ROME — The streak continues. The Americans' drought in Ryder Cups in Europe will reach at least 34 years after Zach Johnson's side couldn't overcome a historically awful start to the 44th edition of these matches. There is so, so much to discuss. Here are 18 parting thoughts from Marco Simone Golf Club.
1. This has to be the most overanalyzed event in sports. It makes sense why—this is the one week a year when golf media can debate team-spot things like preparation, team selection and chemistry. The winning captain is viewed as a genius who pressed all the right buttons. The losing captain is a bumbling idiot who got it all wrong. Every year it’s the same thing.
Both of the most recent American captains have adopted a laissez-faire style of leadership. Their reasoning: we have the best players in the world. Why would we want them to deviate from their normal routines? When the U.S. romped in Wisconsin, everyone lauded Steve Stricker for being so hands-off. This time around, Johnson sat back as nine of his 12 guys took four weeks off in between the Tour Championship and this tournament. The Europeans, on the other hand, all played two weeks ago at the BMW Championship. Had the U.S. won, no one would’ve mentioned that. But since they lost…you have to wonder if having a little bit more recent play to judge might’ve helped Johnson decide who to play and who not to play. It’s hard to know who’s playing well and who’s not when no one’s played recently. And it took the Americans a good three sessions to really start to hit their stride. Johnson will be second-guessed. Comes with the territory, but it also doesn't feel like he turned over every stone the way Luke Donald did.
2. The Ryder Cup is more intertwined than ever. As the best golf writer alive, Michael Bamber, explained, this used to be a proxy battle for the European Tour vs. the PGA Tour. The players only really saw each other at the majors. The European teams' coaches were based in Europe, the Americans' in America.
Now, with how the professional game has evolved to become to U.S.-centric, all these guys see each other all the time. Three-quarters of the European team has homes in the United States. Beginning next year, all 12 will be PGA Tour members. You have coaches like Stephen Sweeney (Collin Morikawa and Shane Lowry), Phil Kenyon (Max Homa, Matt Fitzpatrick, Tommy Fleetwood and Scottie Scheffler) and Mark Blackburn (Max Homa and Justin Rose) wearing one team's colors while coaching players on the other. Ludvig Aberg went to Texas Tech, Robert MacIntyre to McNeese State (for a hot second), Viktor Hovland to Oklahoma State. The competition isn't any less intense than it was 40 years ago, in the days of Seve Ballesteros—the big difference is the bad blood ends once the final putt drops. They're all pals. They'll drink together this evening.
3. Joe LaCava was wrong with how he celebrated on the 18th green on Saturday evening. Cut and dry, he was wrong. A core tenet of caddying is to avoid interfering with the competition. LaCava did that. I was standing just off to the side of the green and noticed it immediately. Wyndham Clark’s caddie, John Ellis, also did the little hat-wave celebration—but then he stopped pretty quickly to clear the stage for McIlroy and Fitzpatrick, who still had birdie putts to tie. But LaCava kept going, and going, and going, and McIlroy was well within his rights to say something.
LaCava surely realized this right away, for he contacted the European team Saturday night to clear the air. He’ll get some credit from meatheads online for getting in McIlroy’s face, but it was a clear violation of golf etiquette. The craziest part is he actually took a few steps toward McIlroy after he was asked to move as if he was going to escalate the conversations. Hot heads run hot. Like, look at this bird’s eye view and try to come to any other conclusion:
Todd Lewis initially reported that LaCava had reached out to McIlroy on Saturday evening and that the two had buried the hatchet, but then McIlroy said after his singles victory that he hadn’t spoken to LaCava—and he said it with a tone that says and I don’t want to, either.
4. The pay-for-play conversation regarding the Ryder Cup is a very interesting one. On one hand, playing for your country is the highest honor in sports, and it’s not like these guys are strapped for cash. Cantlay’s made something like $40 million over the last three seasons just from the PGA Tour, not including his off-course income. Do these guys really need to be paid every single time they play golf, even when it’s in a legendary event that historically has been about national pride and not dollars and cents?
That’s the viewpoint I find myself gravitating toward, but I understand the other side as well. This competition has become a huge business, and there’s a lot of entities making a lot of money off it—none of which are the players, who are the workers or the talent in this instance. A Ryder Cup without the best players in the world is not a Ryder Cup. It surely doesn’t feel great to see all this commercial activity happening on the basis of your abilities and you not profiting from it. At least not directly. Players do get $200,000 to donate to a charity of their choice, but they’re not getting a paycheck for this week. Soccer players who play for their national teams do indeed get paid. It’s a tricky one.
