Just over a week ago, the bulk of the U.S. Ryder Cup team pushed the dinner plates away and sat casually around a large table for a photograph to commemorate their pre-match reconnaissance trip to Marco Simone Golf Club in Rome, Italy.
Nine of the 12 players along with captain Zach Johnson and some of his vice captains, most of them dressed in shorts and T-shirts, gave off a relaxed vibe – maybe it was the pasta; maybe it was the wine; maybe it was both – their boots-on-the-ground work complete before the real thing commences next week.
Whether the trip helps the Americans end a 30-year winless streak on European soil remains to be seen, but Johnson and his team are intent on doing all they can to be ready when Friday morning, September 29 arrives.
The European team also made a quick stop at Marco Simone before the entirety of the playing roster teed it up last week at the BMW PGA Championship, putting a final polish on their competitive prep.
The Americans’ trip answered at least a few questions, primarily what the U.S. team members can expect from a hilly golf course few of them had seen previously.
“You know what you’re getting into and you know what you have to do, so it’s just about going out and executing and just try to ball-strike our way the best we can and make the putts when we need to.”
“Between the first day that we played it and then the second day completely changed my view of how we play the golf course. So, basically looking back now, that saved me a day over there,” Max Homa said.
“Plus being around all the guys and seeing how tight knit the group is, it almost gave me a bunch of confidence that not only is it going to be a fun week, but I do think we have that camaraderie to get things done and break that 30-year drought.”
Marco Simone is similar to France’s Le Golf National, site of the 2018 Ryder Cup, where the setup put a premium on accuracy over power and the Americans struggled with the thick rough. While this European team can match the Americans for overall power, Marco Simone will present similar challenges.
“You have some narrow fairways and some extremely penal rough, but that’s what we know we’re getting over there, so it’s not a surprise and it’s nothing like we got over there and we’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe it’s like this,’” Justin Thomas said.
It was apparent in France that the course setup favored the Europeans, just as Whistling Straits’ relative openness worked to the Americans’ advantage two years ago.
When the Europeans rallied to win the Ryder Cup at Medinah in 2012, American captain Davis Love III regretted where the hole was cut on the par-3 17th, which is where the match swung toward Europe on Sunday. The flag was tucked in the right corner, which didn’t help several U.S. players in key matches because their preferred ball flight was right-to-left.
One other bit of intel emerged from the visit to Rome:
Given the demands of walking the hilly course over three days with temperatures expected in the 80s, it’s possible no American player will tee it up in all five sessions, not because they can’t but because they can limit the fatigue factor.
That, however, is likely to be determined by how someone is playing. As Francesco Molinari and Dustin Johnson have proved in recent Ryder Cups, there’s value in riding the hot hand.
As for who will play with whom in Rome, Zach Johnson isn’t tipping his hand yet. It seems likely Jordan Spieth and Thomas will be a team, probably in four-ball play, and Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay are locked in.
Beyond that, Johnson has the luxury of creating a variety of powerhouse pairings. What about Brian Harman with Scottie Scheffler? Wyndham Clark and Brooks Koepka? Homa and Collin Morikawa?
“It's not like we have it set in stone yet,” Johnson said. “It's one of those areas that's really, really difficult, but it's also really, really exciting and fun to kind of start to see how this team can take shape. At this point in this captainship, the worst part of my job is sitting guys, you know? I'd like to take 25 guys over there to play – we can't do that – and I'd like for all the guys to play every session – can't do that, either. But that's the way it is, and everybody knows that.”
“It’s what I signed up for. I love responsibility. I love difficulty. I love being pushed and somewhat being uncomfortable, if that makes sense.”
This has the look of an American team that can win in Rome and, while the odds aren’t as lopsided as they were two years ago, the U.S. remains the favorite.
So much happens in Ryder Cups. Small moments can become big moments. Can’t-miss duos suddenly find themselves missing. Nicolas Colsaerts, teaming with Lee Westwood, makes eight birdies and an eagle to almost single-handedly take down Tiger Woods (who made seven birdies) and Steve Stricker in a Friday four-ball match in 2012.
As captain, Johnson is attempting to do what Tom Kite, Curtis Strange, Tom Lehman, Corey Pavin, Tom Watson and Jim Furyk could not: win the Ryder Cup overseas. Johnson won’t hit a shot, but his name will be tied forever to the outcome.
“I don't mind it,” Johnson said. “It's what I signed up for. I love responsibility. I love difficulty. I love being pushed and somewhat being uncomfortable, if that makes sense.
“I do know that if we win this, it will be those 12 guys. I mean that sounds really obvious, but it will be. It will be them playing golf and winning the Ryder Cup for Team USA. If we lose this, I think there's probably some merit (that) some of that can go on me. And I fully accept that. That's what I signed up for.”
One week from now, the Ryder Cup finally happens again.
Top: Ryder Cup captains Luke Donald (left) and Zach Johnson have signed up for a prime assignment.
ANDREW REDINGTON, GETTY IMAGES