cup, one the U.S. will win.

    2. Much was made of the U.S. captain’s picks, especially Justin Thomas, who’s had an off year, but he finished fifth at the Fortinet Championship. Are you worried about Thomas, or are there other potential problems the U.S. should be more concerned about?

    Sean Martin: Worried? No. Intrigued? Yes, especially because the other half of the dynamic duo, Jordan Spieth, recently welcomed his second child into the world. It will be interesting to see how this pair performs. They are one of the United States’ stalwart pairings, along with Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay. Thomas will be a better player for enduring this stretch, which led to him taking increased ownership of his game and his swing. That has to be music to the ears of his friend and mentor, Tiger Woods. Thomas could have another advantage in Rome, as well. He unveiled a longer driver for the final three rounds at the Fortinet Championship, and the extra 3/4 of an inch paid massive dividends. Thomas finished third in driving distance en route to his fifth-place finish. Whether he’ll use the longer club at Marco Simone, where the rough promises to be lush, remains to be seen.

    Cameron Morfit: Here’s the biggest concern for the U.S. Team: By the time this Ryder Cup rolls around, some of these guys won’t have pegged it in competition in a month – since the TOUR Championship. I’m all for time off, but that could come back to haunt them. Thomas will be fine.

    Will Gray: I never quite understood why Thomas got pegged as the last man on the team. In my mind that’s Sam Burns, someone with far less experience and far more questions about his ability to perform on this stage. Thomas’ slide has been well-documented, but I remain optimistic that he’ll find his groove in match play and put forth a performance similar to his 4-1-0 effort in Paris. In my mind, the biggest concern for the Americans is who can be trusted to make a 6-footer when it counts.

    Sam Burns’ Round 3 highlights from the BMW Championship

    Kevin Prise: The Thomas selection makes perfect sense: JT has the potential to be one of the top four Americans in Rome, and if he’s in form, he could win three or more points. If not, his energy will be an asset on the sidelines and in the team room, and his anticipated partner Spieth will have plenty of capable alternatives. Scheffler could be a concern if only in the context of expectations – they say the Ryder Cup is won and lost on the greens, and the TOUR’s 151st-ranked putter this season will need to flip that switch to win some points, which the Americans will likely need from their top-ranked player.

    Paul Hodowanic: I'm with Will and Kevin. I'm not worried about Thomas. He may go 4-0 or 0-4, but the process for picking him was sound. Who can make the big-moment putts is a concern for me. Scheffler's issues have been well documented, but Morikawa and Thomas are below average in Strokes Gained: Putting, as well. Spieth is hanging right around average, too, and has struggled in recent months. It seems the Europeans always find some magic on the greens. If the Americans can't match, it could get dicey.

    3. Big names like Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Viktor Hovland, Scottie Scheffler and Jordan Spieth will be expected to lead their teams. But we’ll see rookies, too – Nicolai Højgaard, Ludvig Aberg, Robert MacIntyre and Sepp Straka for Europe, and Sam Burns, Wyndham Clark, Brian Harman and Max Homa for the U.S. Which newcomer will come up biggest?

    Sean Martin: Aberg is the easy answer, but I’m intrigued by a player who also knows what it’s like to be golf’s next big thing: Brian Harman, who’s waited a long time for this. He played his first Walker Cup 18 years ago (and again in 2009) and at the age of 36 is finally getting his first opportunity to represent the United States in international competition. It’s cliché to call an undersized player, especially one who went to Georgia, a bulldog, but there’s plenty of fight in him. Harman could have the perfect skillset for Marco Simone, too. The course is not long by today’s standards, and he’s 11th on TOUR in Driving Accuracy and fifth in Distance from Edge of Fairway (how far offline a player is when he does miss the fairway). Keeping it in play off the tee will be important and could make him the perfect stage-setter for a good iron player in alternate shot. Harman also ranks 21st in Strokes Gained: Putting, so he’ll be able to cash in on opportunities. He also considers Zach Johnson his mentor, giving him extra inspiration.

