As Justin Rose steadied himself on the sixth tee, the hush around him was broken by a kind of low, guttural noise from fans across the water. Heads swiveled towards the fifth green just in time to see a solitary white ball roll up to the cup and drop into the hole, without a golfer in sight.
“A hole in one!” said McIlroy. And on a par four, too. “Who was it?”
Donald pressed his finger against his earpiece, listening for news.
“Viktor,” he said, and McIlroy broke into a broad grin. They will tell you everybody loves everybody in Team Europe – but everybody loves Viktor Hovland.
Then came the catch. “But it was his second ball,” said Donald. This was the final practice round before the Ryder Cup begins on Friday, and Hovland had been trying out different clubs on each tee.
“That’s an anticlimax,” said Fleetwood.
“It’s a good three, though,” joked Donald.
In that moment, among the few thousand fans in that tucked-away corner of Marco Simone Golf Club, the mood was euphoric, and it underlined a point about the Ryder Cup: it is never a fair fight. Home advantage is everything, which explains why the US haven’t won on European grass for 30 years. There are some American spectators in Rome this week – you tend to notice them – but the vast majority have come to watch Europe win back the Cup.
A few hours earlier, thousands of fans had buzzed through the gates. The Ryder Cup draws a mesh of golf enthusiasts, from older couples with a few days booked in Tuscany once it’s over, to young and not-that-young men channelling stag-do energy.
In they came: giddy Brits drinking Peroni at 9am; sleek Scandinavians in viking hats; tanned Spaniards shouting ‘Vamos!’ wherever Jon Rahm went; boistrous Americans dressed head to toe in stars and stripes, the sort of men who talk with their shoulders, the sort of men whose only setting is 11.
Off they scuttled to seek out their favourite players, like tourists on safari. Their feet brushed quietly through the long grass at Scottie Scheffler’s favourite watering hole, the chipping green. They huddled round as Matt Fitzpatrick honed his putting. They gathered in their thousands at the grandstand behind the driving range where a small pack of Americans were working on their long game, each shot traced in bright colours on a giant screen.
Beside them a lone European player worked his way through his repertoire: Hovland played a few short chips, some spinning wedges, a handful of piercing irons and woods, before he finally brought out the driver, which brought swooning gasps from the onlookers behind. As he left for the first tee, an almighty cheer emitted from the stand and he smiled. Everybody loves Viktor Hovland.
Out on the course, the currency was shade – isolated trees were sacred life-givers to be huddled under. Stalls offered hamburgers and hog roasts and unseemly amounts of official Ryder Cup drink Gatorade. Fans leaned off high varandas attached to a giant structure that looks like the side of a cruise ship, craning to see something, as EU flags flapped over the edge.
Home advantage really brings three key things. The first is familiarity: several of Team Europe have played Marco Simone before and two of them – rookies Bob MacIntyre and Nicolai Hojgaard – have won the Italian Open here. The second is the opportunity to set up a favourable course, with thick rough designed to swallow wayward US drives, although the old differences between big-hitting American golfers and shorter, more precise European golfers are negligible these days.
And then there’s the crowd: 50,000 spectactors will roam the course each day and if history is anything to go by, they will turn this pleasant Lazio hillside into an intimidating cauldron for the American players. In 30C heat, after European fans have waited four years to see Ryder Cup golf in the flesh, there are bound to be some flash points. For now it is mostly a place of dizzy excitment. Marco Simone is part carnival, part themepark, and it can take a feat like Hovland’s to remind you that a sporting event is about to break out.
A few minutes after his ball fell into the cup, Hovland marched on to the fifth green to rowdy applause, pushed to the front by his practise partners like a bowler who’d taken a five-fer. He doffed his cap and flexed a bicep, and the crowd let out a rising “oooooh” as he walked towards the hole and fished out his ball.
Perhaps that moment meant nothing. After all, it was just a practice shot off a tee that will be 80 yards further back come Friday morning. But it was impossible not to notice the triumphalist mood in the air. European fans haven’t just come here to watch the Ryder Cup; they’ve come to win it. That, surely, will make a difference over the next few days. How can you not play better when thousands of people are willing your ball into the hole?
Welcome to Rome, America. This will not be a fair fight.