- • Joined ESPN in 2011
• Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
• Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018
ESPN Senior Writer
- Senior college football writer
- Author of seven books on college football
- Graduate of the University of Georgia
Sep 28, 2023, 03:47 PM ET
GUIDONIA MONTECELIO, Italy — The Ryder Cup gets underway under the steaming Italian sun Friday at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club, with America looking to end a 30-year wait for a win on European soil.
The American team has waited a long time to take that gold trophy back across the Atlantic, but Europe is not planning to let that proud home record end any time soon. The conditions will be brutal, with oppressive heat and an undulating course making legs feel heavier than ever, especially if a player is trying to come from behind.
Friday morning sees the first tee shot at 1:35 a.m. ET, with the opening match of the foursomes pitting world No. 1 golfer Scottie Scheffler and Sam Burns against Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton. Then it’s Max Homa and Open Championship winner Brian Harman against Scandinavian duo Viktor Hovland and Ludvig Aberg. Rickie Fowler and Collin Morikawa then tackle Shane Lowry and Sepp Straka, with Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay finishing things off against Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood. It’s a box-office morning, on an unforgiving course where there’s opportunity and danger in equal measure.
Here’s a look at the key holes the course has to offer and three things to watch out for on the morning of Day 1 as the 44th Ryder Cup gets underway.
What to watch out for
Points on the board early
The switch to foursomes to open Friday morning instead of four-ball is with a view to Europe getting off to a winning start against the Americans. They’ve been crunching the numbers and have seen that, in the past two Ryder Cups on European soil, the Americans have won only two of the 16 foursome matches, halving 12 and losing two. Over the course of the past 15 years, Europe leads the USA overall 25-24 in matches in this format.
“We feel like, as a team, statistically, we are stronger in foursomes within our team than we would be in four-balls,” captain Luke Donald said. “Why not get off to a fast start? That’s it.”
It’s the first time this switch has been made in Europe since 1993 — the year Europe last lost at home — but it’ll be hoping for better fortunes this time around. Rahm and Hatton open for Europe, and the duo will reunite in the Ryder Cup having played alongside one another in four-ball at Whistling Straits, where they tied Bryson DeChambeau and Scheffler.
“They’re both world-class players, to start,” Donald said of his pairing. “Both fantastic ball strikers. They are very passionate. I think Jon feeds off a playing partner with similar kind of fire and passion. He wants to feel like he’s out there with a teammate that’s really engaged with him. Tyrrell really fits that bill.”
The Scandinavian connection
After the bombastic, big-hitting partnership of Hatton and Rahm kicks things off for Europe, attention switches to the second pairing of Hovland and Aberg. The Scandinavian duo seem a natural fit and have the ability and potential to establish themselves as one of the great Ryder Cup double acts.
You have the in-form Hovland with the 2021 Ryder Cup under his belt, alongside the prodigy Aberg who only turned pro in June. Aberg has a fearless mentality and has taken everything in stride, while Hovland will bring the experience of Whistling Straits. On the course, you have Hovland’s ever-improving short game alongside the pinpoint accuracy of Aberg off the tee.
“We have been playing a little bit together the last couple days,” Aberg said. “I think anyone who is going to play with Viktor is going to be a happy guy, and so am I.”
The two were grouped together in the first two rounds of the PGA at Wentworth and in the Europe practice day at Marco Simone, so this duo has clearly been on Donald’s radar for a while.
“We can put some blue on early on the leaderboard and just follow in the trend where the Europeans did in the Solheim Cup and the Junior Ryder Cup earlier today,” Hovland said. “So I think we’ve got the momentum.”
Welcome to the first grouping of Fleetwood Mac at the Ryder Cup. Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari paired beautifully in 2018 for Moliwood, but with the Italian now one of the vice captains, Fleetwood and McIlroy promise to be the eye-catching duo to kick things off Friday.
The two are crowd favorites, with both receiving huge roars when their names were read out at the opening ceremony. If they manage to get a win on the board against the partnership of Schauffele and Cantlay in the final match of the morning session, it’ll give Europe momentum to take into the afternoon.
“Anybody playing with Rory is going to be a good partnership,” Fleetwood said. “I’m very excited to play with him. We’ve known each other for a long time, and Rory has been a huge part of my Ryder Cup journeys, been a part of both Ryder Cups that I’ve played in before, and now this one.”
