Tour Confidential: Europe’s Ryder Cup secret, team MVPs, a curious hat controversy

Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald celebrating Sunday evening with Team Europe.

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Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we discuss the Europeans’ Ryder Cup victory, what went wrong for the Americans, the strange fallout from a hat controversy and more.

Europe claimed the Ryder Cup over the U.S.A. on Sunday at Marco Simone outside of Rome, beating the Americans 16.5-11.5 and extending their lengthy winning streak at home. A lot happened this week, but let’s start here: What was the difference between the two squads?

Josh Berhow, managing editor (@Josh_Berhow): The stars showed up for Europe. Rory, Rahm and Hovland went 4-7-3 at Whistling Straits but combined for a 9-2-3 record this time (although Rahm was great both years). It was the opposite for the Americans. Scottie Scheffler and Jordan Spieth were both 0-2-2. Thomas, despite his play coming in, has thrived in this event. But he was 1-2-1. Xander and Collin both had three wins two years ago. This year they got a point each. And by the way, Dustin Johnson, while he was never really in consideration this year, had five(!) points in 2021 they had to replace. These events are just really hard for the away team to win, and Europe did a better job playing together and got what it needed from its big guns. And as much as the U.S. team likes to say some of the controversy from this year didn’t affect them, why is it that the controversy always seems to follow the Americans?

Jack Hirsh, assistant editor (@JR_HIRSHey): I agree with Josh, however, the U.S. team’s advantage coming in was depth. The last man on the U.S. team was Justin Thomas, he of two major victories and a sparkling team match record. The last man on team Europe was Ludvig Aberg, he of exactly zero major championship starts. Aberg got two points this week, including a demoralizing beat down of Scottie Scheffler and Brooks Koepka, while Thomas had to carry Jordan Spieth, who might as well have not played this week. The Europeans also got a multi-point effort from Robert MacIntyre, and had five players win three or more points! Meanwhile, Rickie Fowler laid a big ole’ goose egg this week. The depth advantage was totally flipped.

Jessica Marksbury, senior editor (@Jess_Marksbury): All great points. I would agree that the U.S. did not get what was expected from the stars on the roster. I mean, World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, the most consistently excellent player on Tour, failing to win a match outright is unthinkable! Then, of course, there’s the horrific performance in foursomes, in which Europe won seven of the eight available points. You can’t expect to win a Ryder Cup with a record like that. Then there’s the clutch factor. Team USA just seemed to be lacking in the department. Down the stretch, it was Europe who drained the putts and chips when things were tight and it really mattered.

Zephyr Melton, assistant editor (@zephyrmelton): Europe’s best players showed up, while the USA’s did not. The Euros also got off to fast starts, dominating the 1st hole all week, and they also came up clutch coming down the stretch. There were a number of reasons Europe won, but those are the things that stick out to me.

Who are your two American and European MVPs? And whose performances were you most disappointed by?

Berhow: Rory got the most European points but I think it’s Hovland. He was winless at Whistling Straits and was 3-1-1 this week. He was also one-half of the historic 9-and-7 win over Scheffler and Koepka. Homa is the easy pick for the U.S. MVP, which isn’t a surprise given his Presidents Cup performance last year. Disappointments? Scheffler, the No. 1 player in the world, was 0-2-2 and in the losing foursomes match that kicked off the entire Ryder Cup on Friday. It’s honestly hard to find some disappointing performances for Europe. Hojgaard was winless but played well in his match he halved when partnered with Rahm, and Fitzpatrick was 1-2 but was on fire when teamed with Rory in Friday afternoon fourballs, leading Europe to its only win of that session.

Rickie Fowler’s weird, winless Ryder Cup ends with surprising gesture
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Hirsh: Sure, Rory took care of business in about as subdued manner as one can in the Ryder Cup, so I’ll go with Jon Rahm and not for the matches he won, but for the ones he tied. On Friday afternoon, his two eagles in three holes helped keep an American flag off the board for the entire day. On Sunday, his tie (against Scheffler again, no less) stopped an American rally before it could even get started. For the U.S., the MVP is Homa no question, as no one else even had more than two points. In terms of disappointments, no one really disappointed me for the winners. Rose played far better than his record and Højgaard had a solid rookie debut. For the U.S., it’s no competition: Spieth. He was supposed to be a no-brainer captain’s pick and ended up weighing down Thomas more than anything. If he hadn’t played, I might not have noticed.

