Home cooking: How big of a European advantage is Marco Simone?
Though his side owns the home-course advantage, Rory McIlroy has long believed that the U.S. Ryder Cup Team won’t be going down without a fight at this 44th Ryder Cup.
Which is why Europe, in McIlroy's eyes, needs to glean every advantage it can — and that includes setting up the golf course.
"Stats-wise, you look at the American team, they are very good sort of from 150 [yards] in," McIlroy said at the 2022 Italian Open, held at this week's Ryder Cup host venue, Marco Simone Golf and Country Club.
"So, trying to set the golf course up, it's a challenge to get your tee shots within that range. You'll see even this year compared to last year, some of the tee shots have been brought in and the rough has been brought in on either sides. You've got bunkers that you can carry at 300 or 310 but the angle it's created is very, very tight and you're hitting into smaller win dose.
"I think by forcing people to play more conservative off the tee, I think that helps the Europeans a little bit. So, I think that's part of the strategy."
Now a year since those comments, how have the Europeans ensured themselves a leg up in this competition?
Firstly, the Europeans possess more experience at Marco Simone than their American counterparts, as the DP World Tour's Italian Open has been staged there since 2021. Many of Europe's top players have performed well in the event, while nobody on this year's U.S. Team had played the course before their scouting trip earlier this month.
The European team has two Italian Open winners, Nicolai Højgaard (2021) and Robert MacIntyre, who beat Ryder Cup teammate Matt Fitzpatrick in a playoff in 2022. Plus, Rory McIlroy, Tyrrell Hatton and Tommy Fleetwood all have top tens at Marco Simone.
And sense a common theme from those players? Yes, they're all top-notch drivers of the golf ball.
Højgaard is second on the DPWT this season in strokes gained: off-the-tee, while MacIntyre is 14th. On the PGA Tour, Fleetwood was 31st in that category and Hatton was 13th. Meanwhile, McIlroy just broke the Tour record for average driving distance in a season at 326.3 yards.
On the American side, there are certainly some long-bombers — Scottie Scheffler, Wyndham Clark, Sam Burns, Patrick Cantlay, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas, who all ranked top 40 in driving distance on Tour this year. For comparison, the Europeans have two in that same window, Jon Rahm and McIlroy, though, Viktor Hovland is 41st and Hatton is 44th.
But on the 7,268-yard Marco Simone layout, it's more about hitting it straight, than hitting it far, as McIlroy said.
U.S. Team member Collin Morikawa was second on Tour in driving accuracy in 2022 — and inside the top 50 on Tour, the U.S. has three (Morikawa, Cantlay and Scheffler) to the Europeans' four (Sepp Straka, Shane Lowry, Viktor Hovland and Justin Rose). Not to mention, Fleetwood was 53rd and Europe's final captain's pick, 23-year-old Ludvig Åberg, has displayed a fearsome tandem of being long and straight since turning pro in June.
Maybe the Americans can muster a performance and take down the Europeans on foreign soil for the first time in 30 years. But then again, Marco Simone is reminiscent of a few other European Ryder Cup tracks in which the U.S. failed to emerge victorious.
"I would say that the two Ryder Cup courses that this most reminds me of would be Gleneagles (2014) and Celtic Manor (2010)," McIlroy said last year. "They were both similar-style courses. I think the back nine here is a wonderful layout and a wonderful setup for match play. I think it's going to create some really exciting finishes to matches. You've got two drivable par fours on the back nine. You've got a few holes with water and you've got that wonderful closing hole which could be really exciting."
And playing in front of spirited European fans on a course the European team has experience — and success — on will be a tough hill to climb for the Americans.
However, U.S. Captain Zach Johnson believes both teams are presented with an equal task at Marco Simone — and the thick rough capable of wreaking havoc across the board is one of the main reasons why Johnson isn't buying into home-course advantage, at least in a setup sense.
“I think it's a challenge for anybody that hits it in (the rough),” Johnson said Monday. “It is penal. It's difficult. I feel like fairways are a premium but you could probably say that any given week. Whether it's bermuda or bent or fescue or bluegrass, you know, you've still got to keep that ball in the fairway, and maybe more so here.
But I think it's well-defined. I think it is for the most part, with a couple blind shots but that's Marco Simone. That's not the setup. I think for the most part, it's right out in front of you, which is all you can ask for in a test.”