GUIDONIA MONTECELIO, Italy -- There has been a transformation of the European Ryder Cup team, which might be a good thing after the United States handed Europe a 19-9 defeat at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin in 2021.
That was the worst defeat for Europe since players from outside Great Britain and Ireland were made eligible to compete in the Ryder Cup in 1979. The American team that walloped Europe on Lake Michigan's banks two years ago was the youngest the U.S. had ever fielded in the biennial international competition.
Of course, winning a Ryder Cup away from the United States has been an entirely different matter for the Americans. Europe hasn't lost a home match since a 15-13 defeat at The Belfry in Warwickshire, England, in September 1993.
Yes, you read that correctly: The U.S. hasn't won a road match in three decades.
"This is an entirely different animal than Wisconsin," U.S. team captain Zach Johnson said. "What happened there, certainly the result of that, and then everything that goes into it, we learn from it. But it's done, and this is an entirely different team and an entirely different venue, obviously an entirely different continent. It's going to be more trying. It's going to be more difficult."
What will the Americans have to do to end their 30-year drought in the 44th Ryder Cup, which starts Friday at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club outside Rome? Here are some of the biggest storylines this week.
Why they'll win
The European record at home is ridiculous. The last time Team Europe lost on familiar turf was back in 1993, when the U.S won 15-13 at The Belfry. Mariah Carey's "Dreamlover" was top of the charts in the U.S. and Ludvig Aberg wouldn't be born for another six years.
That 30-year record is going to be spoken about a lot this week. But within this team -- a new-look one without one of Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell, Sergio Garcia or Lee Westwood for the first time since 1995 -- is a steely underbelly of youth and experience. All 12 made the cut at Wentworth in the BMW PGA Championship -- along with captain Luke Donald -- and they also had a chance to play alongside each other across the first two days. Camaraderie is growing within the Team Europe walls, and the players also have the familiarity of knowing each other's game well and understand exactly what each player needs to do on the day to prepare mentally and physically for the grueling Marco Simone golf course.
The course itself has been set up to suit Europe's plan "to get wedges and short irons out of the Americans' hands," as Rory McIlroy said on the "Subpar" podcast recently. The rough will be long, the fairways narrow and the Europeans want it to end up being a battle of the mid-irons to long-range irons and on the green.
The U.S. team is favored to retain the Ryder Cup against a fresh-faced Europe side. Without Garcia, Westwood, Poulter, Paul Casey and McDowell, Team Europe has a new-look backbone and there'll be plenty of unfamiliar pairings in there. The Europeans have a habit of blowing hot and cold over the course of a weekend -- take Aberg's last round at Wentworth -- while the likes of McIlroy, Tommy Fleetwood and Jon Rahm have played a ton of golf this year.
Then there was the upheaval in the buildup to the tournament when Europe lost captain Henrik Stenson after he breached his contract to join LIV Golf last September. Luke Donald came in and has been an assured pair of hands who has built a group of vice captains who know the tournament and course well, but it was hardly ideal preparation.
There are four rookies in the Team Europe side: Nicolai Højgaard, Robert MacIntyre, Aberg and Sepp Straka. Each will need time to adjust to the pressure and intensity of the Ryder Cup, and it's unlikely we'll see any of them paired together.
Europe will be looking into the data behind pairings, with Edoardo Molinari's role key here. He runs his own data analytics business and has already helped a load of pros with their game; Donald has frequently referenced the importance of their stats-based analysis. Europe will look to his numbers to help judge who will be best suited as pairings, but it'd be an almighty risk to pair two rookies together.
Aberg is the wunderkind who turned pro in June and is yet to play in a major, while Straka has impressed this year, finishing runner-up at The Open at Royal Liverpool and earning his second PGA Tour win at the John Deere Classic in July. MacIntyre brings the experience of having triumphed in the Italian Open at Marco Simone in 2022, while Højgaard won on the same course back in 2021. Højgaard also holds the honour of being the first Ryder Cup golfer to be born in the 21st century.
Player who should play all five matches
McIlroy and Rahm will want to play in all five and carry Europe across the line. They're the heavyweights in this team and McIlroy will want to make up for his performance at the 2021 Ryder Cup, where he failed to win a point in the first two days at Whistling Straights. He was tearful after beating Xander Schauffele, but he's back to top form and has since got six wins to his name and seven top-10 major finishes in the past two years.
For Rahm, he'll bring the experience of that memorable win over Tiger Woods in 2018 after he went pointless for the first two days and was top scorer for Europe at Whistling Straits two years ago with 3.5 points from his five matches. Donald says a couple of players will play five matches, but he also has emphasized the need to manage workloads given the hilly course.