The two practiced alongside each other Tuesday and Thursday at Marco Simone. McIlroy feels that he has unfinished Ryder Cup business after a difficult time in 2021 at Whistling Straits, where he lost all three of his matches across Friday and Saturday but then finished off with an emotional win over Schauffele on Sunday in the singles. For Fleetwood, after his heroics at Paris in 2018, where he won four points alongside Molinari, he contributed two halves at Whistling Straits. Fleetwood is in fine form, ever improving, and the promise of putting these together is box office.
“How Tommy played in France and in his last home Ryder Cup and the partnership he had — I just hope I can live up to Francesco, is really all I’m trying to do here,” McIlroy said. “So if I can live up to Francesco, I think we’ll be OK.
U.S. team captain Zach Johnson is rolling the dice by leaving veterans Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas on the bench Friday morning. The pair is 8-2-0 in international events when playing together.
Thomas needed a captain’s choice to make his third Ryder Cup team after finishing 71st in the PGA Tour’s season-long points race and missing the FedEx Cup playoffs for the first time in his career.
Johnson insisted his decision wasn’t about the current form of either player.
“There’s a lot of things that I’d like to keep internal there,” Johnson said. “At the same time, I have the utmost confidence in these eight and the utmost confidence in Jordan and Justin. I know we’re talking about a great tandem, but it’s a situation where it’s not about their form. They’re playing great.”
One of two things is probably true: Either Thomas’ form wasn’t great this week — reports out of practice rounds indicated his ballstriking was fine — or Johnson and his vice captains liked what the analytics were telling them about their other pairings.
Thomas has a 6-2-1 record in the Ryder Cup. Spieth is 8-7-3. They’re not going to be sitting for four-ball matches in the afternoon, too.
“I mean, I think it’s an ideal situation where you don’t necessarily want to play everybody [for] all five sessions,” Johnson said. ” I’m not saying that’s what we’re going to do, but you’re taking everything into account. Not only that, but the eight guys I have down on paper are the ones that we feel best put us in the position to get off to a great start, obviously.”
Watch the rookies
Johnson didn’t hesitate in sending out three Ryder Cup rookies for Friday morning’s foursomes matches. Two of them, Harman and Homa, will be playing together against Hovland and Aberg.
The two Americans aren’t typical rookies. Harman, 36, has won three times on the PGA Tour, including the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool in July. Homa has won six times, twice this season. Both players are ranked in the top 10 in the world.
Harman had extensive experience in the Walker Cup and Palmer Cup as an amateur. Johnson said he believes the veteran is made for match-play events. Johnson said he had “zero hesitation” putting Homa and Harman together.
“History will show, and you can look it up, that being a rookie is almost irrelevant,” Johnson said. “One of them, the way we look at it, is not. Yeah, he hasn’t played in a Ryder Cup, but he knows team matches. He understands the elements of what’s going on, and those two guys bond and mesh so well together on and off the golf course that it’s a very natural fit, both as a tandem and for the golf course.”
The American villains
Patrick Reed is no longer around for the European fans to jeer, so they chose to boo five-time major champion Brooks Koepka during Thursday’s opening ceremony instead. Whether the chilly reception was because of Koepka leaving the PGA Tour for the LIV Golf League or something else, he was the only player who didn’t receive a raucous welcome.
Koepka figures to eat it up. He isn’t playing in Friday morning’s matches, but he’ll undoubtedly be out there in the afternoon. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Koepka playing with U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark, who is making his Ryder Cup debut.
Clark raised eyebrows by saying in an earlier interview that he wanted to play McIlroy in the Ryder Cup and believed he was better than the four-time champion. Then he suggested Wednesday that some of the European team members might be fatigued because they spent the past few weeks playing on the DP World Tour while the American players rested.
“This is obviously a very intense environment and mentally challenging, and then also you put in a pretty physically demanding golf course being so hilly and up and down that maybe come Sunday they might be leaking oil and we’ll be fresh,” Clark said.
Five holes to watch
Marco Simone, located on the outskirts of Rome, is the site of the first Ryder Cup played in Italy. It hosted the Italian Open three times in the recent past. Built in 1991 and redesigned by Tom Fazio II and European Golf Design in 2018, it has been described as a classic match-play course with plenty of risk and reward. There are short par-4s and reachable par-5s.
