The 44th Ryder Cup began on Friday morning with Team Europe looking to reclaim the trophy they lost two years ago against a strong USA outfit.
Luke Donald, who took the European captaincy from Henrik Stenson when the Swede joined LIV Golf, has the task of protecting a 30-year unbeaten streak on home soil. Donald’s American counterpart Zach Johnson heads to Rome knowing that he has one of the best chances of ending their dry spell across the pond, with 15 major wins among his 12 players vastly outweighing Europe’s nine.
Here’s how we see the action unfolding at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club, starting with the morning foursomes before moving to the overall winners, leading points scorer, leading rookie, most likely flash point and biggest disappointment.
Foursomes predictions: First session lead can put Europe on path to destiny
It probably makes sense for a captain called Luke to tell his troops “let the foursomes be with you” and after deciding to flip the normal order in Europe to stage the alternate-shot format first, he will have been thrilled to see the match-ups.
In the last four home matches, Europe has compiled a seismic advantage in foursomes – leading the visitors 22 1/2-9 1/2 – and Luke Donald will expect his team to have an advantage going into the afternoon fourballs. Indeed, the destiny of the Cup could even depend on it.
Jon Rahm/Tyrrell Hatton vs Scottie Scheffler/Sam Burns
‘Team Angry’ lead off the way against ‘The God Squad’. While Rahm and Hatton wear their hearts on their sleeves, world No 1 Scottie Scheffler and Sam Burns proudly display their religious faith.
Neither of these duos are in any uncertainty of who they are and what they represent and the difference in personalities – particularly in their reactions to poor shots and bad breaks – should make for an intriguing collision in the opening match.
Hatton and Rahm are both in great form, having finished second and fourth respectively at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth earlier this month. Furthermore, they gained a fine half together against Scheffler and Bryson DeChambeau at Whistling Straits but this is their first time in the alternate-shot format.
Scheffler and Burns teamed up in last year’s Presidents Cup, suffering a torrid time against the Internationals, losing two out of three and tying the third. Two of those were in the foursomes at Quail Hollow, losing to Cam Davis and Si Woo-kim (the then world Nos 66 and 76) respectively and then Tom Kim and KH Lee (20 and 43).
To be frank, that is pretty poor form and despite Scheffler’s majesty from tee to green in 2023 and Burns’s glory in the World Match Play, it is plainly a Zach Johnson gamble to go first with these best friends.
Prediction: Europe win (1-0)
Viktor Hovland/Ludvig Aberg vs Max Homa/Brian Harman
Donald could not resist throwing in Aberg. Good on him. Foursomes favours the brave sometimes and putting out a rookie who has competed in just 10 pro tournaments with a 26-year-old in just his second Ryder Cup, is certainly courageous.
This will be an extreme contrast in styles. Hovland and Aberg hit it a mile, while Homa is middling and, to be frank, Harman is titchy off the tee. If the young Scandinavians are accurate – and the strengths of both is that they go very far and very straight – then it could be a tough morning for the Americans.
However, Homa and Harman are scrappers and the dog in this partnership could outgnarl the behemoths in opposition. In winning The Open at Hoylake two months ago, Harman proved that his putting will always keep him in the hole. Homa is a nice guy but a clinical winner when he gets a sniff.
There are three debutants in this match, which has not happened in a foursomes game in a long time. “History will show that being a rookie is almost irrelevant,” Johnson said.
Prediction: Europe win (2-0)
Shane Lowry/Sepp Straka vs Rickie Fowler/Collin Morikawa
This is a classic third game in the opening session of a Ryder Cup, featuring two pairings that not too many anticipated.
That does not mean it is the weak encounter, though. Anything but. Captain Johnson will look down the starting sheet and have this as his banker, with a resurgent Fowler linking up with two-time major champion Morikawa in a partnership with approach play at its fore.
Yet Straka is underrated and that is exactly how Lowry feels after being stunned by the reaction to his wildcard pick. The Irishman is desperate to prove his worth, although the irons in the other corner might be too hot.