Tommy Fleetwood will get the home crowd fired up. It's been the role of Poulter in past Ryder Cups, and while Fleetwood doesn't have Francesco Molinari alongside him this year like he did in Paris -- meaning the hugely successful "MoliWood" partnership we saw four years ago is on hold -- he'll have good pairings and you can see him getting four points minimum for Europe. The pain of Whistling Straits has stayed with Fleetwood and he's wanting revenge.
"Tommy has a great way about him," Donald said Tuesday. "He's very relaxed. He has a smile on his face. He loves being in a team room. He loves the atmosphere. I think his game elevates having that support group around him. He's very much a team player and one of the best ball strikers in the world as well. I think I expect him to have a great week."
There are a couple in there. MacIntyre is a bit of an unknown quantity in this format, and you can predict that if he doesn't start well, then he might not be called upon again until Sunday. Elsewhere, Shane Lowry's form has been poor this year, though he did show signs of improvement at the Irish Open as he finished tied for third and 2 shots off the eventual winner. There were eyebrows raised at Adrian Meronk's exclusion, but MacIntyre is ready to justify Donald's faith.
"I'm very confident in my own ability, and I know what I can bring," he said earlier this month. "My form probably has not been the greatest, but in some of the bigger events I've played some of my best golf and there's nothing bigger than the Ryder Cup. Hopefully I can go to Rome and show people what I'm made of."
Why they'll win
On paper, the Ryder Cup shouldn't be close. Each of the 12 players on the U.S. team is ranked in the top 25 in the Official World Golf Ranking, including seven of the top 12. The average OWGR ranking for the U.S. team is 12.9. The European team has seven players in the top 25 and five in the top 12. Its average ranking is 29.3.
If you go even deeper than the world rankings, the numbers suggest the U.S. should have a sizable advantage. The 12 U.S. players have won a combined 85 times on the PGA Tour, which players from both sides would agree is the most competitive tour in the world. European team members have won 59 times on the PGA Tour; McIlroy has 24 of those victories.
Players on the U.S. team have combined to win 15 majors, including five of the past eight and three of the four this past season. Brooks Koepka won his fifth major at the PGA Championship in May, Wyndham Clark captured his first at the U.S. Open in June and Brian Harman shocked everyone by taking The Open in Hoylake, England, in July. European players have collected nine majors -- and, again, McIlroy has nearly half of them with four.
The Americans should come into Italy with a ton of confidence after they routed the European team in record-setting fashion the last time, 19-9 at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin in September 2021. Seven players -- Patrick Cantlay, Koepka, Collin Morikawa, Xander Schauffele, Scottie Scheffler, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas -- are back from that squad. They went a combined 16-6-5 the last time around.
Of course, this won't be the first time a deeper, more talented and more experienced U.S. team will take on the Europeans on foreign soil. And it wouldn't be the first team that lost, either.
"The U.S. team [is] really strong, we know that," Donald said. "We are coming off our worst defeat ever in a Ryder Cup. U.S. players are strong, they're high up in the world rankings, they have some great partnerships [and] have had a lot of success. We will have our work cut out, but you have to have belief in your team that you're going to get them into a place where they can be successful."
For all of its talent and experience, the American team doesn't have many players who have played a lot of golf together in the Ryder Cup. Spieth and Thomas have been paired up six times, which is second most in U.S. Ryder Cup history. They've gone 4-2-0 as a pairing. Cantlay and Schauffele went 2-0-0 in foursomes (alternate shot) matches at Whistling Straits and will undoubtedly play together again this week. Beyond that, there's not a lot of Ryder Cup experience of guys playing together.
Another concern: As well as the Americans played in foursomes at Whistling Straits, they have been equally dreadful away from the U.S. in that format. In the past two Ryder Cups played in Europe, the Americans had a 2-12-2 record in foursomes. Many of those matches weren't close. Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau fell 5 and 4 to Sergio Garcia and Alex Noren at Le Golf National outside Paris in 2018. Spieth and Thomas suffered the same fate against Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood. The famous MoliWood team took down Tiger Woods and DeChambeau by the same score the next day. The U.S. team went 2-6-0 in foursomes in France.
Whether it's lack of chemistry or significantly different styles of play, the European team has had the upper hand in foursomes. The U.S. team managed only a half-point in each of the foursomes sessions at Gleneagles in Scotland in 2014. It's no wonder Donald elected to start with foursomes at Marco Simone.
