Every Ryder Cup captaincy invites questions.
Some questions are more pleasant than others.
With the home team cruising at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club, leading 10.5-5.5, the question hovering over Europe Captain Luke Donald was which part of his squad’s flummoxing of the Americans offered the most vivid example of his steady hand.
“He’s been a lot funnier than I thought he’d be,” said rookie Sepp Straka, who is 1-1-0 and will play Justin Thomas in Singles on Sunday. “He loves a good dad joke. He’s given us our space, but we’ve had a lot of conversations, as well. He really had a lot of confidence in his players, including his young players. He’s been amazing.”
There were plenty of distractions after Patrick Cantlay birdied the last three holes and he and Wyndham Clark flipped their match to beat Matt Fitzpatrick and Rory McIlroy on Saturday night. That gave the U.S. its first session win and others plenty to talk about, and while Donald took on all hat-waving questions, he kept his eyes on the prize.
“We’re five points up,” he said. “We’re in a great position. I really like our chances. I’ll address all 12 of my guys tomorrow. I’ll give them the right messaging, and they’ll be ready to play.”
This Ryder Cup will almost certainly be headed back to Europe – no team has come back from more than a 10-6 deficit – but it’s looked that way since shortly after the opening ceremony. It was as if Europe gleaned magical powers from that green, white and red flyover smoke.
The big lead is the players’ doing, of course, but Donald played a role.
For starters, his decision to open the Ryder Cup with Foursomes on Friday bucked convention and was therefore a gamble. The choice contravened three decades of precedent but resulted in a 4-0 sweep for Europe, just the fourth opening-session sweep in Ryder Cup history and the first by Europe.
Donald’s impeccable game-planning came up roses, as well.
“All week, all we’ve been talking about is getting off to fast starts,” Rory McIlroy said of the clean sweep Friday, when Europe never trailed any match. “Playing three-hole matches in practice – three holes, go again; three holes, go again – something that Luke’s drilled into us.”
The former world No. 1 Donald devoured every book he could find on teams and leadership, distilling them all into a cohesive leadership style that engendered profound trust among his players.
“Since early on the communication has been fantastic,” said Matt Fitzpatrick, whose early rampage in his Friday afternoon Fourballs match – 6 under through six holes – left his partner, McIlroy, laughing and clapping as they beat Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele, 5 and 3.
Donald made sure his players felt seen, as well. There was a vice captain, it seemed, for each of them, and reportedly poignant photos of them in the team room. There was a special locker reserved for the late Seve Ballesteros, whose likeness appeared on a giant banner that unfurled over the heads of fans and down the first tee grandstands.
Europe embraces and utilizes its Ryder Cup history differently than the U.S. Team does. Donald leaned on that continuity, from Ballesteros to José María Olazábal to Sergio Garcia to Jon Rahm, in such a way that it felt like they were all in Europe uniforms. In this way, the U.S. Team can seem to be playing against ghosts, especially on the road.
“We have past winning captains as vice captains, Ryder Cup champions as vice captains,” said Rahm (2-0-1 so far), who will play Scottie Scheffler in Singles on Sunday, a reprisal of their Singles match at the 2021 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, where the American came out on top.
“Everybody has a little bit of something they can share,” Rahm continued. “I think having somebody like Nicolas Colsaerts was great for the rookies, right. He had an incredible rookie performance in his first-ever match, and he can really put it in perspective for the new guys.”
Was it Donald’s pairings that worked so well? McIlroy, who earned only one point at the ’21 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, has been at his best whether he’s been with Tommy Fleetwood (Foursomes, 2-0) or Fitzpatrick (1-1). Likewise, it didn’t seem to matter whether Rahm was partnering Tyrrell Hatton (2-0) or Nicolai Højgaard (0-0-1).
To be sure, this U.S. Team struggled. Some sort of illness swept through the team, and the Americans never looked quite right. But Donald and Europe have earned their fat lead.
The marriage of veteran Justin Rose and rookie Robert MacIntrye was one of the captain’s master strokes, yielding an unlikely half point (erasing a 2-down-with-two-to-play deficit) in Friday afternoon’s Four-ball session. It worked again Saturday afternoon as Rose and MacIntyre ham-and-egged it to beat Thomas and Spieth, 3 and 2.
“The plan for Bob and Justin has been more than a couple days,” Donald said. “It’s been a longer one, and I’ve got to give full credit to what Justin has done. Really did take him under his wing.”
His most inspired pairing, though, might well be Ludvig Åberg and Viktor Hovland – a duo so potent it could torment the U.S. Team for years to come. They creamed out-of-sorts Brooks Koepka and Scheffler by the record Foursomes score of 9 and 7 on Saturday morning. Hovland will play Morikawa, and Åberg gets Koepka in Singles.
Some observers are already campaigning for Donald to captain Europe at the 2025 Ryder Cup matches at New York’s Bethpage Black. That may be a stretch, and the home team has become so borderline unbeatable that it may not matter who the visiting captain is. But for now, at Marco Simone, the force is definitely with Luke.
Source : PGA Tour