GUIDONIA MONTECELIO, Italy — A trio of Patrick Cantlay birdies has given America hope. The Europeans head into the final day of the Ryder Cup knowing they need four points from the singles to preserve their 30-year run of victories on home soil, but Saturday’s afternoon session has given the U.S. something to build on with the tournament tantalizingly poised with Europe leading 10½-5½.
After the morning, it looked like it was going to be a European procession as they won three of the four morning matches, including a record win for Ludvig Aberg and Viktor Hovland over Brooks Koepka and Scottie Scheffler. Reputation and rankings meant nothing at the Marco Simone Golf and Country Club, and Europe started where it left off on Friday by taking a 9½-2½ lead into the afternoon’s play with the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood all shining.
But then the Americans’ comeback began, winning three of their four four-ball matches with the duo of Sam Burns and Collin Morikawa securing their first victory, quickly followed by the double act of Max Homa and Brian Harman. Cantlay’s brilliant finish turned U.S. defeat into victory in the final three holes of Saturday’s play to give Sunday an edgier feel than would’ve felt possible after the morning’s foursomes.
Instead of Cantlay fielding questions on his brilliant finish, the post-session attention was on reports of a split in the American camp and questions whether his decision not to wear a cap was a protest of some sort. Cantlay looked bemused, while Harman said how much he loved his teammates and Zach Johnson revealed the team had been battling illness while in Rome.
Then came more drama with an angry McIlroy having to be restrained in the parking lot after the controversial finish to his match where he and sideline spectators Justin Rose and Shane Lowry were furious with Cantlay’s caddie, Joe LaCava.
“When Patrick made the putt, Joe waved his hat,” Europe captain Luke Donald explained. “Rory politely asked Joe to move aside as he was in his line of vision, he stood and didn’t move for a while and continued to wave the hat and Rory was upset about that.”
In short, it’s bubbling up nicely ahead of what should be a box office Sunday.
What is working for Team Europe?
The stats-based approach Europe has taken — with Edoardo Molinari leading the line — has worked well in three of the four sessions. The afternoon session on Saturday was the first time the machine malfunctioned as the players looked tired and shots that previously would’ve holed were finding ways to miss.
The Europeans have great team unity, and they’ve also built up the rookies well — focusing on making sure they’re included in every aspect of the experience and aiding that in the pairings. Take Justin Rose and Robert MacIntyre: Rose gave MacIntyre a pep talk midround on Sunday afternoon, telling him to step on the accelerator for a 20-minute period, and it was that little burst which got the job done. Rose is able to draw on previous Ryder Cup experience to guide the rookie through.
But Team Europe has to ensure those rookies have a chance to rest and recuperate. They’ll be nervous heading into Sunday, and the rest of the team will need to bring its experience to help them through the nail-biting final day of the Ryder Cup.
The Europeans also need to focus. They have to cool the frustration that manifested in the parking lot.
“Ryder Cups are always passionate — we’ve seen that over the past,” Donald said.
“Again I will address all 12 of my guys tomorrow, I’ll give them the right messaging and they’ll be ready to play.”
If the U.S. team has any chance for a comeback, how will it happen?
The U.S. needs to bottle what got it through Saturday afternoon and use that same cocktail on Sunday. The Americans looked like a completely different team than the one we saw across the previous three sessions. In the afternoon, we saw the likes of Homa, Harman, Cantlay and Burns grab the competition by the scruff of the neck and drag their team back in it. They putted far better in the afternoon four-balls than we saw at any other point over the previous two days and will need to continue making those clutch shots.
The U.S. team also needs its stars to step up. Koepka and Scheffler had a grim Saturday — the Americans need those big hitters back to their best. The same goes for Jordan Spieth, who has had a quiet Ryder Cup, and we also haven’t seen Rickie Fowler since Friday morning. The U.S. needs to keep firing back at the home crowd and carry that passion at the right level.
Who is one U.S. player you expect to step up tomorrow?
Homa has probably been America’s best player at this Ryder Cup, and he will be the only one from the visitors to play all five matches across the weekend when he lines up in the singles on Sunday. He has 2½ points to his name and was brilliant with his four birdies and two eagles on Saturday afternoon in the four-balls. He enjoyed a few interactions with the crowd and will be confident heading into Sunday.
“We get yelled at a lot,” Homa said Saturday. “They are actually fairly friendly over here, but they are making fun of us all day. So it’s just my enjoyment on 15, a guy — after I fatted my first chip, a guy just gave it to me for the 10 minutes I stood there, so I turned back around and said something back to him.
“So it’s just having fun. It’s enjoyable.
“JT told me at the Presidents Cup about how it’s so fun being at these events because you can act like an idiot if you want to, and I acted like an idiot the few times I was lucky enough to have my ball go in the hole. [It] just comes out of you sometimes.”
Who is one European player you expect to step up tomorrow?
He already has stepped up, but McIlroy is going to be electric to watch on Sunday. He has been around long enough to know how to control his emotions, and he’ll be level-headed when the singles get off and running, but expect him to lead the European charge. Donald will speak to McIlroy about what happened in the parking lot before play gets underway on Sunday, but he has full faith in the man who already has delivered three points this year.
“I’ll talk with Rory when I get back,” Donald said. “I didn’t see the incident personally. I saw the one on 18. Yeah, I think we always — as I said in my speech, we always try and play with passion, play with energy, but play with respect. That will certainly be my message to the players.”
Which match (or matches) are you most excited to watch Sunday?
Jon Rahm vs. Scottie Scheffler
Viktor Hovland vs. Collin Morikawa
Justin Rose vs. Patrick Cantlay
Rory McIlroy vs. Sam Burns
Matt Fitzpatrick vs. Max Homa
Tyrrell Hatton vs. Brian Harman
Ludvig Aberg vs. Brooks Koepka
Sepp Straka vs. Justin Thomas
Nicolai Hojgaard vs. Xander Schauffele
Shane Lowry vs. Jordan Spieth
Tommy Fleetwood vs. Rickie Fowler
Robert MacIntyre vs. Wyndham Clark
There are some blockbuster matches in there. The one first up between Rahm and Scheffler will be like an old-school action movie. McIlroy’s match against Burns has the promise to get feisty, while Fitzpatrick-Homa will be a coin flip. But perhaps the most intriguing of the lot is Aberg-Koepka. Aberg turned pro only in June, and now he’s up against a five-time major winner in Koepka — few tests come bigger than that for Aberg, but he has the fortitude to handle the big occasion.
Final score prediction and who’s taking home the trophy?
Europe will end up winning 16½-11½, and it’ll be Lowry who gets the Europeans across the line, but there’ll be nervous moments in the early stages, and Donald’s team will have to halt the American charge.