Either way, the report about Cantlay not wearing the hat in protest, and he and Schauffele causing some rift in the team room, was bullshit. And the waving of the hats absolutely fired up Cantlay, who played like a man possessed for the last 27 holes of this event.
5. One thing the Presidents Cup has over the Ryder Cup—the ability to match up certain guys with certain guys. The blind draw here leaves a lot to be desired. How electric would it have been for Europe to name Rory McIlroy and U.S. counters with Cantlay? It’s entertainment after all, and having the captains having to make on-the-spot decisions and react to the other captains' moves would add a layer of intrigue. It works in the Presidents Cup, where the pressers themselves are must-watch action.
(Also…psssst…the last two Presidents Cups have both been closer than the last two Ryder Cups).
6. The Ryder Cup’s the best for so many reasons, one of which is the audio. Each outcome has its own distinct sound easily recognizable from hundreds of yards away: a good shot from the home team, a good shot from the away team, a won hole for the home team, a won hole for thew away team—they all sound slightly different. But the best sound from this week came from Italian fans just basking in the glory of a perfectly struck golf shot: Bella, Bella, Bella. That beats the shit out of “beauty.”
7. I don't have the stats to back this up—this is the internet, after all, where anything goes—but I feel like I saw more guys essentially asking for putts to be given this week than in any match-play competition before. Typically the move is to go through the routine of putting your mark down very slowly until the guy says "it's good." Or, of course, you can simply walk up and tap in your putt. Looking at him and asking him puts him on the spot and makes for a pretty awkward interaction overall. And yet guys on both sides kept doing it and doing it and doing it. Maybe that was a strategy? Make the guy look you in the eyes and tell you the putt isn't good?
8. One non-Ryder Cup item…Sungjae Im and Si-Woo Kim had themselves the most impactful week of anyone in golf. This was the first year the Asian Games allowed professionals to compete. Now, why does that matter? Because South Korea has a mandatory military requirement for all able-bodied men. They’re extremely strict with handing out exemptions; you might recall the plight of Sangmoon Bae, who had to serve for almost two full years after playing in the 2015 Presidents Cup.
Im and Kim both played in the Tokyo Olympics, where a medal would’ve done the trick. Im in particular skipped that year’s Open Championship to hone in his focus on Tokyo. Neither were close. It seemed they’d have to wait another 4 years for a chance, which would’ve been cutting it close on time. It’s not super clear how long you can wait to do the service, but it’s somewhere around 30. They got a massive break, then, when the Asian Games opened up to pros, for they are probably the two best players in Asia. An individual or a team gold would be enough, and got the job done and them some, eventually winning by 25 shots.
"This has been the longest four days of my career," Im told the Korean Times. He finished second in the individual competition with a 26-under total. "Every hole felt so important, and I knew every shot counted.
“I think I should be able to stay focused even more on the PGA Tour (given the exemption),” Im said. I feel like I can have a really long and successful run there. I think this will help me so much mentally."
Now that’s performing under pressure.
9. The thing about Tiger Woods’ famous 9 and 8 beatdown over Stephen Ames is that one of those players is Tiger Woods and the other is Stephen Ames. Viktor Hovland and Ludvig Aberg, the latter a Ryder Cup rookie with zero major championship experience, beating the world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler and five-time major champion 9 and 7 goes down as the most shocking and embarrassing result in recent match play history.
Koepka looked lethargic from the start. Scottie wasn’t much better, as the two played the first three holes in five over par and were a very generous +7 after 12 holes. Had they been forced to putt everything out it probably would’ve been around +10 through 12 holes. For two titans of the sport!
10. Anyone silly enough to read my work knows how much I admire the folks over at Data Golf. With the Official World Golf Ranking becoming increasingly inaccurate by the day, it’s now my go-to resource for rankings—as well as course fit, live strokes gained data, etc etc. I encourage you to subscribe, if you haven’t already, if you want to become a smarter golf fan.
This week the DG folks posted a graphic that stoped me in my tracks. Apparently if every single match was a 50-50 toss-up, and you played the Ryder Cup 10,000 times, only 52% of the finishing scores would be within four points. Check it out:
That underscores just how much variance—another word for randomness, really—is involved in a competition like this. There’s a lot of variance in every round of golf, it being played outside with different conditions based on the time of day, but especially when you have a teammate and every hole is essentially its own mini-match. We put so much weight into guys’ Ryder Cup record when, in reality, how well they individually play is a relatively small part of the recipe that produces that record. Our sport is delightfully chaotic, and never more so than this week.
