Europe fends off U.S. to continue home Ryder Cup reign
ROME – When the Gauls, led by their chief Brennus, invaded Rome in 390 B.C., a group of Romans bolted to Capitoline Hill to defend the citadel while their city was sacked and burned. They held off the Gauls for months, but eventually both sides were ravaged by famine and disease, and the Romans surrendered by paying a golden ransom of 1,000 pounds. Previously exiled, Roman general Marcus Furius Camillus was then appointed dictator and tasked with expelling the Gauls and saving Rome.
While what happened next is a point of contention among historians, the Gauls ultimately retreated – whether because of defeat at the hands of Camillus’ army or to return home to fend off another invasion – and Rome was rebuilt from the ashes, and its army and defenses fortified to better protect the city from future threats.
Luke Donald is no general, but he is a captain.
So, when Donald’s band of 12 European Ryder Cuppers, dominant through three sessions of the 44th Ryder Cup, saw the visiting Americans begin their charge up the leaderboard with a 3-1 four-ball result on Saturday evening, the Englishman, called into action as Team Europe’s replacement skipper only 14 months ago, confidently remained steadfast. His players, after all, didn’t require any galvanizing.
“We were in a perfect place,” Donald said of Europe’s five-point advantage entering Sunday singles. “We knew it was in our hands. We stuck with the same plan we planned the whole week: Get off to fast starts. Play as a team. Use the crowd. Use their energy.”
It had been 30 years since Europe last fell in a Ryder Cup at home, when Tom Watson captained a U.S. squad led by Raymond Floyd, Payne Stewart and Corey Pavin to a two-point victory at The Belfry.
And it will at least be four more.
Europe’s 16 ½-11 ½ victory on Sunday evening at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club capped an eventful closing session in which a record U.S. rally – and Europe collapse – seemed possible if but for only an hour. The Europeans proved too talented, too unified, too impassioned. They were not going to lose, and they didn’t.
“The Ryder Cup, there's always lots of swings and emotions and changes,” Donald added. “At one point, I was looking at the board trying to figure out how we get to 14½ points, but in the end, we got there easily.”
As easy as it looked this week, this European Ryder Cup Team wasn’t built in a day. Donald, who was subbed in for former captain Henrik Stenson two Augusts ago, followed the winning formula, sprinkled in a bit of his own identity and built a cohesive unit that could not be beaten. While the American side faced pointed questions for two straight days stemming from a report that claimed Patrick Cantlay had caused “fracture” within the team, the Europeans were left free to strengthen their bonds.
Sure, it helped that they were winning – and winning early – but also key were several team-building exercises.
There was the firepit that Donald gathered his players around during last month’s scouting trip to Marco Simone. They shared stories, laughed, learned.
“I got to know things about these guys – I thought I knew them for a long time, but I got to know something different about them,” McIlroy said.
There was also early-week inspiration given Monday, as Donald shared with each team member a personalized, 2-minute video of loved ones wishing them good luck.
“Some of the things that we talked as a group was it's really, really important to not just play for each other but play for those that mean the most to you,” Donald explained. “I think that's super powerful.”
When it was finally time to peg their tees in the ground inside Marco Simone’s Colosseum-like, first-tee amphitheater on Friday morning, Donald’s guys were ready for battle – and they wasted no time going on the offensive.
For starters, they dominated that par-4 opening hole over five sessions, winning it 10 times to the Americans’ four.
They also swept the opening foursomes session, going 7-1 in the format this week to push their record to 20-4 in the past three Cups on European soil.
Records were broken, none more impressive than Viktor Hovland and Ludvig Åberg delivering the biggest 18-hole defeat in event history with a 9-and-7 smackdown of World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler and Brooks Koepka.
But all of that could’ve been for naught after Cantlay rolled in a 43-foot birdie putt on the par-5 finishing hole to win a contentious four-ball match and give the U.S. Team their first taste of momentum heading into Sunday morning.
Cantlay was reportedly going hatless all week out of protest, believing players should be paid to compete in Ryder Cups. Though Cantlay and other members of his team denied those claims and that the Americans were divided, that didn’t stop the home crowd from letting Cantlay hear it – and they constantly heckled him by waving their hats.
When Cantlay dropped his clutch putt, he gave it right back to the crowd, tipping an imaginary cap, while his caddie Joe LaCava and the rest of the U.S. players and caddies waved their actual headwear.