Like many courses the European team has set up for home courses, the fairways are tight, with deep rough on both sides.
“The grass is extremely healthy and very pure,” Johnson said. “The greens are fantastic. I mean, I’m very confident in saying that. The rough is penal. It’s very difficult, but we’ve experienced that before. We’ll experience that again, whether it’s a tournament in the States or one over here.”
Here are the holes that could create the most drama this weekend.
No. 1 (par 4, 445 yards)
Taking your opening tee shot Friday morning in the Ryder Cup with the breath of thousands of excited supporters on your back is one of the most intimidating experiences in golf. At Marco Simone, the grandstands are vast, steeping high into the Roman air, as they hug the first tee. It must be a claustrophobic experience for those preparing to tee off with 5,000 faces looking on.
Europe captain Donald remembers his mind “going blank” before his first tee shot in 2004, with him then hooking his drive to the right of the fairway, while Johnson says the team have spoken about it this week. Justin Thomas has previously said his first tee shot in 2018 at Paris was “the most nervous” he’s ever been. Jordan Spieth said his opener in 2014 was the “most nerve-wracking shot I ever hit,” while Paul Casey said he and David Howell were “s—ting ourselves” in 2004.
At Marco Simone, the hole runs 445 yards and doglegs around the left before getting narrower toward the pin with a bunker hugging the front-left side of the green.
No. 8 (par 4, 525 yards)
Rory McIlroy says the opening nine holes of the course are “like the first chapters of a book. It gets you into the book a little bit, and sort of sets the story, but the real juicy bits come on the back nine.”
So the eighth hole will be the bit of the book where a player starts to doubt a protagonist or where the plot twists after a shocking discovery has been made. It caused real difficulties at the Italian Open in May, playing to an average of 4.58 shots across the four rounds.
Any misfired drive will end up in the lake to the left side of the fairway, and there are plenty of awkwardly positioned trees masking the right side if a player skews it off the tee. Oh, and there’s also a nicely placed bunker protecting the front right of the green. It’s the final par-4 on the front nine (technically a par-5, but listed as a par-4 at the Italian Open) and can dramatically shift the direction of a match.
No. 11 (par 4, 329 yards)
The 11th hole is the first of two drivable par-4s on the back nine and the shortest one on the course. It’s also the start of the easiest three-hole stretch on the course. The hole plays uphill and right to left. Players who lay up off the tee have to avoid a central bunker, and they will be left with a wedge shot onto the green.
A player who misses to the left of the green could face a very tricky up-and-down to save par. There’s also plenty of trouble with deep bunkers and a water hazard running down the left side. The bunkers in front of the green are about 30 to 40 yards away. A deep depression on the right will collect wayward shots as well. The green is fast and steep.
No. 13 (par 3, 150 yards)
The 13th and 14th make up a tricky little pair of holes with plenty of pitfalls, and the short par-3 13th could throw players off course.
With an old Roman house flanking the back of the green, there’s a very real threat that any shots hit with too much gusto will end up out of bounds, and the two-tiered green could lead to birdie hopes being extinguished and morphing into bogeys. The bunker to the front left is easily findable, and pin positions will be key — if the pin is to the back of the green on the upper side of the knoll, expect to see players being aggressive, but also risking a thin line between success and failure.
It’s a beautifully picturesque hole, but it could be the stuff of nightmares if navigated wrong.
No. 16 (par 4, 303 yards)
The last drivable par-4 hole is the one that could decide many matches — if they make it this far. It is the hole where McIlroy’s chances of winning the 2022 Italian Open ended when he pushed his tee shot into a pond on the right side of the green. He carded a bogey and finished fourth.
The hole can play anywhere from 260 to about 320 yards, and many players will be tempted to go for the green from the tee, depending on where their matches stand. Driving the green will require an accurate tee shot over a canal, which is about 60 yards short of the green, and away from three bunkers. Players who decide to lay up can knock a ball down the fairway about 200 yards and be left with a wedge shot.
Tennis star Novak Djokovic drove the 16th green from 260 yards during Wednesday’s celebrity tournament.
— DP World Tour (@DPWorldTour) September 27, 2023