Controversy rattled this Ryder Cup. But these 5 little things mattered more

Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy shared a moment at the Ryder Cup.

Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy shared a moment at the Ryder Cup.

Getty Images

ROME — As he sat in the back row of the press conference, soaked in sweat, champagne and satisfaction, Rory McIlroy still hadn’t let it go.

“We talked about it as a team last night,” McIlroy said. “We felt like it was disrespectful, and it wasn’t just disrespectful to Fitz and I. It was disrespectful to the whole team.”

McIlroy was referring to an incident on the 18th green the night before, when Patrick Cantlay’s 43-footer for birdie sent the surrounding Americans into a hat-waving frenzy, Cantlay’s caddie Joe LaCava got too close to McIlroy for his liking, a confrontation ensued, spilling from the green to the parking lot to, eventually, the pool of Team Europe’s hotel, where Shane Lowry took him to cool off, literally, by taking to the cold plunge.

The incident immediately became the Ryder Cup’s most visible moment; it led to several viral videos that also told a larger story about Patrick Cantlay, the U.S. team and McIlroy’s emotions around the event. The point had also made a distinct difference in score; Cantlay’s match win meant the U.S. side still had a reasonable chance going to Sunday’s singles. That didn’t pan out; Europe trounced ’em 16.5-11.5. But even in victory, the moment was still on McIlroy’s mind.

“Everything will be fine,” he said post-win. “It’s a point of contention and it still hurts — but time is a great healer and we’ll all move on.”

He’s right: We all will move on. The golf world will move on from Rome and from the Ryder Cup. (Next stop: Jackson, Miss.!) Fans will finish their vacations and head home. We will, too. But what will we bring with us when we do? There’s no question that HatGate gave us the Cup’s biggest moment. But it was the small moments that defined the Cup far better.

I SPOKE TO BONES MACKAY on Tuesday. Golf’s most legendary active caddie had a moment to kill beside the practice green, and I was eager for his perspective given he’s now caddied a dozen Ryder Cups — and given it was hardly a sure thing that he’d be here. Justin Thomas’ down year left him (and Mackay) very much in limbo before a captain’s pick from U.S. captain Zach Johnson yielded one of the final spots.

“I’m just extremely grateful to be here. It’s my 12th Cup as a caddie and my 14th in a row, in some capacity — and it might as well be the first,” Mackay said. Then he spoke slowly, carefully, earnestly. “I just think this event speaks to what is great about golf. These guys do what they do, it means so much, and nobody’s making a nickel.”

The last time Mackay caddied at a Ryder Cup was in 2016, when he was still on the bag for Phil Mickelson. After their split, Mackay worked the next two editions for NBC. And then, just after the 2021 Cup, he got the call: Thomas wanted Mackay to join his team. Typically we hear about players splitting with caddies; these days it can be the other way around, too. Mackay finds himself part of a generation of caddies — think Webb Simpson’s longtime looper Paul Tesori, now on the bag for Cameron Young, or Rickie Fowler’s longtime looper Joe Skovron, now on the bag for Tom Kim — who have traded in for a newer model. I asked Mackay: What keeps them coming back?

“We were all out here when lunch consisted of a hot dog at a concession stand and an iced tea,” he said. “You’d get a ticket when you showed up. Now? I mean, life has changed dramatically for caddies in our time. And for those of us who were out here when we were sleeping four to a hotel room, it’s nice to stay out here as long as we can and enjoy what’s so amazing about it. We’ve got Tiger to thank for that because as soon as he showed up he changed all of our lives.”

That was another reason I wanted to talk to Mackay. For 25 years he was best known as Phil Mickelson’s caddie. For a decade Joe LaCava was best known as Tiger Woods’ caddie. Now here they were carrying for Thomas and Cantlay, two centerpieces of this Ryder Cup team. Just how well do they know each other?

“I’ve just learned so much from him,” Mackay said of LaCava. “When you’ve had 1,000 meals with a guy, you learn some things. He was out here for several years before I got out and I learned a lot from watching him communicate with Fred [Couples]. Just the little things. I remember him talking about Fred’s creativity.