    Brian Harman sends in 19-footer for birdie at TOUR Championship

    Cameron Morfit: Aberg is playing with the house money, which is a good way to play. He’s also ridiculously good and very straight off the tee, which should play well at rough-choked Marco Simone. For the U.S., Harman could be sneaky good – maybe he and MacIntyre will throw down in Singles for diminutive-lefty bragging rights – and Wyndham Clark has the right fire for the event. I could see him surprising people. Homa should thrive, but I barely consider him a rookie after his star turn at the Presidents Cup at Quail Hollow last year.

    Will Gray: Aberg will get a ton of attention given his recent run of form, but I think the European most likely to go 3-1-0 out of nowhere is Sepp Straka. The big Austrian can collect birdies in bunches, a key piece to the match play puzzle. On the American side, I’m particularly bullish about Homa as he makes his Ryder Cup debut after going 4-0 at Quail Hollow.

    Kevin Prise: Same wavelength on Straka, Will! The Austrian has one of the TOUR’s highest ceilings and will be an asset if he brings top form to Marco Simone, whose tight driving windows fit Straka’s game (No. 21 on TOUR in Driving Accuracy). His fun-loving personality will fit the team room and his even keel on the course will keep the moment from getting too big – veteran caddie Duane Bock should help, too. On the American side, Open champion Brian Harman will make some hay, again with a game that fits the venue (No. 11 on TOUR in Driving Accuracy) and a confidence from his top-ranked junior days that he belongs on this stage.

    Sepp Straka’s eagle hole-out leads Shots of the Week

    Paul Hodowanic: I think Homa will have a big week. He has the right mindset for this event and showed his match play mettle with a 4-0 record at last year's Presidents Cup. I expect him to embrace the moment and relish the opportunity to go into a hostile environment and get it done. Of all the rookies, it feels like he’s the most battle-tested.

    4. Rahm and Scheffler faded late in the season, and one European Ryder rookie, Aberg, hasn’t even played in a major. Meanwhile, a handful of Americans (Cantlay, Morikawa, Schauffele, Spieth, Thomas) haven’t won this season. Which roster has the most question marks?

    Sean Martin: I think the United States because of the one-month layoff. There’s no reason to think that the U.S. players haven’t properly prepared, but there are questions because we simply haven’t seen them. Europe, on the other hand, is fresh off the DP World Tour’s biggest event, the BMW PGA Championship. Seven members of the European team finished in the top 10 at Wentworth. Rahm’s fourth-place finish had to be especially comforting for Europe Captain Luke Donald because he was coming off a lackluster performance in the FedExCup Playoffs, finishing in the bottom half of the field in all three events.

    Cameron Morfit: Winning on the PGA TOUR is so hard that I don’t worry much about the guys who didn’t get it done this year. But you don’t know how a player is going to react in the glare of the Ryder Cup, and Europe has four true rookies (as opposed to guys like Burns and Homa who have played in the Presidents Cup but not the Ryder Cup), so I would say Europe has the most question marks. How is Højgaard going to do in this thing? Also, is it just me or does it feel like forever ago that Justin Rose won at Pebble Beach?

    Will Gray: The European roster has a larger divide: more question marks near the bottom, but more reliable pieces in the trio of McIlroy, Rahm and Hovland. They’ll eat a ton of innings between the three of them, and it allows more unheralded players like Højgaard, Aberg, MacIntyre and Straka to find their respective footing. The U.S. side is more of a mix – each player has upside but lacks a full vote of confidence. The biggest key for Zach Johnson’s team will be finding someone to take a leadership role on a 12-man team with only four players who have played a road Ryder Cup before.

    Kevin Prise: I went back and forth here, but I’ll say the U.S. Team because it’s a road game. Only four U.S. Team members have competed at a previous Ryder Cup in Europe (Spieth, Thomas, Fowler, Koepka), and although the lack of battle scars could help, there’s good reason for that long run of futility: Europe finds its advantages in course setup and crowd fervor. It’s hard for American players to properly prepare for this stage, and we won’t know how the likes of Scheffler, Cantlay and Schauffele will react until they’re in the cauldron. Not that they can’t handle it – we just don’t know yet. And Chip Beck isn’t running through that door.