11. It’s fun to watch these guys lean into the team dynamic this week and develop little inside-jokes and handshakes, the type of stuff we see NFL teams bring out every Sunday. The Americans kept doing that Italian hand motion throughout the practice rounds. The Europeans kept talking about ‘spin loft,’ a buzzword in the instruction word right now popularized by Viktor Hovland. His coach, Joseph Mayo, is an early launch monitor pioneer who has revamped the Norwegian’s chipping..largely with math.
Mayo’s teaching highlights the importance of spin loft, which is essentially the difference between the club’s loft at impact and the angle of attack. The higher the spin loft, the more spin you put on that ball—and with that descending angle of attack, the ball launches low. Mayo wants his students to hit way down on the ball by having their head move downward and toward the target in the backswing. It looks a little different than classic chipping technique, and it might be harder to pull off for the average golfer, but man is it pretty when done correctly. Luke Kerr-Dineen at Golf Digest has a nice breakdown of it here.
It’s the best recipe for low spinners, and Hovland and Rahm discussed the equation on Wednesday morning on the chipping green. Then, on Friday, they both holed low spinners.
Spin loft, baby.
12. I don’t say this lightly: Wyndham Clark is the most impressive golfer I’ve seen in person since Rory McIlroy. That’s not to say best. But he hits more shots that make you say “oh shit” than anyone this side of Rory. It’s a combination of strength, length and the boldness to try it.
Which takes us to the uphill par-5 9th during Friday’s afternoon four ball session. Clark had 295 yards uphill for his second shot—like, properly uphill. He pulled 3-wood without hesitation and ripped an absolute missile at the dead-center of the green. Before the ball came close to its apex he begged for it to be right. It was.
13. What a debut for Max Homa, who went 3-1-1 this week after a rough start (like everyone else) on Friday morning. Everyone will talk about the unplayable lie he took on the 18th before getting up-and-down to win his match against Matt Fitzpatrick and keep American hopes alive. It wasn’t the first unplayable he took in that match. He did the same thing on the par-4 3rd after flaring his drive right. He got that one up-and-down from 136 yards to save par and stay just 1 down to Fitz.
It takes a lot of patience to take unplayable in match play. A studly performance from Homa who improves to a combined 7-1-1 in Ryder and Presidents Cups. Matt Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, squandered a chance to hole the winning putt at the Ryder Cup and now drops to 1-7-0 overall. It’s a cruel game.
14. Zach Johnson is horrific at talking into a microphone. Nice guy, great player, but he couldn’t stay out of his own way this week. He references some “congestion” issues on Friday evening after his team failed to win a single of the eight matches. I have no doubt it’s true; Rickie Fowler seemed pretty under the weather, and Koepka looked remarkably flat as well. But I do not see one benefit in saying that in the middle of the competition.
Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in his team, does it? You’re essentially making an excuse for them with 20 of the 28 points still there for the taking. It’s really not that hard to say “we got our butts kicked today, I take full responsibility, but we’ll be better tomorrow.” He was also asked early on Sunday what his team needed to do to pull off the impossible and he said: “the same thing they’ve been doing all week.” Um, what? Johnson didn’t help himself much at the podium this week.
15. The Americans seem to have mostly abandoned the hype-video strategy in the last few Ryder Cups. It’s part of the laissez-faire captain style we talked about above. The Europeans, on the other hand, lean all the way in. Hype videos on hype videos on hype videos. Jon Rahm said after getting a half-point in his singles match that he was crying while watching the videos Luke Donald helped arrange this week.
I do believe it’s indicative of something: the Europeans are willing to suspend disbelief for a week, to embrace the cringe. One style’s not better than the other. But they are indeed quite different.
16. Europe should not be allowed to wear red, white and blue in a Ryder Cup. Pretty simple. Their colors for this event are blue and yellow and the Americans’ are red, white and blue. I understand the two sides have their own clothing manfucturers, and they come up with their scripting independently. But seems pretty straightforward for the European side to avoid red, white and blue in the same outfit.
17. World rankings mean nothing when it comes to this event. They meant nothing when the world rankings were an accurate reflection of world golf. They mean nothing now, when they’re not an accurate reflection of world golf. How you perform in Memphis in a 72-hole stroke play event has very little bearing on how you’ll perform in front of 50,000 screaming fans in the Ryder Cup. We fall for it every year; the Americans have the world ranking advantage basically every time, and they lose on the road every time. One of these days we’ll learn our lesson.
18. That marks the end of meaningful golf for the year and my first full season covering it here at Barstool Sports. Hugely grateful to all of you that have read a single word of mine this year, and it's awesome to know there's still a place for longform writing on the internet. Now for some much-needed rest.