By Chris Harris
Updated 9/28/23 9:25am ET
In the words of Ron Burgundy, “Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast”. While we were all asleep on Thursday night, the USA Ryder Cup team was busy wetting the proverbial bed at Marco Simone Golf Club in Rome, Italy. By the time we woke up (unless you are a psychopath like I am and stayed up), it appeared that this year’s tournament may already be over – with Europe blanking the USA, 4-0.
It didn’t get any better in the afternoon and the five-point advantage (6.5 pts – 1.5 pts) ties the largest lead for either side after Day 1 in Ryder Cup history. Do you know what “Il Pestaggio” means….? It’s Italian, for an “ass-kicking”, and that’s what was handed down today by the European Team.
The Friday Morning Foursomes (alternate shot format) were dominated by the Europeans, winning all four matches in convincing fashion. In fact, none of the European teams trailed all morning. There were a total of 64 holes played in the early session, and the United States led after none of them. This has become a trend for the Americans, who are now 2-16-2 in their last 20 foursomes matches on European soil. The strange part is how good they’ve been at home, going 11-4-1 in their last 16 foursomes matches in the United States.
Down 4-0 in points, the American team said and did all the right things heading into the Friday afternoon Four-Balls. They got off to a good start and took the lead in three of the four matches heading into the back nine. There was hope, we actually had a chance, and dare I say, a dollop of optimism circulated amongst the golf-obsessed USA fans in attendance. Texts flew, calls were exchanged, and a pathway to evening the score seemed achievable, even likely at one point. And then it was gone as quickly as it appeared. The European Team managed a miraculous comeback, and tied the three matches that they were losing, all in dramatic fashion. At the end of the first day of play, USA failed to win even one match.
Was this great play by the Europeans or poor play by the Americans? It seemed to have been a little bit of both, although European fans are quick to point out that the US hasn’t won a Ryder Cup on European soil in over 30 years. So why does Europe seem to be better at the Ryder Cup in the event’s modern history? There are several reasons the United States has struggled overseas, and whether the Americans can finally overcome those challenges will be the dominant storyline of this year’s tournament.
Challenge #1: Post-season Form…Both teams visited Rome for practice sessions at the Marco Simone Golf Course course earlier this month, and both had three practice rounds this week. But September is a different month for European golfers than it is for Americans. While many of the American players saw their seasons end with the FedEx Tour Championship in early September, some of the European players played the Irish Open from Sept. 7 to 10. Their entire team competed in the BMW PGA Championship Sept. 14-17 in England. The Americans largely practiced on their own throughout the month, hitting the range, checking launch angles and exit velocities, and putting for hours on end. The Europeans competed, actually played the sport, and the United States mainly practiced. And that’s one of the reasons we looked rusty and started slowly out of the gate.
Challenge#2: It is a generally accepted rule that European golfers can putt, and Americans can drive the ball. The speculation is that when European players are small, so much of their golfing experience lies in match play, and competing against each other ON the course. So many American children are turned into “swing robots’ driven more by technique and data analysis than actually playing the game. Essentially, the European children are taught how to score, and putting is a huge part of scoring. For this European team, there’s surely a comfort level with the speed and undulation of the greens at the Italian course, as they have had a lot more access to it. But here’s another angle: The Europeans simply and consistently trust their teammates and caddies to help read putts in key situations. If you watched today’s matches, every European putt was a communal meeting, with both players and both caddies providing input. The opposite was true for the American team as they aren’t used to it and didn’t grow up playing that way. Often times, an American player will just trust his own read, and ask his caddy if there is substantial doubt. After all, it’s like the old saying goes, “Drive for show, putt for dough”.
Challenge #3: Course Set-Up…The Ryder Cup host team’s captain controls the golf course setup until tournament week begins. That implies that he can modify the layout of the course to best suit his players, including narrowing fairways, adding rough that might penalize particular hitters, and ensuring that traps are in or out of play at specific distances. There is also a deep dive into the statistical analysis of the U.S. team – individual strengths, tendencies, weaknesses. All of that gets distilled down and nuanced into the course design. There is a reason why the host country wins the Cup over 70% of the time. This year, the European team wanted to penalize length off the tee and reward accuracy. They wanted to make the USA hit low and middle irons, and take the wedges out of the Americans’ hands. A lot of strategy goes into creating a course that perfectly rewards the home teams and drastically penalizes the visiting team. It appears that Europe has done just that.
Buckle up for Day 2!
Photo Credit: Google Creative Commons