As the duel came to a close two years ago, so did Paradise and Fear. America is about to take over. It wasn’t just a 19-9 score at Whistling Straits. It was his feeling. They were younger. They were more talented. They weren’t going anywhere. British Ryder Cup veteran Lee Westwood began Sunday by saying, “I’ll tell you what, it’s not the strongest American team I’ve ever seen…”
Something had to change for Team Europe.
Maybe that dynasty will happen. Perhaps the United States team will win its first overseas Ryder Cup victory in 30 years in Rome this month and those fears of American dominance will be realized. They are, of course, still a popular and more formidable team.
But this is a different European group. Some of the sport’s shifting tectonic plates make LIV deficient ineligible for the European team. But it was because captain Luke Donald made some bold choices on Monday, moving from a team of seasoned Cup veterans to one characterized by inexperience at this level and a frontline presence.
Lost legends – Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Westwood and their 61 match wins. The 23-year-old Swede’s latest college superstar has never played in the majors. A 22-year-old Danish twin, who has yet to be fully named, arrives.
But Ludwig Aberg and Nikolai Højgaard are sticklers. They are the future and Donald’s decision to take on someone like 30-year-old Adrian Meronk, who has won three races in the last 14 months, is a sign of the same risk American and European teams are taking when entering this tournament. Important Ryder Cup.
Ludwig Aberg becomes the first player in history to play in the Ryder Cup before playing in his first major championship.
— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) September 4, 2023
Both groups chose the golfers who were good at it over the golfers who “got it.” Because at the end of the day, both groups were looking for people who they thought would champion justice. And this is probably the right decision.
US captain Zach Johnson made way for Justin Thomas, who hasn’t even made the FedEx Cup playoffs this season and is ranked as low as No. 59 in the world by DataGolf. why? Because while it may blow up in his face, Johnson knows that the best version of Thomas is the two-time major winner with a shot in the bag that few in the world have. He is 16-5-3 in title matches for the US and thrives in these emotional, competitive situations. Yes, Lucas Glover played endless golf this summer and won twice. Yes, Keegan Bradley had an incredible year and struggled to put himself back in the mix. The truth is, Johnson wanted a dog more than he wanted a reliable golfer.
And Meronk would have been a completely understandable choice for Donald. Marco Simone won the Italian Open at this year’s Ryder Cup venue (but so did Højgaard!). He’s great and definitely won’t rule out Europe. The same goes for Aaron Ray, Alex Noren or Stefan Jaeger, the other three candidates for the captain’s choice.
But Aberg is one of the best drivers in the world. In advance. Truly. He is one of the most decorated collegiate golfers of all time, picking up national awards this year. Turning pro in June, he was in the top 25 in four of his first seven events and then won the European Masters this week to make the point clear. Højgaard has a 1.92 stroke at the Scottish Open, where he finished T6, so he could be a good ball-striker.
Europe is also playing. The American team is better now, and good golfers can’t close that gap. The best chance for Europe is that golfers can take down superstars like Scotty Scheffler in their prime. Even Scheffler could be a key line of thought, as 2021 captain Steve Stricker picked the unproven 25-year-old Scheffler over Kevin Kisner two years ago, and Scheffler beat then-World No. 1 Jon Rahm in Sunday’s singles. Less than a year later, Scheffler became the world’s No. 1 player.
I also wonder how much Meronc has played poorly in major tour events this season, missing two cuts at the majors, missing cuts at Bay Hill, the Canadian Open and the Scottish Open. Højgaard didn’t necessarily improve, but he did top 50 at both majors as a 22-year-old and finished in the top 30 in five tour events.
This entire European team feels very different from Whistling Straits. In the year In 2021, Rory McIlroy was still at a low point in his career. Victor Hovland was a 23-year-old still getting his sea legs. Matt Fitzpatrick was almost a disappointment. Tommy Fleetwood was not a top 40 golfer.
Two years later, McIlroy is in arguably his best two-year stretch of golf so far, with six wins and 21 top-five finishes in his final two years. Those were his two best hits of his career. By dominating the Tour Championship and winning four tournaments this season, Hovland has taken a huge leap forward as one of the best golfers in the world. Fitzpatrick is now the US Open champion. Fleetwood is currently in the top 10 on DataGolf after an impressive season. Tyrell Hatton is also in top form, and Jon Rahm is still Jon Rahm.
So the top of this European team is much better than it was at Whistling Straits. It’s fair to say that the top six out of six Americans are pretty European, and I might even give the edge to Europe.
The difference is in the depth. Justin Rose, Sepp Straka and wrestler Shane Lowry don’t have the same pop as Max Homa, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler. Guys like Wyndham Clarke and Brian Harman may not sound exciting, but they won majors this summer and are both top 20 golfers in the world by any measure.
So Europe needs to rise, and must live with the risk of volatility. But Europe is also moving forward, and rightly so. If it wants any chance to compete with the US, it needs the next wave to make a move. Aberg and Højgaard gain an invaluable rep. Then, if all goes to plan for the Europeans, the 2025 Ryder Cup will have other young stars like Nicolai’s twin Rasmus, or Korn Boat Tour as a rookie, or Belgian Adrien Dumont de Chassart, who tore up the 21-year-old. Spaniard David Piug, or Matt’s brother Alex Fitzpatrick, who happened this July and August. A good European wave is coming. From Fowler and Jordan Spieth to Scheffler and Sam Burns, the question is whether he can make the same wave as the US.
But this year’s key Ryder Cup teams are a reminder that this is not a fair competition. Not like who got it. It’s about trying to build the best team you think will win. That means taking risks. Those risks may not pay off, but they can still be the right decisions.
(Top photo: Fabrice Coffreni / AFP via Getty Images)