Marksbury: I’ll cast a third vote for Homa — his 3.5-point tally speaks for itself. For U.S. MVP No. 2, I’ll go with Patrick Cantlay. He had two wins and two losses, but the wins were important ones: the gutsy finish against McIlroy and Fitzpatrick in Saturday four-ball, and a singles victory that was a must-win to keep any hope of a U.S. comeback alive. Europe’s MVP was McIlroy for sure — he was on the razor’s edge of going 5-0, were it not for Cantlay’s insane birdie on the 18th hole on Saturday. My European No. 2 is Jon Rahm. His gutsy halves were incredible momentum-killers for the Americans. Biggest U.S. disappointment has to be Scheffler, simply because, when you have the resume he does, expectations are through the roof, and he didn’t deliver. On the European side, it’s hard to pick on anyone, because they all contributed, so I’ll just go with the default lowest points-earner in Nicolai Hojgaard.

Melton: USA MVP: Max Homa. He was the lone American with a winning record on the week, and one of the few players who didn’t look overmatched. Europe MVP: Rory McIlroy. Wee Mac provided four points on the week, and was an emotional leader for his team at Marco Simone. USA LVP: Scottie Scheffler. If you’re the No. 1-ranked player in the world, you can’t lay an egg like that. Europe LVP: Nicolai Højgaard. He was the only Euro without a win, but he still contributed with a half.

Much has been said about how the two teams prepared for this week. Seven of Europe’s players, for example, played in the BMW Championship two weeks ago, while the majority of the U.S. hadn’t played since the Tour Championship five weeks ago. How much stock do you put in that? And is it something the Americans need to address?

Berhow: It definitely could be a factor and it’s something the Ryder Cup Committee should look into after getting some honest feedback from its players. But most of the Americans had a few weeks off before the 2021 Ryder Cup and dominated. So back then we probably said they were well-rested?

Hirsh: I don’t think that’s anything more than coincidence. If the result had been flipped, we’d be saying the same thing about the Europeans not taking enough time off before the Ryder Cup. Hindsight is always 20/20 and the only way to eliminate this discussion is the move the Ryder Cup to the summer, which ain’t happening.

Marksbury: I think there’s something to it. Five weeks is a really long layoff in pro golf. No player would ever “rest” like that for a major championship, right? Why should the Ryder Cup be any different?

Melton: I suppose rust could be a factor, but it’s impossible to pinpoint just one reason the Americans played so poorly. They just looked straight-up bad.

Luke Donald was the Europeans’ winning captain, with Zach Johnson taking the loss. What’s your take on their influence over their teams? And what’s your opinion on Johnson’s performance specifically?

Berhow: It’s hard to say without being in those team rooms, but you have to feel good for Donald, who wasn’t even supposed to be the captain this year yet stepped in, received rave reviews and led his team to a victory. Donald and his crew seemed to do a good job of setting up the course in their favor. As for Johnson, I don’t think he put out the right pairing to begin this entire Ryder Cup to get his team started off on the right foot, and I wish we would have heard even a few more genuine answers from him. Everything was just “so proud of my guys.” Was hoping for more honest answers and less canned comments.

Hirsh: I agree 100 percent with Josh about Donald, specifically when it comes to course setup, which has become as much of a factor as anything in these matches, with the home team taking the last five. For Johnson, I think he will go down as the worst captain in U.S. Ryder Cup history. (Yes, worse than Watson!) Again agree with Josh that his answers were not sincere and as someone who used to cover college football, it sounded a lot like coach-speak. Deciding to provide Jordan Spieth with whatever information he did Saturday evening on the 16th tee may have been worse than Hal Sutton pairing Tiger and Phil together twice in 2004.

Marksbury: Fair points on Johnson, but I’m inclined to give him a little bit more slack. Could he have made better decisions in terms of player order on Day 1? Yes, definitely. But at the end of the day, his guys didn’t deliver. When a power pairing like Brooks Koepka and Scottie Scheffler get waxed 9 and 7, what can you do? There are limits to Johnson’s powers.

Melton: Captains can’t hit the shots for their players, but they can at least put them in positions to succeed, and this week it didn’t seem like Johnson did that. He told the media he “wouldn’t change a thing,” but I’m sure he’d do things differently if given a mulligan.

