A struggle from the start, the U.S. fights to the finish in Ryder Cup defeat

A struggle from the start, the U.S. fights to the finish in Ryder Cup defeat
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GUIDONIA MONTECELIO, Italy – In the detached style and monotone font of Wikipedia, the 2023 Ryder Cup has been recorded in the simplest terms.

“The 44th Ryder Cup was held in Italy from 29 September to 1 October 2023 at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club in Guidonia Montecelio, northeast of Rome. The biennial event was originally scheduled for 2022, before the 43rd matches were postponed into 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Europe won 16 ½-11 ½ to regain the Ryder Cup from the United States.,” the post reads.

But lost in that precis is so much context. The five-point margin, for example, will suggest the visiting American team was hapless from the outset and the outcome, following a thorough 4-0 thrashing on Day 1, was never in doubt.

But for the estimated 45,000 fervent fans, the majority clad in European blue and yellow with the lyrics of “Olé, Olé, Olé” coursing through their bodies, that simply wasn’t the case.

Sure, starting with a five-point lead and the Americans needing a historic comeback to retain Samuel Ryder’s chalice, the home side was awash with confidence and that only grew when captain Luke Donald’s plan started to unfold as expected.

The European leader made the predictable move of sending his best and brightest out early in the Sunday singles frame and let them eat. Jon Rahm forged a late tie in the opening match against world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler; Viktor Hovland easily won the day’s second match, 4 and 3; and “Rocky” McIlroy, as his teammates took to calling him after his dustup with the U.S. team on Saturday, added an exclamation point to what was very much a redemption cup, with a 3-and-1 victory. Tyrrell Hatton pulled the Continent to within a point of reclaiming the cup with his 3-and-2 victory over Brian Harman.

That’s when the air started to leave Marco Simone.

The Americans were up in the next four matches and the final two games were too close to call.

“There was quite a bit of blue up there and then there was a long territory where there was way more red. That’s because of these guys,” U.S. captain Zach Johnson said of his 12 players.

The Ryder Cup produces more irrational and outsized hope than any other event in golf and as the math started to look increasingly uncertain, even the European side had to start wondering how far back was too far back?

The largest comeback in Ryder Cup history is four points, on two occasions, but that historical safety net was slowly being chipped away by an American wave.

The crowd that met the U.S. team early Sunday at Marco Simone to choruses of “Hey Jude” and were well on their way to a victory lap suddenly fell silent and sullen as the red on the oversized leaderboards crept into the collective consciousness.

“If there was one specific moment where I thought, hey, this is getting interesting, it was toward the latter part of the day, which is always what you want when you have a deficit, to have an opportunity,” Johnson explained. “Jordan [Spieth] rolled in, I don’t know what it was [birdie], on 15, and it felt like, man, this is really doable.”

Across the golf course, Donald was coming to a similar realization.

“The Ryder Cup, there’s always lots of swings and emotions and changes. At one point I was looking at the board trying to figure out how we get to 14 ½ points [which the home team needed to reclaim the cup],” Donald admitted.

For both sides it became less about golf and more about a constantly evolving math equation.

In order, Brooks Koepka defeated breakout star Ludvig Åberg, 3 and 2; Max Homa held off Matt Fitzpatrick, 1 up; Xander Schauffele beat Nicolai Hojgaard, 3 and 2; and Justin Thomas was on his way to a 2-up triumph over Sepp Straka.

The Ryder Cup that was supposed to be a blowout and a foregone conclusion would be decided by the final three matches and things weren’t exactly going the European’s way in those games.

On the ground the players noticed.

“Unfortunately, I did see how tight it was getting,” said Tommy Fleetwood, who was in the day’s second-to-last match against Rickie Fowler. “I felt pretty comfortable all day. The occasion was very, very big.”

Shane Lowry, who was in the group ahead of Fleetwood and playing Spieth, also felt the pressure. “Those last couple of hours were probably two of the most stressful hours on the golf course I’ve had,” he said.

Nothing stirs the soul and stokes the flames of animosity like the three-day exhibition with no purse. It is an entirely irrational connection that produces a passion that boarders on the pathological. The ’23 matches will be relegated by time as another blowout by the home team in an event that has become increasingly predictable, but consider everything that led up to those last three matches with the Ryder Cup hanging in the balance.

On Saturday, Scheffler cried, the byproduct of a surprisingly poor performance for the player who has been the game’s most consistent performer this year. McIlroy lashed out, the result of a celebration that the Americans took too far.

On Sunday, McIlroy, again, cried. Donald cried. Johnson cried.

Nothing else in golf produces the passion and pain like the Ryder Cup and, regardless of the outcome, the 44th edition did all of that.

“The score line, 19-9. That hurt. It really did,” McIlroy said of Europe’s blowout loss at the ’21 Ryder Cup in Wisconsin. “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, and this wasn’t about revenge. This was about redemption and showing what we could do.”

Fowler’s tee shot at the short par-4 16th hole never had a chance, splashing hopelessly into a water hazard. It was that shot which ultimately decided this year’s Ryder Cup. As is often the case, Fleetwood’s birdie at No. 16 completed the equation and for the Europeans the math finally added up to 14 ½ points and victory.

“Rickie let me off. You never really want to see someone hit in the water, so I was not particularly pleased about that. But I still have to step up and hit,” said Fleetwood, who drove onto the putting surface. “With that green, you can’t really see where the ball is landing with the sun. You just wait for the crowd’s reaction, and yeah, I was quite pleased when he gave me the putt.”

For roughly 45 minutes on Sunday the Ryder Cup, which had seemed firmly in the European’s grasp, hung in the balance. Despite the odds and the crowds and history, the uncomfortable reality for the home team was unmistakable.

The cold and clinical facts of Wikipedia will never tell the full story of the 44th Ryder Cup but it’s that hope, however realistic, that makes the Ryder Cup the greatest spectacle in golf.

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