How often do you think about the Roman Empire? It turns out, based on the recent social media trend, that an inordinate amount of men think about crossing the Rubicon. And with golf more popular than ever, it may well be that many more men, women and children than anticipated are thinking about this weekend’s clash of golfing empires in Rome. After a quite captivating drawn Solheim Cup, all roads lead to Marco Simone for the Ryder Cup, where a new gladiatorial battle is taking shape. Europe have been formidable at home, but an American legion, buoyed by a blowout success on home soil, is at the gates.
How much rest the captains should or indeed can give their players is certain to be one of the defining questions of this Ryder Cup, especially with heat and (far more than seven) hills likely to make it tough for players to play all five sessions. The USA have the luxury of depth that means they will almost certainly be able to avoid anyone contesting five matches if they choose to. That’s not to say that if a pairing (Cantlay and Schauffele perhaps) get hot on day one they won’t play through, but it’s less of a baked in necessity. The USA will have the chance to give Scottie Scheffler a rest, especially if his putter does go cold.
For Europe, the imbalanced player slate means that the logical move would be for at least the three bona fide super stars, Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland to play five sessions. You could make an argument for Tommy Fleetwood to join them. There are others who thanks to their standing in the game or Ryder Cup record could go four, but most of these don’t have both current and Ryder Cup form on their side. It’s surely time to unleash Matt Fitzpatrick on fourballs, the former US Open champion being a very different profile of golfer and a much more confident figure than he was on previous appearances. Justin Rose has an extraordinary record and is a gritty matchplayer. If Tyrell Hatton gets the right kind of hot, I wouldn’t want to be telling him to sit out a session.
If it does play out like that with three men playing five and four playing four, the upshot is that of 32 playing slots across the two days of pairs matches, you have 24 slots already occupied, with the remaining five players playing eight pairs matches between them.
Of those who remain, Ludvig Aberg surely plays the most. Ryder Cups and Solheim Cups have seen picks breakout before. Think of Thomas Pieters or Leona Maguire. Let’s say Aberg sits out one session, then there are five slots for four men, a number that feels about right.
If B Mac is struggling as badly as recent form and snapshots from the range suggest, Europe may have to make a horrible decision about permabenching the fourth left hander to play in the Ryder Cup until Sunday. Even if one suspects and perhaps hopes that notions of fairness and team cohesion prevail over that temptation, we can perhaps pencil him in for one team session. One thing is certain, there won’t be an Emily Pederson type situation where one of Europe’s lowest ranked player plays all five sessions. With the strength of the top Europeans, Nicolai Hojgaard and Sepp Straka may well play only one pre-singles match too each. Shane Lowry is the most likely to play two matches. That would leave a slate looking something like this in terms of likely allocation of matches:
McIlroy, Rahm, Hovland – 5
Fleetwood, Hatton, Fitzpatrick, Rose, Aberg – 4
Lowry – 3
Hojgaard, Straka, Macintyre – 2
It would be a change from recent editions – no European played less than three matches in 2021 and only Thorbjorn Oleson played twice in 2018 – but it is one that Europe may have to make to give themselves the best chance of victory. Playing one match only is rarer still, last seen in at the Battle of Brookline in 1999 when three of seven rookies on the European team – Andrew Coltart, Jarmo Sandelin and Jean Van De Velde sat until Sunday. All three went on to lose in the USA’s 8.5 to 3.5 singles victory.
By contrast, the USA may have one or two but potentially zero men playing all four Friday and Saturday sessions, something that could make a difference come the Sunday singles.
Luke Donald has already said that he will be leaning heavily on Edoardo Molinari’s data work, and whether there are fatigue metrics included within that will be fascinating to discover. Clearly, Europe’s captain is a believer in analytics to inspire a more decisive Ryder Cup victory. We think he’d be a fan of analytics that inspire a more active world too.
One talking point will be the men absent from the captains’ considerations. Brooks Koepka is the only LIV golfer to make either side, playing himself into a pick with his stellar major form. But while arguments could be made that Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau might have been considered for the USA, it is easy and convincing for the Europeans to argue that the team make up may well not have been different, with stalwarts such as Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood doing little in their LIV outings to argue for a wildcard spot. Europe would likely have looked to youth with the picks either way. Opinions no doubt vary on the team – as recent Rahm comments make clear, but as Rory McIlroy put it, the LIV rebels may miss team Europe more than Team Europe misses them.
Did you know: Only two men have ever won four points as a Captain’s Pick – Lee Westwood in 2006 and Ian Poulter who has done it twice, in 2008 and 2012.
Are the US as strong as they were in 2021?
A fast start
Luke Donald has changed up the recent Euro tradition of starting with fourball.
Foursomes will open this year’s contest, and presumably much of the reason for that is that it gives the captain some cover for sending out a very strong, experienced lineup in the morning, likely featuring at least seven of those scheduled, according to our calculations, to play four plus matches. Lowry or Straka are the possible others who might make an early appearance. It will be a crucial session and one in which Europe will be keen to reverse recent history which has seen team USA have led after the first session in six of the last five Ryder Cups. The last five times Europe have come through day one on top, they’ve gone on to win the Ryder Cup.
Did you know: No Day 1 foursomes session at the Ryder Cup has ever finished in a 2-2 tie.
All on the singles
One so far immutable rule in Ryder Cups has been that if Europe win the singles, they win the cup. For the USA, the formula is not quite so cut and dried, triumphing on nine of the 13 occasions they’ve carried the last session. The USA will be hoping for their greater strength in depth to kick in if it comes down to the wire, while Europe may need an against the odds point or half from some of their lower ranked players on the final day.
This is also when fatigue might rear its head. Rory has two of his three wins in singles when playing five sessions, but the most recent was in 2014. However, while going 5-0-0 remains one of the most difficult feats in golf, accomplished by only four men, two of those clean sweeps have come in the last two contests, so perhaps the tide is changing.
Tom Simmonds: Europe 15-13 USA. Viktor Hovland will be the top player while JT will justify his selection.
Richard Payne: Europe 14.5-13.5 USA. It’s a boring prediction perhaps but Aberg will justify his selection by winning three points. Sam Burns and Brian Harman to go home without a point.
Edward Ferrari-Willis: Europe 14-14 USA. A draw to match the Solheim Cup. Europe will have to be ruthless with their benchings to get close. Cantlay and Schauffele stay undefeated to establish themselves as one of the all-time great team golf pairings but get inexplicably sat in a session that Europe then win. Zach Johnson will wish he’d played them for every session.
John Bushell: Europe 12.5 -15.5 USA. Sadly I suspect Europe may lose, with Brooks Koepka welcomed back to the US team and providing a source of inspiration. Hopefully the competition will avoid some of the pitfalls that plagued the Solheim, including broadcast issues, inappropriate amenities for spectators, traffic chaos, and difficulty navigating the course.