Having won seven of the previous nine Ryder Cups, it was something of a shock when the USA hammered Europe 19-9 at Whistling Straits, Wisconsin, two years ago.
By Phil Rice
It was the biggest margin of victory since 1975 and caused the European team a certain amount of embarrassment. With six major champions in their line up and nine winners of PGA tour events, Europe were expected to continue their recent stellar cup form.
However, from the first matches on the Friday morning to the singles on Sunday, Steve Stricker’s US team were determined to reverse their poor record since the turn of the century. They led 6-2 after the first day’s play and never relinquished the lead.
Ireland’s Padraig Harrington was the unfortunate captain of the European team and while he could hardly be blamed for the landslide USA victory, he was a bitterly disappointed man on the Sunday evening. The Ryder Cup has always been high on Harrington’s list of priorities.
When I asked him in 2016 if he would like to captain the team in the future, he said it was one of his main ambitions, but that he wanted to play in further Ryder Cups before taking on that role. As it turns out, he didn’t feature as a player after that date but did fulfil his ambition to captain the side, albeit with an unfortunate result.
One of Harrington’s vice-captains in 2021 was Luke Donald, who is European captain for the 44th Ryder Cup, which gets underway on 29 September at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club in Rome, Italy.
In recent weeks, Donald has spoken with Harrington with regard to his experience and recommendations for leading the team.
Donald told him before the British Open that he was seriously considering selecting the Irishman if he performed well over the coming weeks.
As it turned out he had a poor Open and didn’t get selected as the oldest ever European player, at 52. Putting his personal disappointment aside, Harrington believes this European team is well capable of winning back the cup.
“I think we’re back,” he said at the recent Irish Open. “I think the team is very strong. I think they’re very much in form.”
The inclusion of the Offaly-native and 2019 Open champion Shane Lowry as one of Donald’s six wild card picks prompted debate, but Harrington was quick to back his fellow Irishman. “I don’t understand people questioning Shane’s selection,” he said.
“If we were playing a small tournament in the middle of nowhere, maybe Shane wouldn’t be the right pick, but when it comes to the Ryder Cup, I definitely trust in him.”
Lowry was one of the few bright lights of Harrington’s fateful captaincy at Whistling Straits. His record that week read, one defeat and two victories. Lowry, who finished a timely third at the Irish Open, feels that the questioning of his selection has been unjustified.
“I know I deserve to be there, the people who know what they were talking about know I deserve my place, so anyone else doesn’t really matter,” he said. “My form probably hasn’t been the greatest, but in some of the bigger events I’ve played some of my best golf and there’s nothing bigger than the Ryder Cup.”
His motivation now is to put the record straight after the events in Wisconsin, and much will be expected of world number two ranked Rory McIlroy. The Northern Irishman’s form has been mixed in recent weeks, but he still managed to finish in the top ten at last week’s PGA Championship.
After the disappointment of the loss in 2021, McIlroy broke down in tears saying how strongly he felt about his teammates and how he will be motivated to restore their pride two years hence.
He has certainly come a long way since his comments, as a 20-year-old, that the Ryder Cup was just an exhibition event. “I didn’t do what I was supposed to do at the last Ryder Cup, and I want to put that right this year,” said McIlroy after the Irish Open.
He added: “Earlier this year, I thought we were going to have a really tough time but the closer we’ve got to the cup, the more I’m liking what the team has become.”
The European Tour decided to exclude the LIV tour defectors for this year’s Ryder Cup, and that has allowed them to introduce some younger talent which has been performing well recently. Ludvig Aberg was described by McIlroy as, “an unbelievable player,” and his performance in winning the Irish Open shows how far he has come in just a few months since he turned professional.
“It’s great that players like Ludvig, Nicolai Hojgaard and Bob MacIntyre are in the team,” said McIlroy.“It injects a fresh youthful exuberance into the whole dynamic of the week, which is really cool.”
The Ryder Cup is a three-day treat for couch potatoes and with the growing belief that this year’s contest will be a closely fought affair, viewing figures are likely to remain high.