ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES | The European players who were part of the 2021 Ryder Cup team have been hurting since the last putt dropped at Whistling Straits, rendering them 19-9 losers in the biggest defeat since the expansion to include Continental Europe.
Last week here at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, 20 players, each hoping to be on the flight to Rome in September, gathered for the inaugural Hero Cup to apply some balm on that wound. Two of Europe’s biggest stars from the 2018 winning team, Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood, led 10-man teams from Continental Europe and Great Britain & Ireland, respectively.
Almost every hopeful was here barring the “Big Four” of Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Matt Fitzpatrick and Viktor Hovland, who are locks for Rome.
Coming with Luke Donald, the captain for 2023, were past captains José María Olazábal, Paul McGinley and Thomas Bjørn and all vice captains going to Rome: stats man Edoardo Molinari, Nicolas Colsaerts and Bjørn, who is also a vice captain this time. Their goal: put together a strong European squad for now and the future.
Though it was an all-European contest, Fleetwood dispelled any doubts that it might be just a fun event. Speaking ahead of the Hero Cup, he said, “It is very serious.”
“I remember we had the EurAsia Cup in 2018 (in Malaysia). I had a particularly good tournament there (winning all three matches) and Europe won, but I remember Thomas (Bjørn) was the captain and everything you do, they keep a very close eye on it,” Fleetwood said.
“When you play in these team events and when you play in the Ryder Cup, a big part of it is how you play, but that’s not everything that you can give to the team. There’s attitude; there’s motivation; there’s the way you are with your teammates.”
Molinari, who led Continental Europe to a 14½-10½ victory Sunday, was thrilled with the way that the DP World Tour had set up the event, saying, “The DP World team has done an incredible job re-creating as much as possible the Ryder Cup atmosphere,” he said. “So, we have the locker rooms (for players and caddies); we have the team rooms; we have the physio area, the gym, the recovery area and so on. The DP World’s nutritionist was looking after both teams. It’s invaluable in many ways. It gives not only the young players but even someone like me even bigger motivation to participate in events like this.”
The DP World Tour left out no detail. There were even two tailors at the teams’ Westin hotel.
“We wanted to create an atmosphere which was as close to Ryder Cup as possible,” said Guy Kinnings, the DP World Tour’s deputy CEO. “Some of the stars who have played Ryder Cup have seen it, but the youngsters will feel motivated by experiencing it. It’s huge for them.”
Donald said, “Yeah, we didn't enjoy losing last year at Whistling (Straits), and losing pretty badly. We know the U.S. are going to be very strong. They seem a little bit younger. They seem a little bit more unified. They do have the Presidents Cup to work on partnerships and get together and that team atmosphere. We've kind of lost that since the last little trophy. So, again, I think it's vital to have that (Hero Cup) on the schedule.”
Donald wants this event every year. “So, the years we're not playing Ryder Cups, we can start testing some of this stuff out and not come in untested.”
“We wanted to create an atmosphere which was as close to Ryder Cup as possible. Some of the stars who have played Ryder Cup have seen it, but the youngsters will feel motivated by experiencing it. It’s huge for them.”
Guy Kinnings, DP World Tour’s deputy CEO
Fleetwood, who won four times partnering with Molinari in the 2018 Ryder Cup in France, prompting the coining of the moniker “Moliwood,” said: “I think the first thing that we were talking about on the plane off Whistling Straits (in 2021) was that we wanted a team event back in the calendar. And it's been great this week to get some guys that played at Whistling Straits. Then, some of those guys who are going to be on the team come September in Rome; and then to get some rookies in there as well that have a really good chance to play.
“There's very few events in world golf that I would want to swap for this experience this week. And, yes, I think having this (Hero Cup) means a lot to everybody that's involved.”
The captaincy seemed to bring the best out of each player as Molinari won 3½ points out of four, and Fleetwood won three out of four.
Donald, from the day he was appointed captain in August 2022, was aware of Europe’s need for an event to build a Ryder Cup team. He has all the credentials. Donald was world No. 1 for 56 weeks in 2011-12, winning on both sides of the Atlantic. He is a four-time Ryder Cup player, each time on a winning European team, compiling a 10-4-1 record. He led Europe out in the singles on Sunday in 2012 and scored the first blue point as Europe produced the “Miracle at Medinah,” flipping a 10-6 deficit to a 14½-13½- victory. He also was vice captain in 2018 and 2021.
While the United States has the Presidents Cup – an event featuring the U.S. against the Internationals made up of the rest of the world minus Europe – the Europeans had the Seve Trophy from 2000-13. Then they had the EuraAsia Cup for three biennial editions in 2014-18. There had been nothing similar since.
Ryder Cup insiders say that from almost the moment Donald took over, he wanted a competition like this. Enter Dr. Pawan Munjal, chairman and CEO of Hero Motocorp, and the Hero Cup.
Molinari and Fleetwood were generous in their praise for Munjal, who often has conceded that he simply “loves” the Ryder Cup. Little wonder then that he agreed to set up a platform for young and experienced Europeans to create building blocks for a strong European side to take on the mighty Americans.
Donald looks at this event beyond the building of a team. He also wants to build future captains.
“I think they (Molinari and Fleetwood) were very honored; felt very, very happy that I asked them to be playing captains,” Donald said. “It's a little bit of a different role to previous years. Obviously, you know, both still want to play multiple Ryder Cups and not think about being a captain right now. But I think it's good to involve them, to get them to start understanding some of these things, because you never know down the road that these two gentlemen might be captains one day.”
The Ryder Cup is an event like no other. In a sport in which individual brilliance is celebrated and team competitions are rare, the Ryder Cup has stood out. It brings the best on either side of the Atlantic.
According to RyderCup.com, “The Ryder Cup trophy is made out of gold and is 17 inches tall and measures nine inches from handle to handle. It weighs four pounds, roughly the same as a large bottle of ketchup.”
No detail is too small, and no expense is spared. The atmosphere is electric.
Yes, and all for a trophy, which is the size of a large bottle of ketchup.
Top: Captains Francesco Molinari (left) and Tommy Fleetwood lead respective Hero Cup teams by example.
andrew redington, getty images