Prediction: US win (2-1)
Rory McIlroy/Tommy Fleetwood vs Patrick Cantlay/Xander Schauffele
Clearly the most alluring clash of the morning. It would clearly be wonderful for the headline writers in Fleetwood Mac – as Telegraph Sport first dubbed the duo on Tuesday – got an albatross, but the fans will not need any cheesy puns to savour this contest.
Schauffele and Cantlay are great pals and are a formidable duo. They won both their foursomes matches in 2021 and have won three out of three in that same format across the last two Presidents Cup. They are due a defeat, but Fleetwood Mac will need to have things going their own way if they are to prevail.
A few weeks ago, Schauffele declared that America will have to do “nothing special” to break the US void on European soil and after the pairings were announced he sounded just as matter of fact.
“Nothing we’re not used to,” he replied when asked about appearing in the first skirmishes. “Yeah, business as usual. They’re both great players. Pat and I know them very well. It will be a battle, no doubt.”
McIlroy has won one of his last three foursomes in the Ryder Cup and just two from his last seven foursomes and fourballs. That is a run not befitting his ability and Donald – and future captains – will pray that in Fleetwood, the world No 2 has at last found a long-term compadre. In the last three Cups, McIlroy has gone through six different partners.
Yet they have a baptism of fire against a pairing rated probably the best in the match. It would be a huge statement and Fleetwood Mac cannot be intimated by the duo’s streak. Yesterday’s gone.
Prediction: Europe win… and take the morning foursomes 3-1
Who will win, and by what margin?
James Corrigan: Home advantage is so big in the Ryder Cup that Europe can outstay the young Americans. However, it will be close and for the first time in 11 years provide a tense finale. Europe 15-13 USA.
Tom Cary: The bookies are flip-flopping and I can see why. I’d say Europe are just about favourites, though. Players in form, strong leaders, and home advantage. Europe 15.5-12.5 USA.
Oliver Brown: The depth of Zach Johnson’s team is absurd, stacked with performers of proven matchplay pedigree. They have already benefited from a reconnaissance mission to Rome and should – narrowly – inflict a first home defeat for Europe in 30 years. Europe 13-15 USA.
Tom Morgan: Europe by skin of their teeth. LIV has deprived the 2023 edition of some big characters, but a raucous home crowd will bring new matchwinners to the fore. Europe 15-13 USA.
Daniel Zeqiri: The world’s best players are never far away from good form, but I would rather hang my hat on Europe’s main men producing in Rome given their strong run of recent results. As Paul McGinley notes, the PGA Tour season wrapped up a month ago which could mean USA coming in cold. Accounting for an advantageous course set-up, Europe look strong, which is quite the turnaround from 12 months ago. Europe 15.5-12.5 USA.
Leading points scorer
JC: Jon Rahm. to my mind he is emerging as the on-course leader of the blue-and-gold brigade. He has that Spanish passion and determination that sets him apart.
TC: Rahm. The Masters champion has been solid all year, relishes the gladiatorial nature of the Ryder Cup, and will want to lead by example.
OB: Scottie Scheffler. A prime candidate to achieve the rare feat of five points out of five, just like Dustin Johnson in 2021. He is a ball-striker of peerless purity, even if his putting can occasionally be suspect.
TM: Rahm. The lone Spaniard on this year’s team suggests Europe are underdogs, but he is ready for a big performance here, despite a mixed summer by his high standards.
DZ: Looking for a European who will play all five sessions leads me to Viktor Hovland. An elite driver which is key at Marco Simone and after winning at Memorial, Olympia Fields and East Lake on his way to a FedEx Cup triumph, Hovland knows he can look any American in the eye. Makes enough birdies to star in fourballs, and his tee-to-green excellence can be relied upon in foursomes.
JC: Brian Harman. The Open champion has a game suited to Marco Simone. A brilliant putter who is never out of a hole, he will be infuriating to play against.
