Rory McIlroy described himself as full of “naivete” when he made the comment as “a young, swashbuckling lad” who admittedly didn’t know any better. Now 34, McIlroy could only laugh at himself while sitting for a recent video interview in which he was asked to read back what he’d said about an upcoming 2010 tournament when he was just 20, having never played in a Ryder Cup.
“It’s not that important of an event for me,” McIlroy said. “It’s an exhibition, at the end of the day. Obviously, I’ll try my best for the team but I’m not going to be running around fist-pumping.”
McIlroy couldn’t hide his chagrin. He actually is renowned as one of the PGA Tour’s most exuberant fist-pumpers, and some of his heartiest have come in Ryder Cup play. Now, he knows better. Heading into his seventh Ryder Cup this weekend in Italy, McIlroy said his younger thoughts “couldn’t be further from the truth,” describing the Ryder Cup now as “the purest competition in golf. For me, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Hard to argue.
Set your alarms, folks: Play begins at 1:30 a.m. Friday with foursomes (alternate shot) followed by four-ball (best ball), the reverse of that on Saturday, and then singles Sunday. McIlroy is one of the many fascinating story lines in Europe, picking up after enduring his worst personal performance when the US blew out Europe to take the 2021 Cup, having been dropped from a round of play for the first time in his Ryder Cup career.
McIlroy is looking for redemption.
He is not alone.
As the hype builds for the epic three-day battle at Italy’s Marco Simone Golf & Country Club, here are some story lines I can’t want to see play out.
▪ Home-course advantage
It’s real, and it’s spectacular. The stat of the tournament, repeated ad nauseam if you ask the American players, is that the US hasn’t won a Ryder Cup on European soil in 30 years.
Just listen to McIlroy, who obviously has come to understand not only the honor of being on a Ryder Cup team, but the accomplishment of winning on foreign soil.
“I think one of the great accomplishments in our game now is to win an away Ryder Cup,” he said. “I think with just how partisan it’s become in terms of having a home-field advantage, being able to set the golf course up in a way that benefits your team, I think the next team that wins a Ryder Cup on foreign soil, I think it’s a huge accomplishment.”
The US team has a real challenge in dealing with that raucous, partisan atmosphere, which has become one of the loudest, most passionate cauldrons in sports. It’s no wonder the home team has won seven of the last eight Ryder Cups and 10 of the past 12. Though the American side is favored by the oddsmakers to retain the Cup, the win at Whistling Straits in 2021 lacked that energy, as it was played under COVID protocols.
That won’t be the case in Italy. McIlroy is sure to have his fist-pumps ready, just as Americans like Justin Thomas will be more than happy to walk putts in or cup their ears to a silenced crowd, asking for more.
▪ Speaking of Justin Thomas, why is he here?
The selection of Thomas as one of Zach Johnson’s captain’s picks was controversial, given Thomas’s spectacularly poor form this past season; he shot two plus-80 rounds in majors, failed to make the cut in all majors but the PGA, and failed to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs. But Thomas was chosen anyway, along with Sam Burns, Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka, Collin Morikawa, and Jordan Spieth.
The simple reason is that Thomas makes the US a better team. For so many Ryder Cups, the American side felt like a bunch of solo stars thrown together, guys content to hang out or practice on their own, lacking the camaraderie that has long characterized the Europeans. But this rising group of American stars seems to have a different vibe than its Tiger Woods/Phil Mickelson predecessors, no doubt built by friendships that date back to their earliest days in junior golf.
I’ll leave it to Spieth to vouch for Thomas’s inclusion.
“I think he’s kind of turned into a backbone for the USA Ryder Cup team,” Spieth said. “That doesn’t mean he’s on every one. I’m sure if you asked him, he said he didn’t think he was going to be on, and I think he would and maybe even already accepted that to a degree.
“So I think he’s going to embrace the opportunity … The elevated pressure and honestly the away games and kind of the opportunity to go like that, like he does, and to raise the crowd up, the home crowd, but also to quiet one and upset them here, he loves doing that, and it creates maybe just a little extra level of focus for him.
“I’ve been beside him for these Ryder Cups, and he quite simply plays better golf than the guys across from him.”
▪ The LIV effect
Probably more acutely felt on the European side, where stalwarts like Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, and Lee Westwood are on the outside looking in, just as past vice captains Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, and Henrik Stenson are too, this is the first tournament since golf was fractured by the breakaway Saudi-backed tour.
When LIV players resigned their DP World Tour memberships to defect, they effectively gave up their Ryder Cup eligibility. Now is when that really hurts.
“It’s certainly a little strange not having them around,” McIlroy said. “But I think this week of all weeks, it’s going to hit home with them that they are not here.
“I think they are going to miss being here more than we’re missing them, so it’s just more I think this week is a realization that the decision that they made has led to not being a part of this week, and that’s tough.”
The same was not true in the US, where the resignation of a PGA membership carried no official Ryder Cup consequence. Johnson may not have gone out of his way to welcome LIV players (so long, Dustin Johnson), but there was no credible argument for snubbing Koepka and his 2023 major results (PGA win, T2 at the Masters, T17 at the US Open).
▪ Hello, rookie, whatcha got?
Ludvig Aberg is far from a household golf name, but the 23-year-old Swede is the talk of the sport. He turned pro only three months ago, after earning his second consecutive NCAA Golfer of the Year honor at Texas Tech, and promptly went on to win the European Masters.
A few rounds with Europe captain Luke Donald left the veteran “blown away” by Aberg’s skills, and Donald insisted he had no doubts about including the rookie on his Ryder Cup roster. Aberg joins Garcia as the only golfers to play a Ryder Cup the year they turned pro. He’s never even teed off in a major, but here he is.
Aberg posted four top-25 finishes in two months of PGA Tour play, and then, upon returning to Europe, he won in Switzerland by chasing down 2022 US Open winner Matt Fitzpatrick with four straight birdies in the final round.
Said Aberg, “As a competitor, these are the tournaments you want to be a part of — you want to have that shot, you want to have that putt, to get a point or to win a match. Absolutely I’m up for the challenge.”
Can’t wait to see …