    Paul Hodowanic: We tend to jump to conclusions too quickly. I think that is what we are doing with the European Team. Yes, they all played well at the BMW PGA Championship two weeks ago. But we are trying to forecast who will play well this week. In a match play environment like the Ryder Cup, which players openly admit feels different than every other event, it would be a fool's errand to predict form will carry over. Look no further than the 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup Team. Brooks Koepka entered the week as No. 1 in the world, Bryson DeChambeau had just won two Playoffs events and Tiger Woods capped the season with a TOUR Championship victory. Those three players went 1-9-1 in France. The European Team is plenty strong at the top, but the bottom of its roster is unquestionably weaker. MacIntyre, Aberg, Højgaard, Straka and Rose all present significant questions.

    Robert MacIntyre's nice approach leads to eagle at Genesis Scottish Open

    5. Obvious pairings for the U.S. include Cantlay/Schauffele and Spieth/Thomas, but Europe is more of a blank slate. How do we think European Captain Luke Donald is going to send his guys out in Foursomes and Four-ball? What pairings make sense?

    Sean Martin: The foursome of Ludvig Aberg, Viktor Hovland, Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood stood out from the team’s visit to Marco Simone. Aberg and Hovland took on McIlroy and Fleetwood, and I could see this as a key “pod” for Europe. Aberg and Hovland would be a pairing of ball-strikers, and Aberg’s tee shots and Hovland’s approaches – and vice versa, for that matter – could form an unbeatable Foursomes pair. And the Scandinavians have the added benefit of being able to communicate in another tongue. “We speak the same language,” Aberg said. That language is called “flushing it.” Hovland and Fleetwood played together both Four-ball sessions two years ago, and McIlroy could be a reassuring presence for Aberg’s first session (likely in the less stressful Four-ball format).

    Cameron Morfit: There’s some good energy between McIlroy and Hovland, so they may well play together. They’d make a zillion birdies in Four-ball. I could see Aberg, who obviously needs to be partnered with a steady hand, with Jon Rahm for a session or two, and I agree that McIlroy will partner Aberg in Foursomes. Hatton and Rose make sense – fire and ice.

    Will Gray: There’s not a ton of continuity on the European side, but one option could be Fleetwood and Hovland, who played two Four-ball matches together at Whistling Straits and went 0-1-1. Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton also played together in Wisconsin (emotions on both sleeves at all times). I expect McIlroy to put Aberg or Højgaard under his wing at some point, while a Straka-Rose pairing in Foursomes would combine two players each 18th or better in SG: Approach this season on TOUR.

    Kevin Prise: McIlroy needled Shane Lowry a bit on GOLF’s “Subpar” podcast last week, which could set the stage for a fun Irish Foursomes pairing. A fiery Rahm-Hatton pairing in Four-ball (both top 25 on TOUR in birdie average) would be spirited theater and keep the opposition on notice. I’d like to see the Nordic duo of Hovland-Højgaard as well, both younger members of the team but with Hovland assuming a natural leadership role. This is a rabbit hole because there are so many eclectic possibilities. It will be fascinating to see how Donald plays his cards.

    Paul Hodowanic: Predicting pairings is impossibly difficult. Both teams have surely spent months thinking about this, which dwarfs the several minutes I have spent contemplating. Max Homa and Collin Morikawa make sense as a possible duo. They are good friends, teamed at the Zurich earlier this year and could ball-strike their opponents to death. I like the idea of Scottie Scheffler and Brian Harman together, plus the physical difference between the two would be amusing. On the European side, McIlroy has typically taken on a rookie. That wouldn't surprise me. During the scouting trip, he played alongside Aberg and has been tremendously complimentary of the TOUR rookie. That's a pairing I'd love to see as a fan – I'd hate it if I were in the U.S. Team room.

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