Throughout this long, grinding and grueling summer, football season – the kind with first downs and touchdowns – was always there, shimmering on the horizon, promising not just the eventual arrival of autumn but those afternoons and evenings when the games consume us.
The anticipation is part of it. Is Deion Sanders as dynamic a coach as he is a personality? Can quarterback Bryce Young be as good in the NFL as he was at Alabama? Can we ever get accustomed to seeing Aaron Rodgers in a New York Jets uniform?
That’s where the Ryder Cup is at the moment – an approaching Roman holiday wrapped in team colors, choruses of “Olé, olé, olé” and scented by opportunity and the aroma of garlic sautéing in olive oil.
Two years between Ryder Cups is perfect. Every year would dull the drama. Two years allows enough time to celebrate or commiserate before building back to where we are now, the Americans plotting a plan to win overseas for the first time in 30 years against a European team that has put a twinkle in captain Luke Donald’s eyes.
I’m confident we have 12 really fearless golfers that are on a mission to write their own history in the game and their legacy.”
The Ryder Cup is worth the wait. Now that both 12-player teams are set, each with its own bit of controversial casting, it’s all about conjecture until the first shot is struck at Marco Simone Golf Club outside of Rome on the morning of September 29.
The Americans are favored – in football terms maybe a five-point favorite – but what looked a while back like a potential reprise of the lopsided Ryder Cup two years ago at Whistling Straits looks far more intriguing now.
“They are strong,” Donald said last week about the Americans. “They have great partnerships that have been tried and tested. But at the same time, we are underdogs, and we will be betting underdogs. I have full faith in my team, and I feel like we have a great opportunity to win. I’m confident we have 12 really fearless golfers that are on a mission to write their own history in the game and their legacy.”
There already seems to be a difference between the two sides, at least in terms of public perception. The selection of Justin Thomas as one of captain Zach Johnson’s six at-large picks continues to dominate the discussion surrounding a side that won the last Ryder Cup by 10 points. It’s a decision that has many detractors and they won’t let it go, citing Thomas’ obvious lack of form this summer as the reason why Keegan Bradley or Lucas Glover would have been a better choice.
As Johnson said, it’s about more than form, which can come and go like the tides. It’s about presence and, to some degree, personality, and Thomas checks those valuable boxes. Plus, he’s 6-2-1 in the Ryder Cup and took down Rory McIlroy in Sunday singles in 2018 in France.
Still, the level of animosity about the Thomas selection has been surprising and, unfortunately, felt almost personal in some cases.
Across the Atlantic, Donald’s decision to include Ireland’s Shane Lowry on his squad has drawn far less scrutiny despite the fact that he finished behind Justin Thomas in the FedEx Cup race and hasn’t had a top-10 finish anywhere since a T5 at the Honda Classic in late February. Donald picked Lowry for many of the same reasons why Johnson chose J.T.
“There's nothing bigger than the Ryder Cup, and hopefully I can go to Rome and show people what I'm made of,” Lowry said last week, defending his selection.
Donald has been forced to defend his decision not to pick Adrian Meronk, who has won three times in the past 14 months, including most recently at Marco Simone in May. That’s what captains have to do while understanding why Meronk said he went from shock to disappointment to anger when Donald broke the news to him.
Donald made the obvious decision to take rookie Ludvig Åberg and the more controversial choice to add Nicolai Højgaard, likely costing Meronk his spot. Åberg could be the game’s next superstar and could be a transformative presence for the European team.
There were 13 players for 12 spots. It came down to math and a measure of gut instinct.
This feels like a corner-turning moment for the Europeans, who find themselves in a similar place to where the Americans were before Whistling Straits. The old guard – Sergio García, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Henrik Stenson – is gone, and the infusion of new blood comes at the right time. It’s why it feels as if the focus is on who’s part of the European team whereas the American focus is on who’s not on the team.
The European team has a combined 21 previous Ryder Cup appearances to 17 for the Americans, and Europe’s top three players – Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland – give Donald a trio to anchor the three-day competition.
The Americans spent a few days at Marco Simone last week, getting the lay of the land and playing with pairings, a favorite pastime of fans, captains and vice captains. Some are obvious – Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth and Thomas – and others are subject to analytics.
With the BMW PGA Championship this week at Wentworth, the entire European team will be playing its way into the Ryder Cup while defending champion Max Homa and Thomas will be in Napa, California, for the PGA Tour’s Fortinet Championship.
To borrow a line from the late, great Tom Petty, the waiting is the hardest part.
Top: European fans will provide the "home" advantage in Rome as Team USA aims to end road drought.
Maddie Meyer, PGA of America via Getty Images