Ben Coley sets the scene ahead of the Ryder Cup

Ryder Cup: Europe vs United States a fascinating clash of styles at Marco Simone in Rome


The Ryder Cup has become golf's behemoth, its transcendent gift that for three days in autumn will draw in those otherwise ambivalent to the wonders of the game that created it.

For those already on the inside, the measure is months, not days; of points projections, form analysis, wildcard speculation. The talking doesn't stop even when the outcome is clear and recriminations begin.

It's the one event that always delivers. Whistling Straits in 2021 was a landslide, yet late into Sunday remained compelling as Rory McIlroy and some of his teammates were unmasked. Paris in 2018 was a Francescophile party; Hazeltine in 2016 the rebirth of the USA while us Europeans clung to the joy of watching Thomas Pieters try to stop a tidal wave.

Medinah in 2012 won't ever be eclipsed but 24 players can make a million different versions of something spectacular. Being ever so slightly less so than one of the greatest sporting events of all time is no problem. The formula is so robust as to guarantee a certain kind of outcome: unmissable sport from beginning to end.

The first shots of an Open or a Masters can be allowed to pass by. Friday's first shots at the Ryder Cup, which take place shortly after 6am UK time, are immediately consequential. Once they're struck, it'll be time to get good and lost for a while.

Puntathlon https://onelink.to/mgxh5u

Ryder Cup hype? It's Justified

Nevertheless, on the face of it there is enough not to like about the Ryder Cup.

Take the opening ceremony, an unnecessary convention which ought to have been abandoned in 2012 when Justin Timberlake read a poem in the manner of a man who had never before met with the English language yet was somehow able to make the right sounds.

Timberlake, in a performance inspired by Alec Baldwin's Friends cameo a decade earlier, managed to find that artistic sweet-spot between total woodenness and absolute self-belief, the kind only a career in the 90s' sixth-best boyband can bring. Some will tell you Europe won that Ryder Cup when Ian Poulter turned the tide on Saturday night, but defeat came 48 hours earlier when Timberlake compared making a bogey to the death of a loved one.

Justin Timberlake - 39th Ryder Cup Opening Ceremony

Yet such is the strength of feeling this event generates, I will defend every aspect of it. Just as any cricket fan will argue that it's acceptable to write five-fer, and a cycling aficionado will say chapeaux to you as if it's the most normal thing in the world, for one week only I think Justin Rose taking off his sunnies to confirm a pairing with Matt Fitzpatrick is the pinnacle of pre-game sporting anticipation.

Then there's the Nicklaus-Jacklin Award, indisputably rubbish. In one hundred and three weeks of every one hundred and four, I'll gladly join you in belittling its existence, nod when you correctly point out that we don't need a trophy to remember that good sportsmanship is a good idea always. Come at it this week and I'll explain exactly why it has elevated this great event further still and carefully spell out what makes management consultancy firm Aon an ideal partner. I'll even use the word partner instead of the word sponsor.

This is ours. If anyone wants to join in, to ask you what dormie means, demand an explanation as to why a hole is halved but a player earns a half, let them. If they thought Jon Rahm was the guy from Mad Men and Sepp Straka has turned out for the wrong side, forgive them. But remember that these days belong to us: those with an emotional investment in the sport which is so often pushed to its limits. This is when we get paid.

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'I just can't wait to get another shot at this'

Rory McIlroy is a player who provokes strong feelings, often extremes – those who awe at the most successful European golfer of his generation, golf's permanent fixture, versus those who grow weary of that permanence and the way he is treated by the media despite what they might see as failure.

When last we saw McIlroy in a Ryder Cup, each side was fed enough to sustain it for two more years. His fans, of which I am unashamedly one, saw the way he reacted to a disappointing week as evidence of the character we've grown to love; the brilliant boy turned fallible man, the Ryder Cup convert who so desires another major but won't be defined by whether it comes or not.

Some suggested his tears in the wake of a singles victory over Xander Schauffele were an act, or at least exaggerated to soften his failures over the first two days. What nonsense. McIlroy gave separate interviews that day and couldn't get through either of them without pausing to gather himself as he reflected on a defeat which would turn out to be Europe's heaviest, blame for which he shared but tried to shoulder.

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"I love being a part of this team, I love my teammates so much, and I should've done more for them this week," he said. "I just can't wait to get another shot at this. It is by far the best experience in golf and I hope little boys and girls watching today aspire to be in this event or the Solheim Cup because there's nothing better than being a part of a team."

McIlroy now returns as one of Europe's big three, senior but not necessarily superior to Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland. While Rahm became a Masters champion this year and Hovland captured the FedEx Cup, McIlroy could only manage a pair of DP World Tour wins. It is a harsh way to describe another fine season, but players like him demand that the bar is set higher than that.

Yet if he can lead this side to victory, you sense he'll draw enormous satisfaction from his body of work in 2023. McIlroy's Ryder Cup record is where nobody tends to be when it comes to him – right on the fence, 14 points from a possible 28. Europe need 14.5 to get back the trophy, and even with Rahm and Hovland to rely upon, reaching that number may require McIlroy to lay some ghosts to rest.

Gamble landed, or hoodoo ended?

Not that the Ryder Cup is about one man. The beauty here is that McIlroy cannot do it alone; that lurking among the wildcards and rookies may well be a new star. It could be a major champion like Wyndham Clark, a late qualifier like Robert MacIntyre, or the phenom that is Ludvig Aberg. Perhaps it'll be Brian Harman against the odds again or maybe Straka, the Austrian who became a golfer in the Deep South.

