Europe won this raucous Ryder Cup in Rome, but only just. Fired up by clashes between the two teams on Saturday night, USA came out battling in the Sunday singles and threatened to pull off a miracle at Marco Simone. Match after match turned red on the board but Europe held back the sea, and it was left to one of the most popular members of the team, Tommy Fleetwood, to finish the job in an understated moment on the 16th green.
Rickie Fowler had found the water from the tee, so when Fleetwood hit the shot of his life into the heart of the green and rolled his eagle putt close, the American conceded the hole, and with it the Ryder Cup. That was match 11 of 12, showing just how deep America took the contest. “I didn’t want it to come down to one of us at the back,” Fleetwood said. “I’m so proud. I couldn’t wish for a better bunch of people to do with this. We are one gigantic family and the bonds you make last a lifetime.”
Shane Lowry’s tied match with Jordan Spieth was the final act on the 18th green, but by then the European party had already started and Lowry just wanted to join in. It finished 16½ - 11½, but that score did not tell the story of a nerve-wracking day. “At one stage it was looking dodgy,” Lowry admitted, “but I had faith in the boys to get it done.”
This Ryder Cup was a ferocious and often emotional three-day battle, which ended with tears on both sides, but it was really won on the first morning. The scores from Friday afternoon onwards were almost dead level, but that 4-0 whitewash in the opening foursomes gave USA an almost impossible hill to climb. The post-mortem will be revealing but it seemed like Europe were more united and better prepared, and it gave them a winning platform.
It was a remarkable reversal after they were so brutally dismantled at Whistling Straits two years ago. Luke Donald will get huge credit for his calm and collected captaincy, which Rory McIlroy described as breathing “quiet confidence” into his players. “Not many people gave us a chance, especially after two years ago,” said Donald. “We proved them wrong.”
So too will Edoardo Molinari, the stats guru in the background matching Europe’s perfect pairs. Ryder Cup captains come and go but there will be calls for Donald and his backroom team to stay and lead again in New York in two years’ time.
The greatest credit, though, will rightly go to the players. Only a few months ago they were considered rank outsiders, but a spate of wins and high finishes on tour changed the narrative heading to Rome. Rookies Ludvig Aberg, Bob MacIntyre, Nicolai Hojgaard and Sepp Straka all played their part, and the leaders – world No 2 Rory McIlroy, No 3 Jon Rahm and No 4 Viktor Hovland – all delivered performances worthy of their star status. Europe simply didn’t have that heavyweight power at Whistling Straits.
— Ryder Cup Europe (@RyderCupEurope) October 1, 2023
Sunday delivered the Ryder Cup we expected from the start: two teams going at each other on the scoreboard and in the flesh. There were several spiky moments: Justin Thomas doffed his imaginary cap in reference to “Hatgate” and cupped his ears at a baying crowd after making a long birdie putt on five; Justin Rose put his finger to his mouth, shushing US fans in his match with pantomime villain Patrick Cantlay; and Lowry was a constant source of energy, geeing up the crowds after each hole that he won.
The tone was set from the very first match: Jon Rahm vs Scottie Scheffler, two apex predators butting heads. Scheffler is the world No 1 and the 2022 Masters champion; Rahm is the reigning Masters champion. And for most of the day, they put on a masterclass.
Scheffler was near-immaculate from tee to green, splitting every fairway with his driver and hitting the heart of each green with his irons. When he finally missed a green in regulation, on the eighth hole, it was by about three inches. His stats in that department have been Tiger-esque this year, but the story of his season has been his disastrous putting and that affliction cost him dearly here, missing a series of short ones to lose holes.
Rahm made birdie to win the final hole and halve the match, on a day when half-points were little use to the Americans. “I’m a little upset with that finish,” Scheffler said, after a torrid week which saw him shed tears following a crushing defeat in Saturday’s foursomes. “The team needed a full point so I’m disappointed.”
Behind Rahm, Europe’s other two star performers delivered again. An inspired Hovland crushed Collin Morikawa 4&3 before McIlroy saw off Sam Burns 3&1. The Ryder Cup format allows a captain to lean on their big hitters and Donald did just that. Hovland and McIlroy were the only two Europeans to play all five matches, and they each brought home four points.
McIlroy was emotional after closing out his match, which took Europe to 13 points, and he choked up speaking to US broadcaster NBC. “Ever since Whistling Straits I was so disappointed in my performance there. I’m so pleased I could come here and get it done.”
Asked whether he had buried the hatchet with Cantlay’s caddie Joe Lacava, with whom he clashed on the 18th green on Saturday evening, McIlroy said: “I haven’t met Joe. I used that little incident last night to my advantage. What transpired gave us a fire in our belly.”
Cantlay meanwhile was America’s totem on the course. He picked up where he left off, locking in the first strip of red near the top of the scoreboard after seeing off Rose in a match full of passion. The crowd continued to remind him of his lack of headwear and there were plenty of jokes at the expense of Lacava, with one fan loudly warning Rose to be wary of the caddie stepping on his line, which had caused McIlroy such frustration.
“That is how this tournament should be,” Cantlay said of the hostile atmosphere at Marco Simone, after beating Rose 2&1. “It is exactly what I expected, and how it should be. I just tried to use it as fuel.”
Asked again about the report that he had chosen not to wear a hat this week in protest against not being paid to play in the Ryder Cup, he replied: “Unfortunately, there was one media story from one person, the crowd took that and ran with it and that’s OK, I had fun with them today. It’s totally false. It’s just outright lies.”
Next down the stretch came Matt Fitzpatrick and Max Homa, with the American leading one up as they stood on the 18th tee. A half-point would have won the Ryder Cup for Europe, but Homa denied Fitzpatrick the winning moment with a cool 6ft putt to take the full point and underline his credentials as one of USA’s stand-out players in Rome. “It was an out-of-body experience,” Homa said of the putt that European fans were willing him to miss.
But it only delayed defeat. US captain Zach Johnson was tearful and magnanimous. “The Europeans played phenomenal golf. My guys showed true heart, true grit, a lot of character. I love them. But hats off to Luke.”
Results in the Sunday singles
Jon Rahm (Spa) halved with Scottie Scheffler
Viktor Hovland (Nor) bt Colin Morikawa 4&3
Patrick Cantlay bt Justin Rose (Eng) 2&1
Rory McIlroy (Nl) bt Sam Burns 3&1
Max Homa bt Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng) 1up
Tyrrell Hatton (Eng) bt Brian Harman 3&2
Brooks Koepka bt Ludvig Aberg (Swe) 3&2
Justin Thomas bt Sepp Straka (Aut) 2up
Xander Schauffele bt Nicolai Hojgaard (Den) 3&2
Shane Lowry (Ire) halved with Jordan Spieth
Tommy Fleetwood (Eng) bt Rickie Fowler 3&1
Robert MacIntyre (Sco) bt Wyndham Clark 2&1
Singles Score: Europe 6 USA 6
Match Score: Europe 16.5 bt USA 11.5