What went right for Europe, and what went wrong for the U.S.

What went right for Europe, and what went wrong for the U.S.
By: ESPN GOLF Posted On: October 01, 2023 View: 23

GUIDONIA MONTECELIO, Italy -- Another Ryder Cup, another rout by the winning team.

For the fifth straight time at the Ryder Cup, the home team won by five points or more. As ugly as the Europeans' 19-9 loss at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin was in 2021, Europe's 16½-11½ victory at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club on Sunday was similarly dominant.

The Europeans jumped out to a 4-0 lead in Friday's opening session and never looked back. The Americans have now lost seven straight Ryder Cups played outside the U.S. They've dropped eight out of 11 overall. They haven't won across the pond since 1993, a humiliating stretch of 30 years without a victory.

"There [were] a few of us up here that were on that team that wanted to come back, and everyone at the start of the week was talking about, 'Oh, do you want to get revenge? Do you want to get revenge on the U.S. team?'" Rory McIlroy said. "This wasn't about revenge. This was about redemption and showing what we could do."

The Americans will have to wait two years to get another shot at the Europeans at Bethpage Black Course in Farmingdale, New York, in September 2025. Will Tiger Woods be the U.S. team captain? Will winning European captain Luke Donald return?

Those will be questions to sort out over the next few months. First, let's examine what happened at Marco Simone. What went right for the Europeans? What went wrong for the Americans?

What went right for Europe

They know a thing or two about building things that last in this part of the world. And Europe's Ryder Cup triumph was down to meticulous planning, clever leadership and a strategy of drawing on the competition's history with a 2023 approach.

America captain Zach Johnson said Europe's win was down to the fact "Luke's team played great," but underneath the 16½ - 11½ triumph was a web of statistics and analysis and an emphasis on starting quickly. Europe changed the order of the Ryder Cup -- opting to start with foursomes instead of four-balls Friday and Saturday morning. It proved to be a masterstroke as Europe raced into a 4-0 lead Friday, then took Saturday's session 3-1. Donald had used vice captain and number cruncher Edoardo Molinari's expertise, seen how successful Europe was in the foursome format and switched things up. It was a bold play, given the last time the Europeans did that was back in the 1993 edition, the last Ryder Cup they lost on home soil.

Molinari's grasp of stats contributed the data behind picking the pairings, while Donald also looked to arbitrary aspects like compatibility. It wasn't a case of putting best mates alongside one another but instead a deep dive into how ability and strengths married, and it paid off brilliantly.

"[I] probably spent a little bit more time [with Edoardo] just because of the statistics, because of trying to figure out ways to tell all my guys why they were going to win; give them the confidence that when they stepped on that tee on Friday that they expected to win, and these are the reasons, and this is why you play and this is why we are going to be successful by the end of this week," Donald said.

The players themselves got to know each other on their practice trip to the Marco Simone Golf & Country Club two weeks ago, and then all 12 players were in three groups across the first two days at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.

"We got a lot of good information this week ahead of time, so kind of kept us all pretty calm," Justin Rose said. "Then the statistics come into play, and statistics only mean something if the players step up and keep their level, and I think that the captains and the vice captains kept us calm enough and kept the noise away from us where we kept our level, and then all the planning can mean something."

The vice captains were also essential: Thomas Bjørn, José María Olazábal, Nicolas Colsaerts, Edoardo and Francesco Molinari crossed different eras of the team and brought vast experience. Rahm appreciated having Olazábal around, aware of the remarkable legacy of Spanish players in the Ryder Cup. "It's a lot to live up to, and it's something that really inspires me, especially when José is around, right," Rahm said. "He always tells me little things to inspire me in that sense."

Donald put a huge amount of their preparation on growing team culture. On their reconnaissance trip to Marco Simone, the players spent the evening sitting around a fire pit talking about their journeys in the sport and milestone events in their lives.

"I got to know things about these guys; that I thought I knew them for a long time, but I got to know something different about them," McIlroy said. "I think that really galvanized us as a team."

Donald had another trick up his sleeve, as he had compiled two-minute videos from the players' nearest and dearest, which he showed to them Monday. "I think that's why we always play this game," Donald said. "It's not just for ourselves. That's what makes the Ryder Cup so special is we play it for the people that mean so much to us."

The environment was also geared toward making sure the rookies -- Ludvig Åberg, Nicolai Højgaard, Sepp Straka and Robert MacIntyre -- settled in as quickly as possible and had collective backing to deliver.

"I struggled the first day, but flank fly Luke put me back out the second day and I kind of gave them back something with the two putts near the end," MacIntyre said. "Today I was flying. I didn't hole many putts, but I was flying, and then I wobbled a little bit but then just managed to get over the line."

McIlroy had dinner with a few of the new faces over the course of the past year to get to know them, while the rookies were also buddied up with the vice captains. Colsaerts was paired with Åberg for the week, for example, to help the rookie adjust to life in the Ryder Cup team.

"If one man is in a fight, everyone is in a fight. It's just incredible team spirit between us all," MacIntyre said. "Togetherness is everything, and I think with the European guys, it's some bond, and I look forward to doing this in two years' time."

They also drew on the inspirational legacy of the late Seve Ballesteros. He is synonymous with this competition, having helped Europe to five wins as player and captain. He was immortalized in the tifo unveiled Saturday morning on the grandstand above the first tee, but there were also reminders of him in the team room. They had an extra spot for him in the locker room, and one of his jerseys also stood pride of place in their area.

