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ROME — The 2023 Ryder Cup at Marco de Simone isn’t (technically) over yet, but I have no problem making a broad statement about American golfers over the last decade in this competition.
They are tremendous front-runners. When things start to fall in their favor, they are the kind of sporting bullies you can’t help but admire. They drive greens and dunk wedges. They exchange terrible but bombastic chest bumps and clumsy high-fives. They play like they’re running downhill and do it with a sneer on their faces. You saw it at Hazeltine and you saw it at Whistling Straits. American team golf is at its best when they are comfortable and cocky, chugging beers or sipping champagne and laughing in the press conferences about how they can’t wait to down a few more.
They are also uncomfortably soft when faced with adversity, far more likely to fold than fight back when they fall behind. They sit greenside when their matches are over and fiddle with their phones, their heads down, their faces sullen, looking like a collection of sulky teenagers whose parents dragged them to Europe on a week-long vacation and forced them to order something other than chicken fingers of the menu.
It’s not that they don’t care. I reject that dumb narrative, and so should anyone who watched Scottie Scheffler tear up next to his wife Meredith on Saturday after he and Brooks Koepka were on the wrong side of a stunning 9&7 loss to Viktor Hovland and Ludvig Aberg, the worst defeat in Ryder Cup history. Match play tends to strip even the best players of their suit of armor. The majority of American golfers desperately want to be good at this, and truly do want to snap this 30-year streak of misery in Europe. But for the most part, their personalities are not built for it.
The United States will likely rebound in two years when the event returns to a more comfortable venue. They will get to have things exactly the way they want again, whether it’s format or course set up. Fan support will likely give them an early lead, and they may get out and run with it. We have reached an era where home field advantage in the Ryder Cup can seem daunting. But don’t assume going to Bethpage in 2025 — where the crowd will be vicious and the fairways wide — is going to be a panacea for everything. Europe might be underdogs, but they’ve also shown they can be competitive away from home, that they can thread a needle or catch a Hail Mary. The U.S. hasn’t shown they’re capable of a road comeback in more than a decade.
The easy (and frankly moronic) defense of the Americans' sulky behavior this week should go something like this, so prepare yourselves for it:
Of course they were sullen; they weren’t playing well! Do you expect them to pound their chests and high-five each other when they’re getting their asses kicked?
That rebuttal blatantly muddles the timeline of how Marco de Simone unfolded.
The Americans were already deep into a collective mope late Friday, all while the day’s most crucial matches were still in doubt. Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint which Ryder Cup session was the most important in a blowout, but it isn’t hard to do in this one. Even though the Americans got punched in the mouth in foursomes Friday morning, they actually had a little momentum in the afternoon, a chance to recover from a historic sweep. They had a slim lead in three matches, and a 3-1 bounceback would have given them momentum and energy as they headed to bed.
Shot by shot, and hole by hole, the Europeans pulled the Americans’ hearts right out of their chests. You could feel the energy in the air, particularly on the 18th green, as the European players whose matches were already finished gathered in a group to send waves of emotional fuel toward the crowd and then back toward their teammates. It was never more apparent than during the birdie that Viktor Hovland made to secure a halve for Europe after he and Tyrell Hatton had trailed Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth for much of the back nine. As the ball dripped into the cup, you could see Shane Lowry dancing along the ropeline, imploring the crowd to erupt.
Several minutes later, when Justin Rose made a birdie on 18 to steal half a point from Max Homa and Wyndham Clark (who had been 2-up with two holes left) the 43-year-old Englishman turned to the throng of teammates and screamed “You! You! You!” as he pointed to each of them. Even though Rose has been a member of six Ryder Cup teams, he said after his match he felt like he’d never been part of a truly special moment. He’d never made a putt on the last green or stuffed an iron to close out a match. And when he finally did, all he could think about was the men (all 10 players, all 10 caddies, and all the vice captains) behind him.
“I think it was you and you and you and you; that's what I was saying,” Rose said. “For all the boys. You know, just because everyone is in it together. Made the putt because I had ten people willing it in behind me. It's for them, as well.”
That was the hour that decided the 2023 Ryder Cup. Going down 5-3 would have been tough but manageable for the United States, nothing to panic over. Going down 6 ½ to 1 ½ essentially slammed the door. It was all over, but there was some inevitable finger-pointing, which Koepka did when he grumbled unprompted about Jon Rahm’s behavior late in the match, saying he acted like a child when he punched the wall surrounding the tee box after a bad shot.
"If Brooks thinks that's childish, it is what it is,” Rahm said. “He's entitled to think what he thinks. I'm very comfortable with who I am and what I do. I've done much worse than that on the golf course. I needed to do that to blow off some steam.”
Say whatever you want about Rahm, at least he cares. On the very next hole, he made an eagle to halve the match. Was it a lucky putt? Rahm conceded as much, but you also make your own luck. It essentially broke Koepka and Scheffler’s spirits.
You could see it in their faces the following morning on the first tee. Scheffler and Koepka played like zombies, making two doubles in the first three holes.
I know this sounds like one of those grouchy columns that old men sometimes write when they want to bury a team for not playing the game properly, but I assure you I don’t give a shit about any of that stuff. One of the reasons I argued Justin Thomas should still make this team, despite being mired in the worst slump of his career, is I admire people who understand that the Ryder Cup is as much about passion as it is about strokes gained.
Yes, you need to play good golf. Yes, you need to make putts and hit fairways. But that alone is not enough, and understanding how closely the two are connected in this event is the reason why Europe has a real shot in two years at Bethpage and America has zero chance at Adare Manor in Ireland in 2027 — unless they can figure out how to trust and embrace each other. It doesn’t matter if it’s via Friendship Task Force or group therapy.
I’m convinced the Americans thought they had this stuff figured out after Whistling when they gave us that hilarious press conference where everyone had a drink in their hand; Dustin Johnson had the room in stitches, and Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau even hugged it out for a laugh. But all they really proved is they’re great when they’re the favorites – when they can exploit Europe’s weaknesses. Give them a captain they don’t love (Tom Watson, Hal Sutton), a course they don’t love (Le Golf National) a teammate they don’t love (Bryson; Patrick Reed) or pairings they don’t love (Patrick Reed, again) and the knives come out. The one constant through the years of the American Ryder Cup team is how they handle adversity.
For most of them, the answer is obvious: Poorly.
On Saturday, Rahm and Tyrell Hatton dropped in for a press conference between sessions, fresh off another win in foursomes. I decided to ask Rahm about the scene behind the 18th green, and why Europeans consider passion such an essential part of match play.
“We seem to have an ability to come together as teammates very, very well and feel how close we are,” Rahm said. “And I think in moments like that when we are there, a player feels the support, whether it's myself, Tyrrell out there, anybody, you feel support of the 12 plus the vice captains. Maybe that's why you see some of the things that happened so far and the reactions that come with it.”
Another reporter asked Hatton for his thoughts, but Hatton had to admit he wasn’t listening.
“Sorry, what was the question?” Hatton said.
He had been busy looking over at a television in the corner of the room. On the screen was Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy’s match against Thomas and Spieth. It was close, but Europe would soon prevail. Hatton kept fidgeting in his seat, like he was living and dying with every shot.
You could tell he was desperate to get back out on the course. Not to play, though. He was done for the day. He and Rahm wanted to cheer them on in person.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.
Email him at email@example.com