Can Zach Johnson’s star-studded US team maintain its grip on the Ryder Cup or will Luke Donald’s mixture of proven major winners and talented youngsters capitalise on a home draw and superior course knowledge to win the trophy back for Europe when the dust finally settles at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club?
The hosting of the 44th Ryder Cup at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club, located just 10 miles from the centre of Rome, will see Italy become only the third nation in mainland Europe – after Spain in 1997 and France in 2018 – to host the biannual match play event.
And while European golf fans will be praying that the result goes the same way in Rome as it did for Seve just over a quarter-century ago at Valderrama and for Thomas Bjorn’s merry band of men in Paris just five years past, there is no doubt that the 2023 renewal of this drama-filled clash of continents will be one of the most keenly observed in recent years,given the state of flux that the professional golf tours on both sides of the Atlantic are currently experiencing.
Neutrals will, of course, be hoping not only for a close fight, with matches that go down to the wire, but also one that allows the game’s best players, and not just those whose faces fit the bill or were on your chosen side of the LIV Golf-PGA Tour split before the merger.
European captain Luke Donald will effectively be leading his team with a little finger tied behind his back in that he hasn’t been able to call on the services of experienced Ryder Cuppers such as Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson – the latter being the man Donald replaced as captain – despite the fact that the DP World Tour has now kissed and made up with LIV, while US Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson had the much easier decision of whether or not to pick Brooks Koepka as a wildcard largely thanks to his performance in the Majors – and with a slight nudge from the Saudi PIF’s proposed substantial investment in the PGA Tour.
Personnel and politicking issues aside, there is no doubt that Marco Simone will provide a suitably drama-inducing challenge for both sides. Although not quite as demanding as Paris National when it comes to its use of water hazards, there is enough of the wet stuff out there, along with other man-made hazards, to ensure that the players will be have to think twice before blindly pulling out the driver on many of the par fours and fives, while the par threes also pose some devilish demands on accuracy, especially if the wind gets up, as it is prone to do in the autumn in these parts.
As with most previous Ryder Cup venues, the course, which has hosted the last two renewals of the Italian Open in order to give European players an early sighter, has undergone a significant remodelling to fit the demands of the world’s foremost team match play event. The changes, which were completed in 2021, focused on creating a course specifically tailored to create match play drama, with the previous layout rerouted not only to provide numerous risk-and-reward holes, but also to maximise the natural rolling terrain which will sap the stamina of those players required to play five matches.
Spectators will now enjoy unrivalled vantage points of the on-course action, as well as distant views of Rome, including spectacular views of St Peter’s Basilica and of the Castle of Marco Simone, which together will provide a memorable backdrop to what will hopefully be equally memorable sporting drama unfolding in the foreground.
Speaking about the challenges presented by the course, Luke Donald said: “It’s going to be a great match play course – there’s some exciting holes, a few drivable par 4s; some great par threes, and if the matches come down to 18, there’s another spectacular par-5 down the hill with water by the green that will test nerve and skill. The elevation changes will also give crowds incredible viewpoints to see some amazing golf.”
Speaking about his hopes of winning back the cup, Donald said: “I fully expect us to be underdogs, despite that home percentage of wins over the last 30 years. We’re going to have a bunch of established, world-class players along with a new generation of players playing well, and I think that creates an exciting mix to have at my disposal. And giving myself more picks will give me an opportunity to pick the best in-form team, which hasn’t always been the case.”
Asked about his hopes of pulling off the first away win since The Belfry in 1993, US captain Zach Johnson said: “We’re too used to being told we’re ‘strong on paper’ to come into this thinking we’re the better team. Europe are not the underdogs. They are on their home soil, they will have the majority of the fans rooting for them. But we’ll go there with what I believe will be our strongest team and do our best to retain the cup.”
Regardless of how the teams look on paper or in person, the stage is set for one almighty showdown. So, pull up a chair, plump up the cushions, uncork the chianti or chill down those Peronis, and settle down for yet another edition of the greatest golfing show on earth.
RYDER CUP TIMETABLE
September 26-28: Practice days with opening ceremony on Thursday evening.
Friday, September 29: Four fourballs matches from 9am, afternoon foursomes matches from 2pm.
Saturday September 30: Four fourballs matches in morning, four foursomes matches in afternoon.
Sunday, October 1: 12 singles matches from 11am.