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ROME — Rory McIlroy was still fuming late Saturday night.
He was a little embarrassed too, but he also felt his anger was justified. Video of him shouting expletives at Jim “Bones” McKay in the parking lot of Marco de Simone had gone viral a few hours earlier, but Bones wasn’t actually the target of his anger. Bones just happened to be the first American that McIlroy encountered outside the locker room when he was leaving the course, still pissed off about what happened at the end of his match that afternoon against Patrick Cantlay.
McIlroy and Cantlay are not friends, and at times there has been tension between them over the financial future of the PGA Tour, but on the course, there had always been mutual respect. Yet when Cantlay’s caddie Joe LaCava danced around the 18th green on Saturday night, waving his hat for nearly 30 seconds after Cantlay made a long birdie putt, McIlroy felt like one of golf’s admittedly quirky but also clear lines of etiquette had been crossed. You don’t interfere with a player when he’s lining up a putt in a match, and you sure as hell don't do it if you’re a caddie. McIlroy and Matt Fitzpatrick still had a pair of putts left and a chance to tie the hole. LaCava continued a heated exchange with Shane Lowry even as McIlroy crouched down to read his line.
“We talked about it as a team last night,” McIlroy said. “We felt like it was disrespectful, and it wasn't just disrespectful to Fitz and I. It was disrespectful to the whole team.”
He couldn’t let it go, especially after losing the match. “I felt like I played the match in the right spirit, and I don’t feel like that spirit was reciprocated to me,” McIlroy said.
When he saw Bones on his way to the car an hour later, his anger returned.
“It’s a fucking disgrace!” McIlroy shouted as his wife, Erica, and also Lowry, managed to stuff him into the back of a courtesy car. “It can’t fucking happen!” When he got to the team hotel, Lowry dragged him down to the cold tubs and told him to cool down, literally and figuratively. By the time he climbed into bed, he was exhausted, but still buzzing.
“Erica and I put on the Calm App and listened to a sleep story, and that actually helped me fall asleep,” he said.
When he woke, he was rested but still wasn’t sure he was ready to let the incident go. He reached for a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations,” which he’d brought with him to Rome.
“I've studied Stoicism for a while and read a lot of those sort of books,” McIlroy said. “I just thought as a former emperor of Rome and seeing that we are in Rome, I thought it would be a good time to revisit some of his thoughts, and I revisited them on the way to the course.”
What stood out to him?
“Humility and gentleness,” McIlroy said. “Those are better virtues than being frustrated and angry.”
If you wanted to be reminded why the Ryder Cup is so much better than other events staged within the universe of professional golf — why it’s the only tournament that could enrage a 4-time major winner over a small grievance and then send him running to Marcus Aurelius for wisdom — then this week was a delight.
You’ll be able to visit Wikipedia in the near and distant future and remind yourself that Europe won the 2023 Ryder Cup by a score of 16 ½ to 11 ½, and that it held serve for the seventh straight time at home. But the score and the match results won’t properly tell the tale of what happened. Somehow, it was both closer than the point totals will suggest, and yet also ultimately a blowout very few saw coming. A surreal controversy over a hat, and whether or not it represented a fashion choice or a principled protest, became a major storyline. A new Ryder Cup stalwart (Max Homa) emerged for the U.S., as well as one for the Europeans (Viktor Hovland) and an old European lion (Justin Rose) inched his way toward the sunset with one last signature moment.
In the middle of it all was McIlroy, who delivered the best Ryder Cup performance of his career, going 4-1. No other player earned as many points. He may not be the best golfer in the world at age 34. He may have gone a full decade without winning a major. But he remains the game’s central figure, whether you admire him or you’re exhausted by him. He puts it all out there, his heart on the sleeve of his quarter zip, even in times when he knows he ought to dial it back.
Two years ago, he wept openly at Whistling Straits, both in the arms of his wife and during a pair of television interviews, convinced he had let his team down. That moment was on his mind prior to this week.
