Ryder Cup legends joined LIV. This week they face that harsh reality
ROME — There are highlights playing everywhere at Marco Simone, reminders of Ryder Cups gone by, triumphant golfers fist-pumping their way through legendary matches on video boards planted ’round the course. Mostly they’re from European Ryder Cups, which means mostly they’re from European Ryder Cup wins. Highlights from Le Golf National come up the most. That one was held in 2018, roughly a million golfing years ago.
Ahead of that particular cup, European captain Thomas Bjorn decided to use his four captain’s picks on four aging legends. Sergio Garcia, 38. Paul Casey, 41. Ian Poulter, 42. Henrik Stenson, 42. None had qualified on points. In another era, this could have led to some controversy — was it fair to leave promising talent Matthew Fitzpatrick at home? — but these four had 20 Cups’ experience between them and far more success than failure. Poulter and Garcia in particular boasted spectacular Cup records. Their names were still synonymous with the Cup.
They got the band back together at the 2021 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. Casey qualified on points. So too did Lee Westwood, experiencing a career resurgence at age 48. Garcia and Poulter received captain’s picks. Stenson was selected to come to Wisconsin as a vice captain alongside a group that included Martin Kaymer and Graeme McDowell.
A year later they’d all joined LIV.
ON WEDNESDAY MORNING at Marco Simone Golf Club, Rory McIlroy was asked a pointed question. McIlroy had been arguably the best player on those teams. Some of his best memories as a golfer came in those team rooms. But he’s been as anti-LIV as any top pro, which has left him in an awkward in-between.
“This week, of all weeks, do you actually miss guys like Sergio, Poulter, Westwood?”
“I mean, it’s certainly a little strange not having them around,” he said. That wasn’t quite a “yes.”
“I think this week of all weeks it’s going to hit home with them that, y’know, they are not here,” he said. “And I think they are going to miss being here more than we’re missing them.”
Here McIlroy caught himself, realizing that what he’d just said had come off slightly cruel.
“I’m not saying that that’s, like — It’s just more I think this week is a big realization that the decision that they made has led to not being a part of this week, and that’s tough,” he continued.
It’s not just the European Ryder Cuppers. Check out that U.S. team from 2018 and you’ll see that fully half the roster — Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed and Bubba Watson — has left the PGA Tour for LIV, too.
Koepka’s here this week; LIV golfers were eligible for the U.S. team and his PGA Championship win plus Masters runner-up made him a near-lock for selection. But he’s the only one. And the Ryder Cup moves on.
To be a member of the European Ryder Cup team you must be a member of the DP World Tour. Garcia, the top points-getter in Team Europe’s history, resigned his membership in early May — as did others including Poulter and Westwood. By late summer he’d reportedly tried to undo that decision, offering to pay some £700,000 in fines and add DP World events in order to regain his eligibility. But this genie couldn’t be put back in the bottle.
“I always thought leading up to this week is when it’s going to hit home that they are not going to be here,” McIlroy concluded.
Jon Rahm has worked to bridge that gap. He’s expressed that he thinks it’s shortsighted for Team Europe to toss the winning experience by the wayside and, in advance of this week’s competition, revealed he’d been in touch with Garcia and Poulter, seeking counsel.
“I did talk to him and ask for advice. He did show me a lot of what to do at Whistling and obviously in Paris, as well,” Rahm said. “But I did have a little bit of a chat with [Garcia] and with Poulter as well,” he said. “Not that it’s going to be easy to take on the role that those two had both on and off the golf course, but just to hear them talk about what they thought and what they felt is obviously invaluable information.”
But the Ryder Cup moves on. What’s the alternative? Stenson was replaced in his European captaincy. Garcia has been replaced in the European lineup. It’s unlikely those LIV players would be playing members of this year’s Cup. But it’s a certainty that they’d be here, as captains and vice captains and bridges from the past to present. Dustin Johnson won all five matches two years ago; this year he wasn’t seriously considered for the U.S. side. McIlroy called this a “transition year.” Once the matches start on Friday, that torch will have been passed.
Justin Rose is 43 and has played Ryder Cups alongside all of the above. He considered LIV as a playing option but decided to stay loyal to golf’s establishment in large part to get access to its major championships — and to the Ryder Cup.
“Yeah, there is a difference. Obviously Westy, Poults, I know exactly the guys you’re talking about,” Rose said. “And obviously as captains or vice captains or however they may or may not be involved in the future, they do have a lot to offer, of course, from experiences and that point of view.
“But the more we can kind of blood the younger generation coming through, the quicker you’re going to kind of skip through that transition phase.”
By my count, 13 former Ryder Cuppers teed it up at LIV Chicago last week. And to my knowledge only Koepka flew from there to Rome.
There’s signage around Marco Simone, all caps, giant font, nodding to the host site and to the enormity of the competition.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO THIS
But not all roads.