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Europe's stars shine and the Americans collapse in astonishing Ryder Cup opening

Gavin Cooney

Europe 6.5

USA 1.5

EUROPE’S RYDER CUP team today affirmed what was once said in Rome: the fault is not among their stars. 

Jon Rahm, Viktor Hovland, and Rory McIlroy led Europe’s charge and then their resistance. They closed the first day at Marco Simone in Italy with a 6.5 to 1.5 lead over the United States that looks unassailable. It is the joint-largest first-day lead the Ryder Cup has seen since 1979, and it means Europe need just eight points out of the remaining 20 to win the Cup. Hopes of a closely-fought competition look like they will be deferred another two years. There has not been genuine final-day tension at this event since Medinah in 2012, and that collapse is the only recent counterpart for an American day as humiliating as this. 

europes-jon-rahm-celebrates-on-the-10th-green-during-his-morning-foursome-match-at-the-ryder-cup-golf-tournament-at-the-marco-simone-golf-club-in-guidonia-montecelio-italy-friday-sept-29-2023 Alamy Stock Photo Jon Rahm. Alamy Stock Photo

Europe started the day with a 4-0 whitewash of their guests in the foursomes and then defended that lead so well that they ended up extending it. The afternoon fourballs finished 2.5 to 1.5 in Europe’s favour, which marked a stunning turnaround. Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth were 1-Up with three to play; Scottie Scheffler and Brooks Koepka led their match by one hole on the 18th tee; and Wyndham Clark and Max Homa were 2-Up with two to play: all three matches ended in ties. Thus today became the first day in Ryder Cup history that the Americans went a full day without winning a single match. 

The first two of those ties rested on the heroics of Hovland and Rahm. Hovland curled an improbable birdie putt on the final green to gouge out a tie against Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, while Rahm’s performance across the day will be remembered forever. Against the world number one and a five-time major winner, Rahm eagled two of the closing three holes to rescue an improbable half-point. 

Rory McIlroy, meanwhile, evaded the whitest heat of the drama but won both of his Friday matches for the first time in his Ryder Cup career. The course pulsed and shook with the closing drama, and the wreckage affected Wyndham Clark and Max Homa. They were two of America’s better performers but wore the haunted look of condemned men on the 18th tee. Homa swiped left off the tee while Clark held his choke for the fairway, shanking the ball miles right. Homa missed a putt to guarantee the match, and so Justin Rose stood up to put the final piece of punctuation on an astonishing day. For Europe that was an exclamation point; for the abashed Americans, a question mark. What on Earth happened to a team as good as theirs?

Only Scheffler and Thomas can look back on the day with any semblance of pride.  Jordan Spieth chipped in brilliantly on the fourth hole in his fourball match but effectively abandoned ship after that, spraying the ball left and right but rarely straight. Koepka spent too much of the day in the shade; Brian Harman, Sam Burns, Xander Schauffele, Rickie Fowler and Collin Morikawa completely flopped; Homa and Clark undermined their steely work with their collapse down the stretch. 

rome-italy-29th-sep-2023-shane-lowry-irl-during-the-ryder-cup-2023-at-marco-simone-golf-country-club-on-september-29-2023-in-rome-italy-credit-independent-photo-agencyalamy-live-news Alamy Stock Photo Shane Lowry conducts the crowd. Alamy Stock Photo

And for all that Europe’s top-ranked players performed, it was their middle classes who proved the most upwardly mobile. Matt Fitzpatrick almost single-handedly beat the Americans in his sole outing, while Shane Lowry and Sepp Straka dovetailed neatly to win Europe’s third point amid the morning’s glory. Rookies Ludvig Aberg and Nicolai Hojgaard won crucial holes amid it all, while only Bob MacIntyre struggled.  

European captain Luke Donald flipped tradition in starting the day with the alternate-shot foursomes, Europe’s favoured format. He was plainly chasing momentum but could have been accused of goading precedent as the last time Europe started a home Ryder Cup with the foursomes was in 1993, also the year of the American’s last win away from home. 

But Donald was utterly vindicated by the morning whitewash. At Whistling Straits two years ago, Europe had only one player among the world’s top 13, whereas today they had three of the world’s top four. Rahm, Hovland, and McIlroy all went out in the morning at staggered times and all delivered.

Rahm, playing with Tyrrell Hatton and against Scheffler and Burns, led from the front, clanking the ball off the pin with a near hole-in-one from the seventh tee and then doing his best Larry Mize impression with an outrageous chip-in for par off the 10th green.