“I don’t know that I’d ever felt so low, not just in a Ryder Cup but in my career,” McIlroy said. “And the fact that the team had the confidence in me to send me No. 1 that Sunday and for me to go and get a point, you can trace my form back for the last couple of years back to that Sunday in Whistling Straits. It meant the world to me that these guys believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. To have a group around you like that, it means the world to me.”
No one can say whether there will be more majors in his future. But there will certainly be more Ryder Cups. The next two — at Bethpage Black in New York in 2025 and Adare Manor in Limerick, Ireland in 2027 — could be a big piece of McIlroy’s legacy.
“I've said this for the last probably six or seven years to anyone that will listen: I think one of the biggest accomplishments in golf right now is winning an away Ryder Cup,” McIlroy said in the European press conference. “And that's what we're going to do at Bethpage.”
He slapped the table in front of him as he said it. His teammates roared in approval.
If nothing else, you had to admire the audacity.
Patrick Cantlay is not someone who cares much about whether or not he is admired. He cares about hitting good golf shots and about getting compensated financially for it. He has expressed to numerous people in the ecosystem of golf that he believes players should be compensated for playing in the Ryder Cup. He declined the opportunity to discuss it this week, but his beliefs are hardly a secret. Stefan Schauffele, Xander Schauffle’s father, was happy to confirm as much with reporters, admitting in an interview near the putting green Sunday morning that he has been advising both his son and Cantlay on such matters.
“If the PGA of America is a for-profit organization, they need to have the players share in that profit instead of being so damned intransparent about it with intent,” Stefan Schauffele said. “They should reveal the numbers, and then we should go to the table and talk. Alternatively, they can donate all proceeds after opening the books to a charity of our joint choice, and then we will happily play for free. Please print that.”
Both Ryder Cup captains, Luke Donald and Zach Johnson, gave forceful answers when asked to weigh in on whether players deserve to get paid for the competition.
“Absolutely not,” Donald said. “What the Ryder Cup represents. It represents true sport. You saw it with some of the passion at the end there [with McIlroy.] It's a passionate event. It's about pride. It's about representing your country. It's about coming together as a team. It's the purest form of competition we have, and I think because of that, the fans love it. There's no extrinsic motivation involved. It's purely, purely sport. That's what makes it so special.”
Johnson went even further.
“When it comes to the dollar sign, I don't mean to sound cliché, but the Ryder Cup is about more than any of that,” Johnson said. “It's about standing with a band of guys to represent your nation, to represent more than you in the game of golf. It's a sport for one week. And you know what, I would say if there's anything that deals with money, there's guys that would pay to play in this.”
Whether or not Cantlay’s stance on the matter was connected to his decision this week to play golf without a hat remains a matter of dispute. He denied a Sky Sports report that framed his decision as a silent protest, saying only that he couldn’t find a hat that fit, but other outlets — including No Laying Up — have been told similar information from multiple sources. Whether it was an actual protest or an anecdote shared and then re-shared via a messy game of telephone will probably take weeks to sort out, but at the moment, the story spread rapidly through the galleries on Saturday, and it clearly galvanized both Cantlay and the Americans.
Cantlay, typically not someone who displays any emotion on the course, grinned often at the crowd as they sang songs about his hat and his bank account, and then he kept making birdies to keep any chance of an American comeback alive. It was reminiscent, in some ways, of Patrick Reed’s best Ryder Cup performances, rounds when he channeled the crowd’s negative energy into something spectacular.
“I just try to use it as fuel,” Cantlay said. “You know, you can take all that energy and turn it into focus and turn it into good adrenaline. That's what I tried to do this week. I think it’s great. The fans are invested. You have to embrace it.”
If any part of Cantlay was trying to make the case that players should get paid for playing in the Ryder Cup, his shotmaking and his putting put together a more effective case than his hat. Without his gritty performance on Saturday against McIlroy and Fitzpatrick, then again on Sunday when he dusted Justin Rose, the Ryder Cup would have been something of a snooze.
If nothing else, Stefan Schauffele said, it’s time to have a conversation about Ryder Cup compensation that doesn’t result in questioning someone’s patriotism.