“We were eating dinner one night and he says, ‘When Fred hits it in the trees I never say a word.’ I asked why that was. He said, ‘What he’s got going on in his head, his ability to see and execute shots with those hands? There’s no way I can bring anything to the table given what’s going on there.’ At the time I was working with Phil and I thought hmm, that’s something I can apply at work.”

Mackay also paraphrased Rory McIlroy. “I’ve always liked how he’s said it’s hard to ever call it a good year if you don’t win the Ryder Cup,” he said.

rory mcilroy and luke donald
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It was a strange twist of fate that, just four days later, McIlroy would be screaming at Mackay about something LaCava had just done. He texted him on Sunday morning, apologizing.

“He was the first American I saw after I got out of the locker room so he was the one that took the brunt of it,” McIlroy said. “I texted Bones this morning and apologized for that.”

NOBODY WAS MORE IMPRESSED with Max Homa’s putt on the 18th green than Homa’s caddie Joe Greiner. It was Greiner who’d talked Homa into taking an unplayable lie just minutes before, forcing him to navigate a tricky up-and-down for par. When the eight-footer found the bottom of the cup, Greiner hit the deck, too, raising his hands above his head and lowering them in Homa’s direction, suggesting that he was, in fact, not worthy.

The rest of the U.S. team wasn’t particularly worthy either. Homa emerged the week’s top U.S. performer, logging 3.5 points over five matches while the next best earned just 2. That final putt earned Homa a 1-up victory, keeping the U.S. team’s winding path to victory still technically open. He got to do his favorite thing from the Ryder Cup, too:

“J.T. told me at the Presidents Cup about how it’s so fun being at these events because you can act like an idiot if you want to,” Homa said before Sunday singles. “And I acted like an idiot the few times I was lucky enough to have my ball go in the hole.”

The freedom to act like an idiot? Maybe that’s something we should all embrace.

IN THE AFTERMATH of his team’s resounding victory, Luke Donald was asked about his late parents. What would they have thought of all of this?

The question clearly took Donald aback. But he handled that surprise with the same thoughtfulness that he brought to his role the entire week.

“I’ve never had that one before. I’ve never thought about the answer,” he said. “Yeah, I miss them. I miss them, of course. I would have loved to share this moment with them.”

He concluded the answer with something profound — about the week, about his team, about the sport of golf.

“It’s not just for ourselves. That’s what makes the Ryder Cup so special is we play it for the people that mean so much to us,” he said. “Certainly my parents meant a lot to me. So yeah, they would be very proud.”

Rightly so. Donald was spectacular in his role as captain. I’m generally a skeptic on that sort of thing; how much can the captain really matter, anyway? And it’s much easier to look like the genius captain when your players are rattling the flagstick with every other chip. But I appreciated the way he handled questions head-on, the way he was respectful but firm, the way he supported his players with love and poise, the way he came off like someone who’d been leading teams his entire life.

But my favorite moment of Donald’s was his first. When he stepped to the podium at the opening ceremony he greeted the crowd with several lines of [what sounded to a dumb American like] beautiful Italian, sending a wave of delight through the crowd. Then he introduced each of the men on his team. And then they were off.

Rory McIlroy summed up Donald’s performance succinctly:

“I think everyone sitting here would be very happy to have him again,” he said, looking ahead to 2025.

The little things go a long way.

I CAME UPON XANDER SCHAUFFELE on the putting green just before his Sunday singles tee time. He wasn’t wearing a hat.

That’s unlike Schauffele. It’s unlike Collin Morikawa. It’s unlike Justin Thomas and it’s unlike Greiner, too. But all five went cap-free on Sunday, standing in solidarity with capless crusader Patrick Cantlay, he of the aforementioned Saturday kerfuffle.

Xander Schauffele played without a hat on Sunday.
Xander Schauffele played without a hat on Sunday. Getty Images

The no-cap call came in response to a Saturday news report about Cantlay’s choice not to wear a hat as a form of protest; the same report alleged a “fractured” U.S. team room. My first instinct was that diving back into Saturday’s drama on Sunday meant living in the past. But the more I watched the U.S. team the more I appreciated the gesture. We often dog on the Americans for being unable to match the Europeans when it comes to team unity. But what better way to bring the gang together than to make a show of hatless solidarity?

“The loss that we had this week has absolutely nothing to do with team camaraderie because this is probably the closest team I’ve ever been a part of,” Thomas said post-round.

