Gladiators set for battle in Rome - Carr Golf Travel

Gladiators set for battle in Rome

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Roddy Carr previews the 2023 Ryder Cup

Rome, where history whispers through the Colosseum’s ancient stones, once again plays host to a gladiatorial battle as the Ryder Cup heads to the Marco Simone Golf & Country Club.

Seve Ballesteros was golf’s greatest gladiator. His Spanish matador ‘win or die’ passion was the catalyst for a shake-up in Ryder Cup format, when in 1979 the UK PGA expanded golf’s greatest team event from a Great Britain & Ireland team to a continental European one.

That year on The Greenbrier, a 22-year-old swashbuckling Seve, partnered with Spanish teammate, Antonio Garrido, picked up just the solitary point. It wasn’t until 1987 when Seve ascended to gladiator status, playing a crucial role as the Europeans enjoyed their first victory on US soil. Facing Jack Nicklaus’ formidable US team, Tony Jacklin recognised Seve’s leadership qualities and obsessive passion, spurned on and incensed by an American side who would refer to him as ‘Steve’.

Seve carried this mantel to his Ryder Cup Captaincy in 1997, when he led the European team to victory at Valderrama, Spain.

I was Seve’s Manager during this unforgettable (nightmare) week. He wasn’t your textbook Langer or McGinley-type Captain. Seve led by pure instinct and a single goal – to achieve 14.5 points. I worried all week the impact defeat may have on his players, whether they’d turn on Seve and destroy his image and brand in much the same way Mickelson despicably did to Tom Watson many years later.

Seve rolled the dice at Valderrama, mixing teams as never before. In partnering Spanish players with Swedes, he mixed oil and water. He dropped and rowed with his players, physically intimidated some on-course. In the end, his passion and influence helped deliver a win.

Seve’s gladiatorial spirit will live on in Rome – his shirt adorns the team room – albeit somewhat diminished by father time, as a generation of golfers who never knew him take over.

I love watching gladiators rise in team sports. The question this weekend, who will emerge? Who has Seve’s cojones to lead the charge for either side?

Viktor Hovland has Viking DNA running through his bones, and he fits the bill for me. His contagious joyful and fearless attitude will spread through the team. He’ll relish the ‘mano a mano’ of match play and will make a great fourball and foursomes partner.

Will Luke Donald seek to recreate the unbeatable Seve and Olazabal Spanish Armada and pair Viktor with Scandinavian neighbour and golf’s newest superstar, Ludvik Aberg? The young Swede may be vulnerable after last week’s final round collapse at the BMW. That said, Viktor could do for Ludvik what Seve did for Olly in their early battles.

Rahm, his Spanish passion reminiscent of Seve, is the other gladiator on the European team. Partnered with Tyrrell Hatton they could be a firecracker birdie machine. Or perhaps Rose can be a ‘steady as she goes’ companion to Rahm’s ‘go for broke’ approach. Time will tell.

Rory and Shane’s partnership hails all the way back to their amateur days for Ireland. Shane could be particularly dangerous and effective in this Colosseum amphitheatre – the Irish Cú Chulainn among the Gladiators.

The American team is a different kettle of fish. Captain Zach Johnson reminds me of Paul Azinger, who figured how to defeat the Europeans with an emphatic victory over Nick Faldo’s team in 2008. His book, Cracking the Code, offers fascinating insight into how he recruited military experts to advise him how to break the self-centred individualism and encourage a team spirit within the American golfers.

Johnson is a tenacious, competitive fighter to his core. He will take to Rome the past lessons learned, adding to his own experiences as a double Major winner to try to break the US team’s 30-year losing streak this side of the pond.

On paper, the US-team lacks a Gladiator. Justin Thomas is a feared opponent, and Speith has the passion and desire, though perhaps not the charisma to influence the team.

Gladiators don’t carry chips on shoulders, otherwise Brookes Koepka would qualify. He’s stated players should be able to do their ‘own thing’ during Ryder Cup matches… despite evidence suggesting it rarely works. The sleeper may be the silent viper, Scottie Scheffler – tough to beat and a great foursomes partner.

The rest are clinical, individual operators who’ve honed themselves to compete on Tour as lone wolves. Johnson’s challenge is to see where chemistry lies within his group. If he gets it right, they will be hard to beat. Statistically, the American team has better golfers than half of the European team.

Course set up is a crucial factor. Back in July 1997, Seve snuck into Valderrama to ‘take out El Tigre’. He brought in all the fairways at 280 yards to 20 metres-wide to neutralise Tiger’s length advantage. His rationale, “if El Tigre wins 4 points, we cannot win”.

I was contemplating Zach Johnson’s dilemma on whether to pick Koepka, the judas in his camp. I’m unsure whether he can leave out the one person who can win 4 points if he gets on a role. The match play arena suits his ‘pull the trigger’ mentality, and he has something to prove.

The course will favour the better drivers, who are the Europeans. Rory, Rahm and Viktor proved it recently in Paris. The US team will now know that and try to adjust accordingly.

I’m expecting a tight match, climaxing on Sunday late afternoon. The Captains’ decisions on where to position the gladiators capable of overcoming the intense pressure cooker of playing for your country, and not the cash, will be the deciding factor.

Roddy Carr
September 2023

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