“I think it’s absolutely non-controversial,” Schauffele said. “Imagine if the winners got $2 million and the losers get nothing. How good of a competition would we have now? I think it could be made so much better because of that. I don’t see a negative there. I think we need to talk about it without bringing up the issue of patriotism, which I think is a really, really cheap shot. Because they’re so wrong, especially these [PGA of America members] are not owning any mirrors in their houses because they’re the ones that are not patriotic. Hopefully the conversation, in seriousness, leads to talks about it that make sense. And then everyone can be happy.”
Stefan Schauffele had plenty of other things to say on a number of matters, including that McIlroy was a “soft egg” for getting so worked up about LaCava, and that ”If Jay Monahan had a spine, he’d resign!” He even revealed that Cantlay was getting married in Rome the day after the Ryder Cup, which forced Cantlay to address it in the press conference after the trophy ceremony.
“I am getting married tomorrow, yes,” Cantlay confirmed. “I’m very excited about that.”
The American Ryder Cup team, still simmering over allegations that they hadn’t gotten along, erupted in unanimous applause.
Max Homa was not panicking. But only because of his caddie, Joe Greiner.
Late on Sunday, Homa was just right of the 18th green, staring down at his lie, which was horrendous. In truth, it was worse than horrendous. It was ghastly.
He’d just hammered a 3 wood from 290 yards away, going for the green in two, but his ball had drifted right and taken an unfortunate bounce, then nested down in the deep, gnarly rough growing all around the greenside bunker.
Homa was clinging to a 1 up lead against Matt Fitzpatrick, but the entire Ryder Cup literally hung in the balance. Europe had clawed its way to 14 points. If Fitzpatrick could squeeze out a half point from this match, the American comeback effort was finished. Not only that, but Homa would have to own the weight of knowing he failed to serve as a firewall. He had to find a way to make par, but he wasn’t even sure he could lash his ball into the bunker. If he tried, it might go into the water on the other side of the green.
“We’re going to take an unplayable,” Greiner said.
They had already executed this strategy once during the round, on the third hole, when Homa was faced with a similar lie. But the Ryder Cup wasn’t on the line at that moment. Whatever happened next, Homa and Greiner, two California kids who grew up together playing on a 4300-yard golf course, would remember this moment for the rest of their lives.
Homa took his drop and the one-stroke penalty that came with it.
“Watch out for the water, Maxy!” a European fan heckled.
Homa gathered himself and took a few practice swings. He took a deep breath. Then nipped a beautiful pitch off a downhill, downgrain lie and watched it land on the green and trickle over the crest of a hill. It started tracking toward the hole. Fans didn’t know whether to hold their breath or scream.
The ball came to rest 7 feet behind the pin.
“Joe Greiner is the brains; I just swing it,” Homa said. “It was an awful break. I don't know how it didn't get into the bunker. And I was frustrated. My head was spinning. He said ‘We're going to take an unplayable here, chip it down to ten feet and you're going to make it.”
When Fitzpatrick missed a lengthy birdie putt, the stage was set. Homa had a do-or-die putt to keep Europe from winning the Ryder Cup.
“I don't know, that was an out-of-body experience,” Homa said. “I will say, two nights ago I wanted that opportunity. I missed it against Rosey, and I wanted the chance again. So I just told myself this is what you asked for, so here's an opportunity.”
For a few seconds, it was so quiet at Marco Simone that you could almost hear the click of the ball against Homa’s putter.
And then — bedlam. He poured the putt in.
“C’mon!” Homa screamed, his right fist punching the air.
The United States comeback eventually ran out of gas. Rickie Fowler ended up being the end of the firewall when he conceded a short putt to Tommy Fleetwood on the 16th hole. But for another 40 minutes, Homa made a miracle seem possible. In his first Ryder Cup, he was the only American to finish the week with a winning record at 3-1-1.
“You watch this your whole life on TV and you get to experience it, it's amazing,” Homa said. “It's a bummer to lose, clearly, but it was cool. I really love these guys, and it was a true pleasure to be with all of them. It's always amazing to be around greatness, and we get to do it week-in and week-out, but to actually be in a team room with everybody, it's a pleasure.”