Patrick Cantlay and caddie Joe LaCava on the 18th green at Marco Simone. Getty Images

Patrick Cantlay was the talk of the Ryder Cup on Saturday, when a report alleged “a fracture” in the U.S. team room and said Cantlay wasn’t wearing his team hat in protest of players not being paid for the Ryder Cup. (Cantlay called the report “totally false.”) How would you unpack everything that happened with Cantlay?

Berhow: He was asked on Saturday night if Ryder Cup players should be paid and while he didn’t say yes, he didn’t say no. His non-answer said enough. In my opinion, two things can be true: Patrick, and probably others, might think players should get paid. But it also might not be that big of a deal to them where it splits a team room.

Hirsh: Obviously, someone thought or said something about it or it wouldn’t have come out or would have been denied sooner. I’m sure the players want to be paid, but I don’t think it was enough to make Cantlay protest by not wearing a hat; that seemed pretty strange. He was still wearing the rest of the uniform and not wearing a hat is a pretty common thing at the Ryder Cup.

Marksbury: Cantlay isn’t the first player to believe he should be paid for exhibitions like the Ryder Cup, or to have a desire to opt out of the pomp-and-ceremony events that accompany them. Like Josh, I think his non-answer about whether or not players should be paid is telling, but it seems very unlikely that that would cause any friction in the team room.

Melton: I agree with Josh. I believe Cantlay has his grievances with the lack of pay in the Ryder Cup, but I don’t think the team room was as fractured as some might’ve suggested.

Despite the lopsided final score, Europe clinched the Cup when Rickie Fowler conceded a birdie putt of 2 feet, 8 inches to Tommy Fleetwood, a move that was questioned on the broadcast. Should Fowler have made him putt?

Berhow: It seemed generous! But in the grand scheme it wasn’t really going to matter much. But ideally you’d like to see guys have to make a putt to actually clinch a Ryder Cup. Oh well.

Hirsh: It was gracious, but honestly, if I’m Fleetwood, I want to hit that putt. I want to say “I made a putt to win the Ryder Cup” no matter how short it was. I would have said, “Thanks, but let me make this.”

Melton: He absolutely should’ve made him putt it! They might be pros, but three-footers aren’t automatic. His teammate Robert MacIntyre missed an even shorter putt not long before. It didn’t have any impact on the final score, but conceding a three-footer with the Cup on the line isn’t the best strategy.

Marksbury: Rickie is known for being gracious and a gentleman, but I agree with Jack. Make Tommy drain the putt!

Justin Thomas was the most controversial captain’s pick coming into the event, and he finished the week 1-2-1 (1.5 points) thanks to a singles victory on Sunday. Was the pick warranted?

Berhow: Hindsight is always 20/20. Thomas was not great, but neither was his partner, Jordan Spieth, or a lot of the Americas, for that matter. I think Cam Young or Keegan Bradley would have been the pick over Sam Burns, if I had to pick one mulligan. But the U.S. needed better play from lots of people. It’s hard to argue with the energy Thomas brings, which was evident in his singles win over Sepp Straka.

Hirsh: Tough to say because Spieth was so uncharacteristically inept. I again agree with Josh that it probably should have been Bradley over Burns.

Marksbury: I’d pick JT again. Maybe it wasn’t his week, but few players bring the energy like he does when he gets on a roll.

Melton: Pundits speculated Thomas would be the Americans’ emotional leader in Rome, but it’s tough to be a spark plug when you don’t play well. I don’t fault the pick, it just didn’t work out. That’s how it goes sometimes.

Twenty years from now, what will you remember most about the 2023 Ryder Cup?

Berhow: Rory McIlroy, yelling in a parking lot.

Hirsh: Yup, not every day you see a good ole fashion parking-lot shouting match.

Melton: HatGate and the power of social media. It started with a tweet! Gonna be fun to reminisce on that one.

Marksbury: HatGate is hard to top! For the sake of variety, I’ll go with this: I love the fact that the Ryder Cup ain’t over til it’s over. Despite the historic shellacking the U.S. suffered in the first two days, I’ll never forget that, late on Sunday, there was still a chance the U.S. could win. A path to victory did exist, and didn’t seem totally outrageous. Sure, it didn’t end up coming to pass, but it could have! And that’s the real beauty of this event.

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