This do-or-die hole could decide the Ryder Cup

marco simone 16th hole

Tyrrell Hatton reacts to his 3-wood flaring out right and into the water hazard on 16.

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ROME — The applause began in earnest, as the spectators hugging the 16th tee box had been standing there in the sun for quite some time. They were excited to see some action. But as golf fans know well, when the ball is on the tee, the cheering is supposed to cease. But not on Wednesday. At least not for Jon Rahm on the 16th hole. 

It had been a bit of a sleepy morning trek around the back nine for Team Europe. The fans are out and about, but the golf to this point really doesn’t matter. There are just 24 golfers here, and half of them were on the front nine. But as Rahm addressed his ball, the fans followed protocol and quieted. Until he backed off, looked around confused, and riled the crowd into constant applause as he ripped 3-wood. Finally, some noise at the Ryder Cup. Both on the tee and up near the green, where it landed safely on the putting surface. Get used to this, folks, because it’s bound to repeat itself all weekend long at Marco Simone. 

If you were playing a Ryder Cup Sims video game, you’d build a hole that looks like the 16th. Or like the 1st hole at last week’s Solheim Cup. Drivable par 4s with water hazards lurking, bunkers that make life difficult accessing pins and mounds that send balls careening in any direction. Only last week in Spain featured just a handful of players going for the green in one. This week, you’ll see everyone do it. 

All 12 Europeans came through the 16th late Wednesday morning, each taking their turn at launching for the green, which sat a delectable 300 yards away and 15 yards downhill. It was 3-wood for mostly everyone — only Tommy Fleetwood hit mini driver, which is basically a souped up 3-wood anyway — and that might prove to be too much. It’s just 275 or so to the front edge. Viktor Hovland, pumped up by the viking claps ringing out from those same spectators — caught his 3-wood a groove low, sending a missile that Jon Rahm aptly described with: “That needs to f–king sit down.”

Why? Because everything on the putting surface — or short of it — feels like a good result. Anything that goes long is at the mercy of the thick, crabby rough grass that has been growing fast in the hot Italian air. Rory McIlroy didn’t even need 3-wood — he went long with his 5-wood — and recoiled a bit. “That’s gonna be awkward,” McIlroy predicted with his view from the tee. And it was. His flop-shot from the rough was too floppy and his ball never made it to the green. The hole is all about accepting a 4 but doing everything you can for a 3 … so long as it doesn’t lead to a 5 or 6. Tyrrell Hatton found 5 (or 6) the quick way by fanning his shot into the drink. 

As for laying up, Justin Rose’s caddie Mark Fulcher said simply, “Not for me,” before Rosie jumped in to add “It’s a bit of an awkward layup anyway.” He’s not wrong. The landing zone is exclusively downhill, with an oddly-placed bunker surrounded by rough. The easiest way to look silly is play it short and find a worse lie than you’d get around the green. It all changes, Fulcher said, if both your opponents hit into the water.

In general, Team Europe loves this hole. They want to turn this home game into a driving and mid- to long-iron contest, effectively taking wedges and short-irons out of the hands of the Americans, who dominate that portion of the stat sheet. You do that by laying out par 4s that sit in the 300-360 yard range, or that reach well beyond 400 yards. On this week’s scorecard, there isn’t a single par 4 listed between 390 and 440 yards — that mid-level range where most pros would comfortably hit driver then pitching wedge.

Francesco Molinari understands this strategy as well as just about anyone. As an assistant captain (and the brother of stats-guru Eduardo Molinari), Francesco knows that they’ve been forced to move the tee up on this hole rather than play it to its full length. That’s why we’ve got Rory ripping 5-wood and wondering if it’s too much. There’s another tee about 15 yards back that organizers commandeered to extend the 2nd hole 40 yards longer than normal.

When we chatted about the 16th late Wednesday morning, Molinari seemed slightly disappointed, perhaps because he just watched Nicolai Hojgaard hit a ropey 3-wood to 10 feet, setting up an eagle putt (that he would eventually make). Maybe he likes the true risk-reward we see during the Italian Opens held here. But extending the 2nd and shortening the 16th is a two-birds-with-one-tee-box decision.

There wasn’t much for chaos on this steamy, dry afternoon, but Molinari clued me in on the hole’s saving grace that no one seems to be talking about.

“The prevailing wind is into the tee,” Molinari said as we walked down the fairway. “It was into us during our practice trip two weeks ago. Rory had to hit driver.”

He‘s a man of few words, but that’s all we need to know.

Sean Zak Editor

Sean Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just published his first book, which follows his travels in Scotland during the most pivotal summer in the game’s history.

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