Homa echoed that sentiment.

“You watch this your whole life on TV and you get to experience it. It’s amazing. It’s a bummer to lose, clearly, but it was cool. I really love these guys, and it was a true pleasure to be with all of them.”

We never quite got to the bottom of exactly why Cantlay wasn’t wearing a hat. Was he dodging a nasty tan line before his wedding? Avoiding an ill-fitting hat? Leaning into his no-cap persona from Whistling Straits? Making a statement? Or just taking advantage of the sponsor-free week?

But we do know why the others weren’t wearing hats: solidarity with their most-maligned teammate. Even in a losing effort, it was a little gesture that went a long way.

THE TWO PIECES OF RYDER CUP CONTENT that made me think the hardest came from Ryder Cup Europe’s social channels.

The first video was simple and beautiful: Each of the 12 Europeans introduced himself to the camera.

The video was particularly powerful because it reminded us how we typically see these guys: through an American-centric PGA Tour lens. Sepp Straka typically has a Southern accent — but not here! That’s how you pronounce Nicolai Hojgaard? And that’s how Viktor Hovland says his own name?!

I’m always amazed at how well the European team meshes given their geographic differences and language barrier. But perhaps this is some tiny lesson: On Team Europe, come as you are.

In the second video, members of Team Europe attempted to pronounce the name of Swedish rookie sensation Ludvig Aberg.

The beauty of the video wasn’t that they nailed the pronunciation, although Hojgaard and Hovland seemed damn close. Instead, the beauty came from the fact that they’d tried to, that they’d given it thought, that there was a genuine curiosity that went into understanding someone else’s background.

I thought of the videos again on Sunday night as the Americans filed out of their losing press conference and the Europeans filed into their winning press conference and we all tried to make sense of why the latter beat the former with some sort of deeper analysis than well, they just made more putts.

Justin Rose provided one clue when he referenced the team’s scouting trip, Donald’s leadership message and how it all played into their preparation.

“There’s a really strong culture on the European team,” he said before seemingly taking a shot at the Americans’ buddy system. “A good pairing on the European team doesn’t mean playing with your best mate. It’s about representing something bigger than yourself, and I feel like that’s, for me, what being a European Ryder Cup player is all about.”

Justin Rose on Team Europe. Getty Images

Jon Rahm was largely silent in the post-round presser; McIlroy was the center of attention both because of the previous night’s controversy and because he’s Rory McIlroy. But he chimed in helpfully and thoughtfully here.

“It’s the ability to walk through those gates and those doors and forget about who you are outside of this week,” he said. “What you have done or what you may do afterwards really truly doesn’t matter.”

But it was when McIlroy began talking about one aspect of their scouting trip that the rest of the group perked up, nodding in approval.

“Everyone would probably agree with me but we sat around the fire pit that night and we chatted and we got to know each other really well,” McIlroy said. “And that was an amazing experience. I got to know things about these guys; I thought I knew them for a long time, but I got to know something different about them.

“I think that really galvanized us as a team, and I think just spending time with these guys is becoming more meaningful because I know I don’t have that many left,” McIlroy said.

Shane Lowry objected when he said that — McIlroy, at 34, has plenty in the tank and just finished off his best Ryder Cup yet — but there was no denying the youth elsewhere on the podium. Jon Rahm is 28, Viktor Hovland is 26, Ludvig Aberg is 23 and Nicolai Hojgaard is 21. McIlroy admitted he looks at them with envy. He enjoys these weeks so much he wishes he could have more and more.

“To see guys like Ludvig come in here and be an absolute stud and take everything in stride, I wish I was in his position again, looking forward to playing in 15 or 20 Ryder Cups or whatever it is he’s going to play in,” he said. “I’m just so proud to be a part of this team. It is — it’s very, very meaningful.”

It’s the little stuff that made it that way.

Dylan Dethier

Dylan Dethier Editor

Dylan Dethier is a senior writer for GOLF Magazine/ The Williamstown, Mass. native joined GOLF in 2017 after two years scuffling on the mini-tours. Dethier is a graduate of Williams College, where he majored in English, and he’s the author of 18 in America, which details the year he spent as an 18-year-old living from his car and playing a round of golf in every state.

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