Europe’s blowout Ryder Cup victory? It was two years in the making
ROME — Rory McIlroy dished out hugs left and right. So many hugs you felt like an outsider if you didn’t get one. Jon Rahm received a big hug, of the bear variety, but then Kelly Rahm got one, too. Both Schefflers got hugs, Scottie and Meredith. Players, caddies, children, DP World Tour officials — basically anyone McIlroy considered part of Ryder Cup Europe was brought in close for the real thing.
The 34-year-old wore big, boxy sunglasses to help with the setting sun on Sunday evening at Marco Simone, looking as ebullient as ever. But it was his hug with Matt Fitzpatrick that knocked them askew. When McIlroy took the shades off, he wiped tears from his eyes. These were passionate hugs, part of one, big, jubilant exhale for the leader of Team Europe. After maybe three dozen embraces, finally, his caddie Harry Diamond reappeared. Who knows where Harry had been — they won their match 2 and 1 over Sam Burns a while ago — but he was here now. They clapped their right hands together and pulled each other in as Rory let out a scream.
“YES. F–king YES,” he shouted. “Feels a bit different this time.”
That simple quote explains a lot about the 2023 Ryder Cup. It was played, like most Ryder Cups are, in direct reflection of the last Cup, in 2021 at Whistling Straits, when the Euros lost in record fashion, 19-9. The two years that followed were as rocky as Ryder Cup intermissions get, but it was all over once they guaranteed 14.5 points. McIlroy’s parade of hugs would continue in spurts for much of the next hour, as the final four matches played out purely in the name of record keeping, to the tune of 16.5-11.5. Only when everyone arrived on the 1st tee for the trophy ceremony did all of Team Europe begin to celebrate as one.
Jon Rahm had tied the Spanish flag around his waist like a beach towel. Shane Lowry turned his Irish flag into an orange and green scarf. McIlroy held up one corner of the Northern Ireland flag, posing for a photo and replacing cheeeese with, “For God and for Ulster.”
“Where’s the American flag?” Ludvig Aberg’s caddie, Jack Clarke, chided to Sepp Straka’s caddie, Duane Bock, loud enough for everyone to hear. Euro heads whipped around to see how the American looper would handle this tricky spot, cheering for European success over his home country. He mimed the lips-are-seeled sign while Straka jumped in with the final word: “It’s in the bin!” And metaphorically, it was. The Americans were beaten 4-0 in the opening session on Friday morning, about 54 hours before the closing ceremony, and that was the closest this event ever really felt.
This moment, just minutes before the Euros got their sticky, champagne-glazed hands on the trophy, was about as giddy as golfers get — a bunch of athletes bred to have individualistic egos, now experiencing the delights of winning with teammates.
Viktor Hovland to Jon Rahm: “We f–king did it. We f–king did it.”
Rahm, in response to his thirsty teammates: “I have tequila in the room.”
Justin Rose’s caddie, Mark Fulcher, to McIlroy: “Congrats to you. Their leader. You are the leader.”
Tommy Fleetwood’s caddie, Ian Finnis, to Hovland’s caddie, Shay Knight: “No two more years of that s–t.”
Fleetwood himself was plenty genuine, just not as boisterous as his caddie. He was exhausted, standing at the edge of the huddle, leaning on the back of Tyrrell Hatton’s caddie, Mick Donaghy. “I’ve been feeling sick for about two hours during that,” Fleetwood said. Sick as in nervous. He played well, but spent much of the afternoon watching the leaderboards at Marco Simone flip from blue to red.
“Myself and Tommy and Bob were in the locker room before we went out,” Lowry said later, “and we joked about hoping that it wasn’t going to come down to our matches, and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing on the board, to be honest.”
“Ya bastards,” Fleetwood said with a smile.
For about 50 minutes, a European collapse felt plausible. Fleetwood was too anxious to eat. The five-point lead they started the day with was whittled down to 2.5. But the string of boxes the Americans had to check was too long. When Fleetwood sniped the green on the drivable 16th hole and Rickie Fowler fanned his into the water, the Cup was theirs. That’s when the stream of McIlroy hugs began. As well as a bit of showmanship.