Every two years, when the Ryder Cup ends, an interesting question emerges:
Is team golf about execution, or is it about chemistry?
The answer, undoubtedly, is that it’s about both. But for years Americans insisted execution was more important than chemistry. They stubbornly refused to move away from that belief, even as European teams kicked their asses repeatedly by embracing each other like family.
In recent years, though, the United States has leaned into the idea that camaraderie counts too. You can’t play great golf, particularly in foursomes, if you don’t trust each other. Nine of them traveled together to Italy on a scouting trip a month before the Ryder Cup, and they stayed up much of the night giving each other grief and watching college football.
“I think we all said that when we left here, it was just like everybody gets along and everybody just is happy to be around each other,” said Justin Thomas. “There's usually a couple misfits or people that just aren't a part of the team, but we all were one.”
It didn’t help them figure out foursomes this year, as evidenced by their 1-7 record in that format. In the last three European Ryder Cups, Americans have gone 4-20 in foursomes, a glaring weakness that has put them in a hole they’ve struggled to climb out of.
“Foursomes is a mesh of personalities and a mesh of games, and I think we had just what we wanted,” said Jordan Spieth. “If you watched the foursomes here as they got started, I mean, Viktor [Hovland] chipped in from on the green, that ran to a pin. Like it was the perfect storm. They chipped in a lot. They holed a lot of putts over ten feet this week. I know what the numbers say of foursomes in the past however many Ryder Cups over here, but I mean, I've been a part of a couple of those points where we've won, and I don't feel like there was anything different than the points that I've lost in foursomes, other than it's just execution. And they executed this week. They played as good of golf as individually I remember watching most all of them play this entire year, and they did it this week.”
The European team also took a bonding trip to Marco Simone this summer, and on one of the nights in Italy, they sat around a fire pit for several hours and asked questions of each other.
“We sat around the fire pit that night and we chatted and we got to know each other really well,” McIlroy said. “And that was an amazing experience. I got to know things about these guys that … I thought I knew them for a long time, but I got to know something different about them. I think that really galvanized us as a team, and I think just spending time with these guys is becoming more meaningful because I know I don't have that many left.”
On paper, it seems like it should be easy for American golfers to feel united. After all, they share a flag, a language, a president and a border. Europeans have little to unite them on paper. They grow up scattered across borders, across cultures, mostly speaking different languages. So why is unity never an issue for them?
“For me, I think culture is huge,” McIlroy said. “We take the piss out of each other. We have a sense of humour. We don't take ourselves too seriously. I think that's a big part of it, too. We feel like we can be ourselves.”
As the evening wound down on Sunday, I decided to ask them: What does it mean to be a European Ryder Cupper?
As the evening wound down on Sunday, I decided to ask them: What does it mean to be a European Ryder Cupper? Justin Rose had some ideas.
“A good pairing on the European Team doesn't mean playing with your best mate,” Rose said. “You know, it means representing something bigger than yourself.”
“It's the ability to walk through those gates and those doors and forget about who you are outside of this week,” Jon Rahm said. “What you have done or what you may do afterwards, really truly doesn't matter.”
Rahm paused for a second, then continued. This was important to get right.
“In my case, obviously the Spaniards have a legacy to live up to. It's certainly not easy, right? The three main figures before me, Seve, Ollie and Sergio, are three guys that if I'm not mistaken, all three of them have earned 20 points in the Ryder Cup; three out of nine are Spanish.
“So it's a lot to live up to and it's something that really inspires me, especially when José [Olazabal] is around, right? He always tells me little things to inspire me in that sense. So following in their footsteps and how they try to make the team better is the way I've approached it as well. I try to do my part in the team room.
“But I think Rory said it best, is the fact that we can go in there and make fun of each other and nobody really cares, right. We all laugh, and that's about it. I mean, you need to be able to make fun of yourself and it's a truly humbling experience to be part of this team.”
You could hear the Europeans laughing as they disappeared into the night with the trophy. It wasn’t long before they were spraying champagne, singing songs and trying to chase the sunrise.
Bethpage, for either side, can’t come soon enough.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.