ROME, ITALY | There may be no golf tournament more fond of hoary old wisdom than the Ryder Cup, and chief among them is the notion that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
European captain Luke Donald is having none of that, however. Nor does he appear to be someone who is wary of jinxing himself.
Why so? Well, this year’s edition will be the first European-hosted match to open with a session of foursomes since 1993, which also happens to be the last time that the United States flew home with the trophy.
Eschewing hexes, superstition or any other kind of hocus-pocus, the Englishman argued of his strategy: “We feel like as a team, statistically, we are stronger in foursomes than we would be in four-balls. Why not get off to a fast start? That’s it.”
The Ryder Cup spotlight is, of course, a harsh one. If Europe gains a lead by Friday lunchtime, Donald’s move will be deemed a master-stroke. If, however, the United States gets off to a flyer, he’ll be facing immediate scrutiny, and the temptation to over-think all future decisions will be intense.
Finally, during Thursday afternoon’s opening ceremony, the pairings were revealed. Who are the men tasked to fulfil Donald’s fast start? And who has Zach Johnson called upon in his bid to deny them?
There has been frenzied debate, in Rome and beyond, about which 16 golfers would be thrust centre stage on Friday morning. Even the most admired stats men, blessed with NASA-level algorithms, have been unable to agree on the lineups (somewhat undermining their confidence in the definitive nature of their judgments).
Finally, during Thursday afternoon’s opening ceremony, the pairings were revealed. Who are the men tasked to help Donald’s bid for a fast start? And who has Zach Johnson called upon to deny them?
Here are Friday’s four alternate-shot matchups (Central European Summer Time, which is six hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Daylight Time):
7:35 a.m.: Scottie Scheffler and Sam Burns (U.S.) vs. Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton (Europe)
It was widely discussed that the wild-card selection of Burns owed much to his friendship with Scheffler, and Johnson insisted there is “chemistry” between them, but it was not much in evidence at last year’s Presidents Cup. They lost two foursomes matches and tied the one four-balls contest in which they were paired. The first call from the U.S. captain was a bold one.
Donald has unleashed his bearded warriors in the first match, and they share more than facial hair because they are also fierce competitors with the habit of forcing broadcasters to apologise for their bad language. The Spaniard Rahm played no alternate shot in his 2018 debut, but lost both of his four-balls. He then went 3-for-3 when paired with Sergio García, including two wins in foursomes, and halved a four-balls match with Hatton. “Jon wants to feel like he’s out there with a teammate that’s really engaged with him,” Donald said. “Tyrrell really fits that bill.”
7:50 a.m.: Max Homa and Brian Harman (U.S.) vs Viktor Hovland and Ludvig Åberg (Europe)
Four players, just one previous Ryder Cup appearance among them and that was Hovland’s slightly underwhelming debut two years ago (just two half points from five matches). A lot was asked of the Norwegian then, and much is likely to be asked again. This time he is a better and more confident player, and his pairing with the Swedish wild card Åberg had been widely predicted. Not only is it born ready-named (“Lud-Vik”), but it also has the power and potential to thrill the galleries.
“History will show, and you can look it up, that being a rookie is almost irrelevant.” – Zach Johnson
They face a pair of American rookies who are not to be underestimated. Homa went 4-0-0 in his Presidents Cup debut last year, and Harman proved when winning the Open Championship in July that hostile crowds tend to niggle him positively rather than negatively. He also won three, and halved one, of his foursomes battles in two Walker Cup appearances. Johnson said of this pair: “History will show, and you can look it up, that being a rookie is almost irrelevant.”
8:05 a.m.: Rickie Fowler and Collin Morikawa (U.S.) vs Shane Lowry and Sepp Straka (Europe)
Fowler has rejuvenated his individual career over the past 12 months, and now it is time for him to reverse the downturn in his team record. He has lost six of his past nine Ryder Cup matches and owns an uninspiring overall record of 3-7-5. Morikawa is an ideal partner because he’s played four alternate-shot matches in the Ryder and Presidents cups, and won three of them.
Irishman Lowry and Austrian Straka are a European pairing few would have predicted two years ago. Lowry didn’t play in the foursomes in his Ryder Cup debut in 2021 at Whistling Straits and won one, lost one in four-balls. He also failed to win a point in one four-balls and two foursomes at this year’s Hero Cup. Donald said of Straka: “He’s a very consistent ball-striker, very steady. He doesn’t do a lot wrong. We feel like his game is in great shape.”
8:20 a.m.: Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay (U.S.) vs. Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood (Europe)
The morning’s first-tee action will end with what many will see as the highlight of the session: An American pairing that has a superb record up against two of Europe’s superstars.
Schauffele and Cantlay are undefeated in foursomes, winning two at the 2019 Presidents Cup, two at the 2021 Ryder Cup and one at the 2022 Presidents Cup. It’s kind of strange, in fact, that they were separated at the latter, but it’s not been for long. They are well-suited to a course that demands high-quality driving of the ball.
McIlroy and Fleetwood are a new partnership, and both will be keen to revive memories of France five years ago, when they thrived, rather than Whistling Straits two years ago, when they struggled. Here’s a McIlroy curiosity: He has opened a foursomes or four-balls session for Europe four times and won on each occasion, but he has only 6½ points from his other 18 matches played with a partner.
Top: The attention at Thursday’s Ryder Cup opening ceremonies in Rome centered on the morning pairings for the first matches on Friday. Photo: Brendan Moran, Sportsfile via Getty Images
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