“I can’t believe it!” McIlroy shouted sarcastically to the crowd on 18. “Thirty-five years of overachieving. I can’t believe it!” The Europeans have now won seven straight home Ryder Cups — every one since 1993 — and won’t have to do so again until 2027. McIlroy is keeping some sort of receipts when he says that — implying that the discourse surrounding all those wins is that the Euros are punching above their weight. He repeated the sentiment a few times Sunday evening, emphasis on the sarcasm.
If it comes across as mocking, McIlroy was clearly okay with it. At its core, this event is all about egos being tested, ribbing from spectators, and players finding comfort in the discomfort, then rising to the occasion. McIlroy did exactly that, winning more points (four) than any other competitor. He has the most poker chips at the table, and acted like it. When he sat down for the press conference, he first kicked his feet up on the table and leaned back. “I’ve been waiting 24 hours for this,” he said. McIlroy hasn’t enjoyed press conferences much these last four months, but this one was clearly different.
The Cup had been a bit boring for most of four sessions until, on the 18th green of the final match Saturday night, it got personal. Cantlay’s caddie, Joe LaCava, lingered too long as he celebrated an improbable, winning birdie from his man, hovering purposefully in McIlroy’s vicinity as he lined up a potential tying putt. A whole helluva lot happened after that — LaCava got into a shouting match with Lowry, LaCava got into a shouting match with Justin Rose, McIlroy got into with Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay — but the consequence was McIlroy and his teammates felt disrespected. After a cold plunge, a good night’s rest and a quick morning study session of Marcus Aurelius’ thoughts in stoicism, McIlroy arrived at the course with something extra in mind.
About 10 hours later he dishing out those hugs on the 18th hole, breaking for just an instant to join chants about Cantlay’s hat (or lack thereof). To the tune of ”Zombie” by The Cranberries:
Where’s your haaaaat
Where’s your haaaaat
There’s a rivalry of sorts there. Cantlay and McIlroy are both members of the PGA Tour Policy Board and both have to work together to dictate the future of professional golf, but they certainly don’t agree on everything. Through the dumb luck of a 43-foot putt that dropped Saturday night, both seemed to galvanize their respective squads and add another page to the American-European rivalry. Twenty-four months is a long time, but McIlroy is already thinking about 2025.
“I’ve said this for the last probably six or seven years to anyone that will listen,” McIlroy said. “I think one of the biggest accomplishments in golf right now is winning an away Ryder Cup. And that’s what we’re going to do at Bethpage.”
While we’re moving along in two-year increments, it’s impossible to not think of where he was two years ago, in tears at Whistling Straits. This European squad was counted out, and built something great from those hollow feelings. Their captain, Luke Donald, was an assistant captain then, but about 14 months ago he was the unwanted captain. Donald campaigned against Henrik Stenson for the role and lost, only to be gifted the position last summer when Stenson committed his future to LIV Golf. The Euros lost more than just Stenson to the LIV ranks, but McIlroy said it best before any shots were hit in Italy: They’re going to miss us more than we’re missing them.
On Sunday night, you had to believe him. He has even more poker chips now.
Instead of the old guard, Donald employed vice captains that were hype men as much as they were analytical gurus. Thomas Bjorn to make rookie Dane Nicolai Hojgaard feel comfortable. Nicolas Colsaerts to skol clap until he couldn’t skol clap anymore. Francesco Molinari as a familiar face, and Edoardo Molinari, his brother, as the statistician drawing up pairings. They created a mini team style event, held in January, strictly with the Ryder Cup in mind. They paired players up at DP World Tour events to build camaraderie and organized a trip for all 12 at Marco Simone. Donald surprised players on Monday with special, two-minute videos from their loved ones. Simple encouragement if you ask the cap’, but incredibly meaningful if you ask the players.
Is all of that the reason for 30-going-on-34 years of European dominance in European Ryder Cups? Who knows. They did a bunch of these things because winning these events has grown into an elaborate process of creating comfort and companionship. The other team tried it, too, but it clearly didn’t work quite as well. Not all of it may have been necessary, but in the immediate moments after a shellacking, it looks just one way: brilliant.
The last we saw of those brilliant boys Sunday night was from afar, through squinted eyes and camera lenses. It was dark now, but they stood together atop the clubhouse balcony of Marco Simone Golf and Country Club, with 15 bottles of Moët and Chandon lined up neatly in front of them. Dozens of photographers waited in the courtyard below, ready for the shower.