LaCava’s celebration, however, lingered too long – and too close to McIlroy, who was lining up a potentially match-tying putt – and when McIlroy missed, his frustrations spilled over into the valet line, where he shouted his displeasure over the incident at another U.S. caddie, Bones Mackay. McIlroy had to be held back and then pushed into the backseat of his ride by teammate Shane Lowry, so fired up that Lowry later had to throw McIlroy in a cold plunge as well.
“We talked about it as a team last night,” McIlroy said. “… It was disrespectful to the whole team.”
The U.S. Team might’ve finally found a spark, but so had Team Europe – and it also held what history had determined to be an insurmountable lead. No team had ever rallied from five or more points down entering singles, and only twice – the U.S. in 1999 and Europe in 2012 – had come from four behind after two days.
The Europeans were so close to the Cup, one could almost see the shine on their faces. But they had to stay patient. For McIlroy, still stewing the next morning, he needed a little extra inspiration, so he flipped through the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, particularly the Roman emperor’s writings on stoicism, on his way to the course for the final session.
“Seeing that we are in Rome, I thought it would be a good time to revisit some of his thoughts,” McIlroy said.
What stands in the way becomes the way.
And all that stood between Europe and a seventh straight home Ryder Cup triumph was four points. That said, the Americans made it interesting. Though the top half of the leaderboard was turned mostly blue early, the U.S. Team nearly fought its way into a projected position that would’ve seen it shock the world. At that point, around 3:30 p.m. local time, American anchor Wyndham Clark just needed to flip his match against Bob MacIntyre.
With the U.S. threatening, Europe leaned on its superstars. Hovland delivered the first point by easily dispatching Collin Morikawa, 4 and 3. McIlroy posted a 3-and-1 win over Sam Burns for another full point, and Rahm took advantage of a poor chip by Scheffler at the last to earn a crucial halve.
That European trio combined to go 9-2-3 – McIlroy accounted for four of those wins, a personal best in seven Cups – while Scheffler, Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, the top three ranked U.S. players, went just 3-7-2 with Scheffler becoming the first World No. 1 ever to go winless in a Ryder Cup.
With Tyrrell Hatton topping Brian Harman, 3 and 2, that left just a half-point to clinch, but not before the Americans orchestrated a last-gasp effort. Max Homa completed a 3-1-1 week by getting up and down for par at No. 18 after taking an unplayable, celebrating his 1-up victory with a massive fist pump. Koepka, Schauffele and Justin Thomas also got points on the board.
But the Europeans held their line, and when Rickie Fowler rinsed his tee shot at the drivable, par-4 16th and moments later conceded a 3-footer to Tommy Fleetwood, the Ryder Cup had been guaranteed to stay in Europe.
"Just proud that I'm one of the people that gets to a play role in what we came here to do," Fleetwood said.
An hour or so later, the Europeans, drinks already in hand, were skipping to the trophy presentation.
The Americans, meanwhile, retreated to the interview room to answer for their defeat while Europe’s celebration played on a nearby television.
“They just were playing really good golf and then they carried it right into here, and they holed a lot of putts,” Spieth said. “They holed chips and they played really, really good golf this week, and they stepped on us early, and then the crowd was able to get behind them.”
Following Camillus’ heroics, the fall of Rome wouldn’t come for nearly another 900 years. Team Europe will begin its quest for another 30-year home reign in 2027 at Adare Manor in Ireland, but first it sets its sights on an away Ryder Cup of its own, in two years’ time at Bethpage Black on Long Island.
It's proving tougher and tougher to conquer these Ryder Cups on the road. For as dominant as Europe was this week, its five-point win ties the closest margin of victory in the last decade.
“I think one of the biggest accomplishments in golf right now is winning an away Ryder Cup,” McIlroy said, setting up this bold prediction:
“And that's what we're going to do at Bethpage.”
McIlroy then started slamming the table in front of him. A few teammates joined him.
Like the declaration itself, it shook the room. But then again, with the way this close-knit European squad defended home soil this week, it wasn't hard to believe McIlroy. And though two years, like a 19-9 U.S. victory in 2021 and what's transpired since have shown, is a long time, Europe is likely to keep this same core – and perhaps even its fearless leader, Donald.
"Two more years! Two more years!" McIlroy and Co. chanted during Sunday evenings festivities.
"I think everyone sitting here would be very happy to have him again," McIlroy said.
Donald, similar to Camillus, rebuilt a European team in transition, further fortified it and led it to another victory.
And in the Eternal City, no less.
"Couldn't ask for a better setting, historic Rome," Donald said. "We made history today."