It would be fascinating had McIlroy's trip to Mykonos spilled over and left him unable to attend, had Justin Thomas been overlooked. Rahm could've refused to play, something I dare say someone on twitter (I guarantee they call it X) will predict any day now. Rickie Fowler could've run out of wishes at the Zoltar machine and returned to adolescence. It would still be the Ryder Cup, and it is no less a spectacle without those stalwarts of European success or the US player who went 5-0 at Whistling Straits.

Ever since that renewal, Europe have been waiting for revenge – and the market has warmed to their chances. Available at 2/1 during summer, when Harman made it three US major winners in succession, Europe are now strong even-money shots. Not much has changed, of course, but European golf has been in the spotlight throughout September and out of sight, out of mind, there's a sense that some of the key US players are beginning to be underestimated.

Then again, these sides do look closely matched. Europe boasts three of the best four players in the sport and there are reasons to wonder whether Scottie Scheffler might for now sit behind all of them. But the United States are, as ever, stronger-looking at the tail: where their debate concerned whether to select Thomas, Europe were choosing between Adrian Meronk and Nicolai Hojgaard, talented powerhouses but without anything like Thomas's experience and, for now, anything like his class.

Vital Ryder Cup stats! All the key trends from golf's greatest show

The move for Europe has a little to do with the form of McIlroy, Rahm and Hovland, supported by encouraging recent displays from Hatton, Lowry, Fleetwood and Fitzpatrick. Its core is strong. But it is home advantage that underpins it; the fact that the United States have not won an away Ryder Cup since the Belfry in 1993. In Spain, in England, in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and France, they have failed. Why should it be any different in Italy?

Perhaps because it was almost different in Spain and in Wales. Let's not pretend that six straight home wins for Europe have each been as straightforward as in 2018, where don't forget there was a sea of red on the earliest leaderboards before the home side took over. Perhaps because this US side boasts three of the four major winners in 2023, a fourth in Scheffler who was arguably still the player of the year, and because so many of them were involved either in the resounding Whistling Straits victory or last year's tighter Presidents Cup win.

Perhaps because Europe do still have apparent areas of concern despite the confidence which now surrounds them. There are certain numbers that will tell you that MacIntyre is the weakest link, that Straka's floor is more like a basement. Hojgaard hasn't won a tournament for a long time and Aberg was an amateur four months ago. How these four rookies deal with the situation, whether or not they can find their best golf when they so desperately want to, could play as big a part in determining the outcome as any one of those who will help to guide them.

As for home advantage, it's not unreasonable to think that the idea may fade somewhat in the coming years. After all, 22 of these 24 players are members of the PGA Tour and that figure could well be 24 by the end of the season. Europe's rookie stud Aberg went to college in Texas, Hovland in Oklahoma. Straka has called Georgia home for half of his life and McIlroy, just like his captain, bases himself in the US. One tour versus another simply isn't what this is anymore and while hosting must still be beneficial, it ought not to be an excuse for whoever finds themselves away.

Yet I still find myself buying into this European team. When Donald talks about Aberg as a 'generational talent', I believe him. When Johnson talks about how the US use data as part of a bigger picture, I can't help but fall for the idea that in Dodo Molinari, Europe has not a potential edge but a very real one. They're match sharp and course-experienced. They boast a core without weakness, not now Hovland has graduated to the elite. They are in some ways everything their opponents might not be.

It's a clash of styles: styles of preparation, of leadership. And I think Europe might just win it.

'The wonder of shared purpose'

But whatever happens, whether Europe get it back or the US really are entering phase two of a period of dominance that will be so hard to end in New York, I know for certain one thing: the Ryder Cup means so much to me, to you, to those who'll follow along the course ropes and those who are inside them. It matters in ways that are hard to measure; in ways that some people, perhaps even having read this far, simply cannot comprehend.

Isn't this sport in a nutshell? Meaning that you can't quite wrap your head around, but that you know in your heart exists. In the cold light of day it might seem nonsensical, even silly, but when balls are in the air or rolling along the ground, it all makes perfect sense.

As for what elevates the Ryder Cup to that plane, it is the rare chance for an individual sport to take on a different form, to tap into the distinct wonder of collective endeavour, shared purpose. It's the chance to become the relay runner, the penalty taker; the comfort of knowing that if you lose, you will not have to do it alone. The fear of knowing that if you make a mistake, it will cost more than it costs you.

Golf at its most fundamental is among sport's loneliest pursuits, person, ball and ground, yet its full beauty is found by looking up and around, to those who share it with us. The Ryder Cup allows some of the world's finest sportspeople to lean on each other instead of standing alone and it's in such moments that one of life's inescapable truths is reflected: what we do for ourselves will never matter as much as what we do for others.

Also Read: Ryder Cup player profiles

  • Click the image for a look at each team
Meet the 12 members of Luke Donald's team
Meet the 12 members of Luke Donald's team

Meet the 12 members of Zach Johnson's team
Meet the 12 members of Zach Johnson's team

Also Read: Ryder Cup stats

  • Click the image for Chris Hammer's look at Ryder Cup trends and key statistics
The Ryder Cup has produced many memorable moments down the years
CLICK ON THE IMAGE FOR STATS AND FACTS

Ryder Cup: Related links

For daily Ryder Cup previews, visit sportinglife.com/golf, follow us on Facebook, and read more from Ben Coley on twitter

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