As the drubbing came to its conclusion two years ago, so too did the hyperbole and the fear. The U.S. is about to take over. It wasn’t just the 19-9 score at Whistling Straits. It was the feeling. They were younger. They were more talented. They weren’t going anywhere. British Ryder Cup veteran Lee Westwood finished up Sunday and started to go, “I tell you what, it’s not just the strongest U.S. Team I’ve seen…”
Something had to change for Team Europe.
Maybe that dynasty will happen. Maybe the United States team will win this month in Rome for its first overseas Ryder Cup victory in 30 years and those fears of an American takeover will come true. They’re certainly still favorites and the more frightening team.
But this is a different European team. Some of it from the shifting tectonic plates of the sport making LIV defectors ineligible for the European team. But it’s also because captain Luke Donald made some bold choices Monday, shifting from a group of savvy cup veterans to one known more at this stage for its inexperience and upside.
Gone are the legends — Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Westwood and their combined 61 matches won. In comes a 23-year-old Swedish recent college superstar who’s never played in a major. In comes a 22-year-old Danish twin who’s yet to fully make a name for himself.
But Ludvig Aberg and Nicolai Højgaard are studs. They are the future, and Donald’s decision to take them over somebody like Adrian Meronk, 30, who won three tournaments in the past 14 months, is a sign of the parallel risks that both the U.S. and European teams are taking as they enter such an important Ryder Cup.
Ludvig Aberg will be the first player in history to play in a Ryder Cup before playing in his first major championship. https://t.co/t8FGrYh7FJ
— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) September 4, 2023
Both teams chose the golfers with the best stuff over the golfers who “earned it.” Because at the end of the day, both teams wanted the guys they think can win over the guys who would represent fairness. And that is probably the right decision.
U.S. captain Zach Johnson gave a spot to a flailing Justin Thomas, who didn’t even make the FedEx Cup playoffs this season and has dropped to No. 59 in the world on DataGolf. Why? Because even if it might blow up in his face, Johnson knows the best version of Thomas is a two-time major winner with shots in his bag that very few in the world possess. He is 16-5-3 in cup matches for the U.S. and thrives in these emotional, competitive settings. Yeah, Lucas Glover played infinitely better golf this summer and won twice. Yeah, Keegan Bradley had an awesome year and fought and clawed to put himself in the mix. But the reality was Johnson wanted a dog more than he wanted a reliable golfer.
And Meronk would have been a completely understandable pick for Donald. He’s won the Italian Open at Marco Simone, where this year’s Ryder Cup is being played (but so has Højgaard!). He’s great off the tee and certainly wouldn’t hold Europe back. The same goes for Aaron Rai, Alex Noren or Stephan Jaeger, three other candidates for a captain’s pick.
But Aberg is one of the best drivers in the world. Already. Really. He’s one of the most decorated collegiate golfers of all time, sweeping the national awards this year. He turned pro in June and immediately lived in the top 25 in four of his first seven events, and then he won this week’s European Masters just to make the point clear. Højgaard can be an elite ball striker, gaining 1.92 strokes in approach against a loaded Scottish Open field in which he finished T6.
Europe is playing catch-up. The American team is better right now, and pretty good golfers aren’t going to make up that gap. The best chance for Europe is golfers that, on their best days, can take down superstars like Scottie Scheffler. Scheffler may even be the key line of thinking, as 2021 captain Steve Stricker chose an unproven 25-year-old Scheffler over Kevin Kisner two years ago, and Scheffler famously took down then-world No. 1 Jon Rahm in Sunday singles. Less than a year later Scheffler was the No. 1 player in the world.
I also wonder how much it factored in that Meronk missed two cuts at majors this season and played poorly in the big field tour events he played in, missing cuts at Bay Hill, the Canadian Open and the Scottish Open. Højgaard didn’t necessarily thrive but he made the top 50 at both majors he qualified for and finished top 30 in five tour events as a 22-year-old newbie.
This entire European team feels so drastically different from Whistling Straits. In 2021, Rory McIlroy was still amid a down stretch in his career. Viktor Hovland was a 23-year-old still finding his sea legs. Matt Fitzpatrick was arguably a disappointment. Tommy Fleetwood was hardly a top-40 golfer.
Two years later, McIlroy is on arguably the best two years of consistent golf he’s ever played, with six wins and an absurd 21 top-five finishes the last two years. They are the two best strokes gained season totals of his career. Hovland has taken an extreme leap as one of the four best golfers in the world, dominating the Tour Championship and winning four tournaments this season. Fitzpatrick is now a U.S. Open champion. Fleetwood is currently top 10 on DataGolf after a fantastic season. Tyrell Hatton is in elite form too, and Jon Rahm is still Jon Rahm.
So the top of this European team is far better than it was at Whistling Straits. It’s probably fair to say the top six Europeans against the top six Americans is pretty darn even, and I might even give the edge to Europe.
The difference is in the depth. Justin Rose, Sepp Straka and a struggling Shane Lowry don’t have the same pop as, say, Max Homa, Jordan Spieth and a surging Rickie Fowler. Guys like Wyndham Clark and Brian Harman might not feel exciting, but they just won majors this summer and are both top 20 golfers in the world by any metric.
So Europe needs upside, and it will have to live with the risk of volatility. But Europe also is shifting toward the future, and rightfully so. It needs a next wave to take a step if it wants any chance of competing with America going forward. Aberg and Højgaard will get invaluable reps. Then, if all goes to a European’s plans, the 2025 Ryder Cup will have other young stars like Nicolai’s twin Rasmus, or the exciting Belgian Adrian Dumont de Chassart who tore up the Korn Ferry Tour as a rookie, or the 21-year-old Spaniard David Puig, or Matt’s brother Alex Fitzpatrick who broke out this July and August. There is a nice European wave coming. The question will be if it can create a wave like the U.S. had in the generation from Fowler and Jordan Spieth to Scheffler and Sam Burns.
But the key takeaway from this year of Ryder Cup teams is the reminder that this is not a contest in fairness. It’s not about who earned it. It’s about trying to build the best team that you think can win. That means taking risks. Those risks might not pay off, but they still might be the right decisions.
(Top photo: Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images)