After a thrilling Solheim Cup at Finca Cortesin last weekend, the battle now moves from Spain to Italy for the biggest prize in team golf: The Ryder Cup.
Following Europe’s women recording an historic three-peat over the USA in Andalusia last weekend, Rome’s glamourous Marco Simone Golf and Country Club hosts the tournament’s 44th edition.
Currently held by the visitors after their 19-9 Whistling Straits demolition in 2021, the Americans have not, however, retained the trophy since way back in 1993.
At The Belfry a full 30 years ago, Tom Watson edged out Bernard Gallagher’s men 15-13.
Can Zach Johnson, a five-time Ryder Cup regular but just one-time winner change that trend or will Luke Donald again be the toast of the continent?
Donald’s fresh drive
The moment Team USA completed their 10-point thumping of Europe last time out in Wisconsin, the battle to regain the trophy they held for most of the previous decade had begun.
Licking their wounds on the flight home, after the biggest defeat in Ryder Cup history involving players outside of Great Britain and Ireland, Luke Donald was already being prepped.
A vice-captain to Padraig Harrington away from home two years ago, 2023 sees Donald – like Suzann Pettersen – take the rightful reins.
The 47-year-old’s record in this tournament is mighty.
A winner in all four editions the Englishman played in, Donald – major-less but a five-time PGA Tour victor – won eight of his 11 career matches, at a heavyweight 77%+ ratio.
Remarkably, Donald is in rare company as captain, who as a player has not tasted team defeat; a stat he is keen to hold onto this week.
European hopes are built on a strong spine of players, but also a healthy dose of much-needed fresh blood.
Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose are back for another dose of European glory as veterans, whilst Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton and Matt Fitzpatrick all make their third appearance.
Viktor Hovland is perhaps the star of the field currently however, having won both the BMW and Tour Championship to conclude the season.
It is the addition of the four rookies, Sepp Straka, Ludvig Aberg, Nicolai Hojgaard and Robert MacIntyre that will be key to home hopes this week.
Aberg in particular has been a late inclusion, fresh from his win at the European Masters.
The question is, have Europe hit upon the perfect balance?
Team Europe: Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Robert MacIntyre, Viktor Hovland, Tyrrell Hatton, Matt Fitzpatrick.
Captain’s picks: Tommy Fleetwood, Sepp Straka, Justin Rose, Shane Lowry, Nicolai Hojgaard, Ludvig Aberg.
That need is essential as the holders look to continue to build a Ryder Cup legacy.
In the doldrums of team golf in recent years, the American showing in their own back yard 24 months ago was frightening.
Seven of that 12 return this year, with Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay, Collin Morikawa and Brooks Koepka all having won four of five matches two years ago.
The latter of the bunch, Koepka, is back to his best after knee issues, whilst Thomas, the final captain’s pick will be a huge player once more – one way or the other.
The Kentuckian may have had a season to forget, but his showing at the Fortinet earlier this month was much improved.
Like Europe, Johnson brings four rookies to Rome, including US Open and Open champions, Wyndham Clark and Brian Harman.
If we include Koepka’s PGA Championship, the US team have won three of this season’s four majors – Rahm won the other, the Masters.
That, without even uttering the name of Scottie Scheffler. Once again, their twelve is strong; perhaps, stronger than in 2021.
The only issue for the US is their form on European soil, noting also that many are on the other side of a form run.
With that said, seven players finished T9 or better in the Tour Championship to Europe’s three. There may not be a repeat scoreline in Rome, but the US team are bent on proving their quality and retaining the trophy.
Team USA: Scottie Scheffler, Wyndham Clark, Brian Harman, Patrick Cantlay, Max Homa, Xander Schauffele. Captain’s picks: Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth, Collin Morikawa, Sam Burns, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas.
Europe’s new postman?
As just the third Ryder Cup since 2004 without the presence of ‘The Postman’ Ian Poulter, Luke Donald will be looking for a new van driver in Italy.
Tommy Fleetwood could just be the man to deliver.
But it wouldn’t be for the first time, as the man from Southport has become a go-to player for Europe in recent years.
In this, is third Ryder Cup appearance, Fleetwood boasts the highest win ratio of his seven fellow returning teammates.
“TOMMY, TOMMY FLEETWOOD!!!”
— Ryder Cup Europe (@RyderCupEurope) September 29, 2018
Better than that of stalwart duo Rose and McIlroy in their sixth and seventh appearances respectively, the Englishman’s 62.5% conversion percentage is impressive.
Memorably, in his rookie tournament at Le Golf National five years ago, Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari lit up Paris, winning all four of their foursomes and fourballs together – despite losing to Tony Finau in the singles.
Domestically, Fleetwood has six top-10 finishes in his last eight PGA Tour events, and finished sixth behind Hovland, Rahm and Hatton at Wentworth earlier this month.
As much as ‘Moliwood’ delighted home fans in 2018, this year, Fleetwood can again bring the pain to the Americans.
Indeed, as a 7/1 to shot to be Top European Points Scorer with BoyleSports, punters should back a player in-form to also be Top Points Scorer e/w at 14/1 with Betfred.
The 44th Ryder Cup begins on Friday at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club, Rome, Italy.