TC: Ludvig Aberg. Only turned pro in June but looks as if he’s arrived for a roll-up rather than the Ryder Cup. So relaxed.
OB: Wyndham Clark. The US Open champion has been surprisingly punchy in his comments this week, even predicting that the Europeans will tire on Marco Simone’s steep gradients. He has the resilience to back up his rhetoric, as he proved with his frontrunning performance to defeat Rory McIlroy for his maiden major title.
TM: Aberg. The 23-year-old Swede is a shoo-in, despite being the first player to be involved in a Ryder Cup before playing in one of golf’s majors.
DZ: It could well be the sensational Aberg, but will Luke Donald protect a player who only turned professional four months ago, especially in foursomes? With that in mind and for the sake of some balance, Max Homa could quickly establish himself as a key player for USA in all formats and has been so consistent in 2023.
Most likely flash point
JC: Zach Johnson and the British press. The US captain is not the type to shoot off his lip, but he is already showing signs of becoming wary with the line of questioning. He might erupt.
TC: A couple of drunk guys dressed as Roman centurions shout something obscene and LIV-related at Brooks Koepka who attacks them with a 9-iron.
OB: Koepka against a partisan Europe crowd. He is already sensitive about criticism of his move to LIV and has form at the Ryder Cup, having harangued a rules official at Whistling Straits. So prickly about his media portrayal that he has even complained about insufficient people attending his press conferences.
TM: It’s roasting in Rome, with temperatures expected to soar beyond 31C. Dust-ups between sweltering fans in the beer queues are a distinct possibility.
DZ: Not an easy one to call given Johnson and Donald are studiously diplomatic and Patrick Reed is sat at home. The slow play of Patrick Cantlay could be something to keep an eye on, given speeding up or slowing down depending on your opponent’s natural rhythm is one of the dark arts of matchplay.
Singles match I would like to see
JC: McIlroy vs Clark. The US Open Champion has asked for it – “I like to think I’m better than Rory and would like the chance to prove it” – and might very well get it.
TC: Koepka vs Rahm. A replay of the final round at Augusta when Rahm prevailed.
OB: Rory McIlroy vs Clark. Europe’s talisman will be desperate to lead from the front on Sunday, and nothing will whet his appetite like a duel with Clark, his conqueror in June at Los Angeles Country Club. He will put a huge amount of pressure on himself to set the tone.
TM: Rahm v Scottie Scheffler. The pair have spent much of the last two years jockeying for world No. 1. Rahm had been the best player in the world entering the 2021 team event, but he lost his Sunday singles match to Scheffler then. A rematch would be some spectacle.
DZ: Clark has gone all Stephen Ames and called it on, so lets see it please: McIlroy vs Clark.
JC: Justin Thomas. A great player who seems a nice guy, the two-time major winner is under pressure to justify a wildcard after a woeful season. It’s not the arena to be playing poorly with something to prove.
TC: The lack of fireworks between Donald and Johnson. Golf is a gentleman’s game, but this is the Ryder Cup. A little bit of crackle wouldn’t go amiss.
OB: The size of the crowds. Unusually there are still plentiful tickets available on the eve of a Ryder Cup, with touts struggling to shift their supply and corporate hospitality hosts yet to fill their quotas. This is virgin territory for the event and the location on Rome’s eastern extremities could affect the size of the galleries.
TM: Ice cream prices. The cost of living squeeze is felt most by those shelling out the equivalent of £6.50 and more for a Mr Whippy at the vans on site. So much for the 99p flake.
DZ: Jordan Spieth and Thomas have been an oven-ready pair for USA in past Ryder Cups, but appear fragile. Both ranked outside the top 100 for driving accuracy on the PGA Tour, which is a flight risk in foursomes. Thomas, horribly out of nick this summer, will need to hope his pal’s stellar short game is sharp or else the “frat boys” might have to be broken up.
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