"Pretty simple, really," Donald said. "We feel like as a team, statistically, we are stronger in foursomes within our team than we would be in four-balls. Why not get off to a fast start? That's it."
The last time Europe began a home Ryder Cup with foursomes was in 1993. That was also the last time the European team fell at home.
There are four Ryder Cup rookies on the U.S. team. Three of them, Homa (No. 7), Harman (No. 9) and Clark (No. 10), are ranked in the top 10 in the world. Burns is ranked 20th. As mentioned above, Clark and Harman won two of the past three major championships.
Homa is one of the rising stars on the PGA Tour. He has won six times on tour, three times since May 2022. Homa went 4-0 in his international team debut as a pro at the 2022 Presidents Cup. He rallied to defeat red-hot Tom Kim of South Korea in Sunday singles.
Harman is 36 years old, so he has seen just about everything. He was a standout match-play competitor as an amateur, representing the U.S. in the 2005 and 2009 Walker Cups and 2006 and 2007 Palmer Cups. He is considered one of the better putters on tour. He won the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club with many of the people outside the ropes rooting for someone else to win. He won the Claret Jug by 6 strokes.
"I just feel like he's cut and made for these kinds of teams," Johnson said. "I didn't watch every shot inside the ropes or even outside the ropes that he hit during The Open, but it's pretty documented that there were some things kind of jeered and whatnot, and that's to be expected, given where it was and who he is and who he's not, right? Knowing Brian, that's probably more fuel to the fire, if you will. He has that ability and that talent, that mentality, to kind of make that be a positive."
Clark might have been equally as unknown when he stunned the field and won the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club. He had picked up his first PGA Tour win at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina, five weeks earlier. Clark hits the ball a long way off the tee, averaging 313.5 yards. But he also ranks 144th on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy (54.9%), which might be a problem at Marco Simone because of its deep rough.
Burns, a five-time PGA Tour winner, captured the most recent WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship in Austin, Texas, in March. He defeated Cantlay, Scheffler and Cameron Young to claim a victory.
Player who should play all five matches
Given the American team's depth, it would be surprising to see anyone go out for all five matches. Dustin Johnson did it at Whistling Straits and went 5-0, becoming the first U.S. player to win five points since Larry Nelson in 1979. DJ is now competing in the LIV Golf League and isn't here this week.
If Johnson and his vice captains elected to have a player compete in each of the five sessions, it would probably be Cantlay or Schauffele. They're likely to be the Americans' most reliable tandem. If they get hot, it wouldn't be shocking to see Johnson stick with them and ride it out.
How about the only LIV Golf League player competing in the Ryder Cup? Koepka is on the U.S. squad after he won his fifth major championship and third PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York, in May. He also tied for second at the Masters in April. Like Colorado football coach Deion Sanders likes to say, it seemed that Koepka kept receipts from the previous two seasons, when he battled a career-threatening knee injury and was hardly himself. Koepka competed at Whistling Straits about six months after he badly hurt his knee in March 2021. He battled through the pain and went 2-2-0.
Koepka's form hasn't been great since winning the Wanamaker Trophy for a third time, but it's difficult to gauge his desire to win in the LIV Golf League. Koepka shows up for big events, and this is certainly another one.
Perhaps no player will be under a microscope more than Thomas, who was a captain's pick after missing the FedEx Cup playoffs for the first time in his career. He missed the cut in six of 21 starts on tour and had just four top-10s. He finished 71st in the FedEx Cup points standings, one spot out of the playoffs. He finished fifth in his most recent start at the Fortinet Championship in Napa, California.
Thomas struggled with the driver (he ranked 140th in driving accuracy, hitting only 55.19% of fairways) and his putter (he was 129th in strokes gained: putting).
Still, Thomas, 30, has been one of the Americans' best performers in international match-play competitions. He has a 6-2-1 record in two previous Ryder Cup appearances and a 10-3-2 mark in three Presidents Cups, tallying 17.5 points for the U.S. He cares about the event as much as anyone.
Hamilton: Hovland and Aberg will establish themselves as the 2023 version of Seve and Olazabal. Their partnership will help Europe preserve this 30-year unbeaten record on home turf. Europe will win 14½-13½ to preserve its home record. Lowry will impress, but it'll be Hovland and Rahm who wrestle this one across the line.
Schlabach: Schauffele and Scheffler, the latter of whom is working with a new putting coach, will be the top points earners. The U.S. will end its 30-year drought away from home with a 14½-13½ victory. The Americans are too deep and too talented not to get it done.