"We are united by a culture, and we are united by a generation of players that have come before us," Rose said. "This is our time. Luke has been very clear on that message, this is our time to shine, not because this is our stage, we are just taking care of it because of the amazing role models that we've had before us that have shown us how to do it."

But above all else, the camaraderie and team culture transferred into form on the course. The players were all fulsome in their praise of captain Donald before, during and after the competition. "We're all so proud of him, from when this whole process started, he's been so, so good," Tommy Fleetwood said. "The way he's been this week has been phenomenal. We just look at Luke on another level."

Donald's plan was to be as effective as possible without interfering. "I gave them a good culture to succeed and laid out a plan on why I thought they were going to win, but really it was just staying out of the way," Donald said. "They had to play well, and they did the job. I'm just happy they trusted me."

It was a happy camp, motivated by the desire to defend the home record and bring the Ryder Cup back to Europe.

"For me, I think culture is huge," McIlroy said. "We take the piss out of each other. We have a sense of humor. We don't take ourselves too seriously. I think that's a big part of it, too. We feel like we can be ourselves. We're caretakers of this European jersey right now, and we're hopefully going to pass it on in the future in a better spot than where we found it. I think that's really what we are right now." -- Tom Hamilton

What went wrong for U.S.

U.S. team captain Zach Johnson's decision to step onto the 16th tee box during Saturday afternoon's four-ball matches to tell Jordan Spieth to club down from a driver to a 3-wood was pretty much a microcosm of the Americans' performance in the 44th Ryder Cup.

Very little went right.

Johnson's decision to intercede might not have mattered. Spieth and Justin Thomas were 3 down in the match with three holes to play, and Spieth had been spraying shots everywhere for two days. Predictably, Spieth's tee shot was woefully short and landed in the water on the drivable par-4 hole. England's Justin Rose and Scotland's Robert MacIntyre went on to win the match, 3 and 2.

Johnson's captaincy won't be remembered fondly, but he can't take all the blame for another American failure across the pond. Spieth couldn't hit a ball straight. World No. 1 golfer Scottie Scheffler and Xander Schauffele couldn't make a putt. Scheffler, Spieth and Collin Morikawa have combined to win six major championships. They combined to win one match at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club.

The Americans' drought in Ryder Cups played outside the U.S. has reached three decades. There will be plenty for the PGA of America and Team USA to dissect, the most pressing of which might be why the U.S. has so many of the best players in the world but can't figure out how to be competitive in foursome (alternate-shot) matches.

The Europeans went 4-0 in foursomes in the opening session, putting the Americans in a hole they'd never climb out of. The U.S. also went 1-3 in the format Saturday morning, going 1-7 overall. In the past three Ryder Cups that were played outside the U.S., the European team won 20 of 24 points in foursomes.

Johnson said his team didn't rely on analytics any more than it had in the recent past, but whatever means were used didn't churn out competitive pairings. Scheffler and his good friend Sam Burns were the first team out Friday morning and lost to Tyrrell Hatton and Jon Rahm, 4 and 3.

"There's a really strong culture on the European team," England's Justin Rose said. "A good pairing on the European team doesn't mean playing with your best mate. You know, it means about representing something bigger than yourself, and I feel like that's, for me, what being a European Ryder Cup player is all about."

The U.S. Ryder Cup team has been accused of being a tight-knit fraternity that's difficult to join. Keegan Bradley, who was passed over for a captain's pick, said he felt like an "outsider in the sport" and would have to automatically qualify for the team.

Johnson said he gave the team's automatic qualifiers -- Scheffler, Schauffele, Max Homa, Brian Harman, Wyndham Clark and Patrick Cantlay -- input in deciding the six players who would make the team via captain's picks.

The six captain's picks, Morikawa, Thomas, Spieth, Burns, Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler, went a combined 4-12-4. None of them won more than one match. Spieth and Fowler didn't win at all.

The U.S. players insisted they got along well and bonded during a scouting trip to Marco Simone last month. There wasn't the infighting that plagued the Americans' past two previous losses in Europe: Phil Mickelson blasting captain Tom Watson in 2014, and Patrick Reed criticizing Spieth for not wanting to play with him in 2018.

"I thought this was the closest team that I think I've been on," Koepka said. "We've got a great group of guys."

One area that will be examined is the U.S. team's preparations for the Ryder Cup. Nine of the 12 players hadn't played since the Tour Championship in late August and took five weeks off before arriving in Italy. Thomas, who missed the FedEx Cup playoffs for the first time in his career, and Homa competed in the Fortinet Championship in Napa, California, in mid-September. Koepka played in a LIV Golf League event outside Chicago last week.

Each of the 12 players on the European team competed Sept. 14-17 in the BMW PGA Championship on the DP World Tour. All but three of them finished in the top 20.

Johnson didn't think his team was rusty.

"I mean, my first reaction would be no," Johnson said. "I mean, there's also something to be said about rest and recovering and getting your game in a position where you can go compete. I mean, these guys have won a lot of golf tournaments with weeks off."

Spieth said a smaller window between the Tour Championship and Ryder Cup might help keep players sharp.

"I think we would probably say give us a week after the Tour Championship or two weeks after and then go, instead of five," Spieth said.

The American team has four years to figure out how to win in Europe before returning to the Ryder Cup at the Golf Course at Adare Manor in Ireland in 2027. It won't get any easier to win on the road.

"The fans and the people of the home team or whatever are a big part of this," Johnson said. "It's the energy. It's kind of like the fuel to the engine, if you will. Four years from now, hopefully we'll implement a better process certainly than I did, and we can show up in Ireland, obviously retain it, get it back in New York, but keep it once we go back to Ireland."

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