Now that European captain Luke Donald has finalized his 12-player roster for the Ryder Cup in Rome later this month, a recurring image comes to mind.
Warning: Objects in your rearview mirror are closer than they appear.
For the longest time, there was a sense that the American team would have such an advantage at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club that it wasn’t a question of whether the U.S. side would end a 30-year winless streak overseas.
The question was – no offense to Messrs. Rahm, McIlroy and Hovland – whether the margin might rival the American rout in Whistling Straits two years ago, given the perceived depth of talent on one side and not the other.
As the summer has progressed at its slow and sultry pace, the European team has looked increasingly impressive, and what was once a sense of inevitability now has shifted into a fever dream of anticipation.
Viktor Hovland and Ludvig Åberg have plenty to do with that.
The Europeans finally might lose on home soil, but it won’t be because they are overmatched. Like his counterpart Zach Johnson, Donald is going to Rome doing what has worked for the Europeans for decades: playing the underdog card and expecting to play at peak form.
“They [the Americans] have a lot of those guys coming back,” Donald said. “They are strong. They have great partnerships that have been tried and tested. But at the same time – well, we are underdogs and we will be betting underdogs – I have full faith in my team and I feel like we have a great opportunity to win. I’m confident we have 12 really fearless golfers that are on a mission to write their own history in the game and their legacy.”
This feels like a transformative moment for the European Ryder Cup team. What happened on the shores of Lake Michigan two years ago – the Americans’ 19-9 win was the largest margin of victory since a 10-point victory in 1975 – marked the end of an era.
It was the last time Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Sergio García, all of whom defected to LIV Golf last year, would play in the event that helped define their careers, particularly García’s and Poulter’s. Were it not for golf politics, García might be playing again after being one of the few European bright spots (3-1-0 record) at Whistling Straits.
They have been at the core of Europe’s success. But, similar to how the American team belongs to Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas among others, the European team has new leaders in Rahm, McIlroy and perhaps Shane Lowry, who, like Justin Thomas, is part of his team because of his presence more than his recent form.
Though Donald will have four Ryder Cup rookies in Rome, it’s not as if the European team is entirely fresh-faced. In fact, Europe’s roster has played in 21 combined Ryder Cups compared with 17 on the American side.
Donald could pair McIlroy and Lowry, Fleetwood with Fitzpatrick or Hatton and Rahm with anybody. That’s a pretty strong starting point.
Three of the top four players in the world rankings – McIlroy, Rahm and Hovland – anchor the European team, and with Matt Fitzpatrick at No. 8, the top eight players in the world are divided equally between the teams.
With six automatic qualifiers (Rahm, McIlroy, Hovland, Fitzpatrick, Tyrrell Hatton and Robert MacIntyre), Donald added four obvious choices in Justin Rose, Tommy Fleetwood, Sepp Straka and Lowry, with Nicolai Højgaard and Åberg grabbing the other spots.
That meant Adrian Meronk played the European role of Keegan Bradley, being left off despite winning three times in the past 14 months, including the DP World Tour event at Marco Simone earlier this year.
It’s Åberg, who was playing college events for Texas Tech at this time last year, who has arrived with shooting-star suddenness. He becomes the first player to tee it up in a Ryder Cup without having played in a major championship, but Åberg, who won on the DP World Tour last week, is that enticing.
Donald has gone so far as to call him a “generational talent.” It wasn’t until Åberg tied for fourth at the Czech Masters and then won the Omega European Masters in Switzerland on Sunday that the captain had seen all he needed to see.
“I needed to see him perform these last two weeks. It certainly wasn’t a guarantee before that,” Donald said. “Obviously what he did [Sunday] and throughout the whole week in Crans, birdieing his last four, just kind of solidified my mind, really.”
Imagine if Donald pairs Åberg, who led the PGA Tour in strokes gained off the tee after he turned pro in June, with Hovland?
Donald could pair McIlroy and Lowry, Fleetwood with Fitzpatrick or Hatton and Rahm with anybody. That’s a pretty strong starting point. The European captain likely will split up his stars, spreading them out to take full advantage of their talents.
“I’m not going to look at betting forecasts. I have full faith that we have a great strong team. There will be 12 very unified guys on a mission to kind of write our own history as part of this Ryder Cup …” – Luke Donald
While the presumption is Marco Simone will be set up to demand more accuracy off the tee than Whistling Straits did, this European team can play long ball, too. In fact, the Europeans’ average driving distance is 309.3 yards compared to the Americans’ 308.1, with both sides hitting a comparable percentage of fairways.
The Ryder Cup looks strikingly different than it did six months ago.
“I think obviously if you look at betting forecasts, we would be the underdogs, and we’re fine with that,” Donald said. “Americans are very strong. Obviously, they are coming off an amazing win two years ago, but I have full faith in our team.
“I’m not going to look at betting forecasts. I have full faith that we have a great strong team. There will be 12 very unified guys on a mission to kind of write our own history as part of this Ryder Cup, and I couldn’t be more proud of the team that I get to lead.”
What seemed so far away and so far apart is so much closer now.
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