Scheffler ensured it was a heroic to only halve the hole, holding his nerve with a mid-range putt. With partner Burns playing terribly, Scheffler’s was a one-man resistance and he couldn’t deny gravity. Europe won the next two holes and the match was all over before anyone stepped on the 16th green. Burns is close to Scheffler but if he was picked as a kind of companion pony to coax the best out of his partner, it didn’t work. Instead, it was one of the worst selections seen around Rome since Caligula elevated his favourite horse to the Senate. 

Hovland, meanwhile, showed the scale of his improvement since Whistling Straits, bookending his foursomes pairing with rookie Ludvig Aberg with a couple of divine chips. The first came from the fringe of the first green and plonked in the hole, with the second from a bunker by the 15th green. The second didn’t drop, but it was so close as to be academic, and so the US pairing of Max Homa and Brian Harman conceded 4&3. Rookie Aberg naturally showed signs of nerves, but steadied as the day went on. 

McIlroy, meanwhile, teamed up with Tommy Fleetwood to down the reliable US partnership of Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, who have been 5-0 across the Ryder and President’s Cups. The tightest match of the morning swung around decisively on the hitherto unexplored 16th, with Cantlay leaving a putt to win the hole racing five feet by. Schauffele inexplicably missed the return putt and McIlroy settled matters with an iron to less than three feet on the par-three 17th. 

That completed the tone-setting rout, after Lowry and Straka profited from a fast start to endure a wobble on the hitherto unexplored 16th to beat Morikawa and Rickie Fowler. None of the four morning matches made it beyond the 16th green: it seemed at that point that the decision to build a grandstand around the 18th was another act of Roman decadence. 

Both captains rotated for the afternoon session. No pairing was repeated, and all of those rested in the morning played in the afternoon. 

The changeover didn’t instantly halt the European momentum, and birdies from Hatton and Hojgaard meant they won the first hole in each of the first two matches. Spieth’s chip in on four was the first genuine American fist-pump of the day, and when Thomas later made birdie, the Americans led in a match for the very first time. Mark it down: it was at 2.01pm local time and on the sixth hole of the fifth match that America’s red appeared on the scoreboard for the very first time. And it lasted all of 10 minutes, as Hovland then birdied the seventh to square the match. 

The fourball matches eddied and ebbed in precisely this way, with the exception of the final match, as Matt Fitzpatrick blew away the American pair of Schauffele and Morikawa. Fitzpatrick had never won a point at the Ryder Cup prior to today, losing all five of his matches. But he had never played with his own ball in the fourball format before, either, which is undoubtedly his format. Fitzpatrick went six-under through the first six holes and when his putter finally cooled off on the seventh, McIlroy stood up to roll in a putt for a six-hole lead. The American duo rallied and eventually took their defeat on the 15th. 

europes-rory-mcilroy-center-celebrates-with-playing-partner-europes-tommy-fleetwood-after-they-won-their-morning-foursome-match-21-in-the-background-is-united-states-team-captain-zach-johnson Alamy Stock Photo Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood celebrate with a dismayed US captain Zach Johnson in the background. Alamy Stock Photo

It was around about then that things looked most promising for the Americans, before the Europeans launched their counter-offensive across an adrenal hour which may be remembered as the moment in which the Cup was won. Scheffler/Koepka against Rahm/Hojgaard may go down as one of the Cup’s greatest matches. Koepka and Hojgaard did their bit as the support acts – Hojgaard’s drained putt won Europe the eighth hole, while Koepka’s long-ranger across the green won the 15th – but this was a bout between Scheffler and Rahm, the world’s two best players. It crystallised across the closing three holes. Rahm was lost in greenside rough on 16 but somehow chipped directly in for eagle, to which Scheffler replied with a nerveless birdie on the par-three 17th, his tee-shot a paragon of distance control. 

Rahm’s approach to the green on 18 kicked off the fringe and rolled onto the green, but only the most heady European fan would have argued it was definitely within eagle range. But it was a heady kind of day: Rahm’s putt rolled to the hole, and popped up from the cup in a kind of celebration before resting precisely where Rahm wanted. There were no shouts or exhortations from him this time: instead he covered his mouth in a kind of disbelief. 

Rahm and Hovland had engineered a two-point swing on the final green alone. Its implications were seen on the ashen faces of Homa and Clark as they squandered their two-hole lead, and they will likely be felt for the rest of the weekend. 

In Rome, the Americans lost in one day. 

Written by Gavin Cooney and posted on