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US Ryder Cup team has road challenges as Europe hopes to avenge ‘worst defeat ever’

Rome, Italy — It’s finally here.

Well, almost finally.

Ryder Cup week began quietly Monday, with players and captains trickling onto the course for some light practice, but the matches don’t begin until Friday morning at Marco Simone Country Club.

“The guys are ready,’’ U.S. captain Zach Johnson said Monday. “Well, I shouldn’t say that, it’s partially a lie. They are exhausted. But they will be ready. They are ready to compete. [I’m] excited about the week.’’

So, too, is European captain Luke Donald, who’s tasked with making sure his side keeps its winning streak on home soil intact, with the U.S. not having won the cup in Europe since 1993.

“It’s been a long buildup,’’ Donald said. “A lot has happened. There’s been a big buildup. I feel like my team is ready. Very excited about the team that I have and very excited about the challenge ahead, and looking forward to it, finally, to get going. I think the players are raring to go and it’s going to be a fun spectacle.

“I think everyone at Marco Simone, everyone involved with the Ryder Cup, have done an amazing job. I’ve never seen stands as big as these.’’

Zach Johnson speaks to the media during a joint press conference prior to the 2023 Ryder Cup at Marco Simone Golf Club.
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Indeed, the grandstands that envelope the first tee are gigantic and intimidating, and they’ll be jam-packed with throaty European supporters who’ve been waiting four years for this.

In the 2021 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, where the U.S. routed the Europeans, 19-9, there were strict COVID-19 travel restrictions still in place, which prevented the well-traveled Euro fans from making the trip.

“In the end, we didn’t perform at what we needed to perform at, a good standard of golf,’’ Donald said of the last Ryder Cup. “The Americans were strong and they played how they know they can play. And certainly, being at home, we know that’s an advantage. We know it’s an advantage when you’re in the U.S., and it’s an advantage to us. But having that support, that crowd behind you, is helpful and it picks up your energy as a player and you can feed off it.

“Absolutely, we are looking forward to having a lot more support this time around. It was certainly lacking a lot because of COVID two years ago, and hopefully that is something that will certainly be in our favor.’’

Donald, as the home captain, has the choice on what order the matches are played on the first two days.

Predictably, he chose foursomes (alternate shot) to start the proceedings Friday morning because the European players are traditionally stronger in that format.

“Pretty simple, really,’’ Donald said. “We feel like as a team, statistically we are stronger in foursomes within our team than we would be in four-balls. Why not get off to a fast start? That’s it.’’

One thing to watch this week is how many matches Donald and Johnson might play even their strongest players.

Traditionally, the best workhorse players play all five matches — two on Friday, two on Saturday and singles on Sunday.

But Marco Simone is a very hilly golf course, and the weather is expected to be in the 80s all week, so it’s likely we’ll see fewer — if any — players go the distance like Dustin Johnson did for the Americans, going 5-0-0 two years ago.

“In terms of playing five [matches], I think there’s some guys that certainly could do that and we have done that in the past,’’ Donald said. “This is a very tiring, taxing golf course. I think the weather is not meant to be too hot, but it’s certainly a warm weather week with hills, and it’s a long buildup, the Ryder Cup. These next few days, there’s a lot of team dinners and practice and dealing with the crowds.

Luke Donald of England hopes to keep the Ryder Cup win on home land.
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“I remember, as a player, that you were really ready to go by Friday and you wanted to compete, but it’s a long buildup. So, I’m wary of some of that. I’ll certainly be considering that but it’s not out of the question that some people might play five. I very much doubt that someone wouldn’t play until the Sunday singles.’’

Donald maintained his confidence in his team.

“As captain, you have to be confident,’’ he said. “I certainly have a lot of belief in my team. I know it’s going to be a difficult next few days. The U.S. are very strong. We know that. We are coming off our worst defeat ever in a Ryder Cup. U.S. players are strong, high up in the World Rankings and they have some great partnerships and have had a lot of success.

“We have our work cut out, but you have to have belief in your team that you’re going to get them into a place where they are going to be successful. I’m sure Zach feels the same way. I’m looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds over the coming days.’’