Ryder Cup talking points: Finding McIlroy a partner, American road sickness and Aberg hype

The 2023 tournament tees-off at Marco Simone Golf Club in Rome on Friday

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The 2023 Ryder Cup tees-off near Rome on Friday when holders United States look to become the first American side in three decades to win on European soil.

We look at some of the main talking points heading into the latest instalment of the biennial battle, one the most enthralling contests in sport.

Can US overcome to end away-day blues?

The US arrive at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club as reigning champions, courtesy of their record 19-9 blowout at Whistling Straits two years ago.

They have in their ranks world No 1 Scottie Scheffler, 10 of the current top 20 (six of Europe’s 12 lie outside that bracket) and, in Brooks Koepka, Brian Harman and Wyndham Clark, three of this year’s major champions.

However, the US haven’t typically travelled well. In fact, their last win in Europe came at The Belfry, way back in 1993. Looking more recently, seven of the past Ryder Cups have gone to the home team – anyone remember the exception at Medinah? – but road sickness has been particularly felt on the American side.

The reasons are well documented: course set-up favouring Europe, the hosts’ vaunted team togetherness, the partisan home support.

Yet, given both side’s collective games seem more similar than ever, and this young US side more aligned, some of those factors appear to have been mitigated. Thus, handling what will be a raucous European support might be the visitors' greatest challenge in front.

Will McIlroy lead home charge?

OK, so the US have Scheffler. But in Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland, Europe have the world No 2 through to No 4. Unquestionably, Europe will rely on their “Big Three” to lead from the front.

Their position feels especially pivotal this week, as Luke Donald’s side compete without stalwarts Sergio Garcia – leading point-scorer, no less, in Ryder Cup history – Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood. That trio have 28 appearances combined.

In particular, then, McIlroy must make an impact. The four-time major winner is viewed the team’s main man, a role he undoubtedly embraces, but his recent Ryder Cup record has not been great. Although McIlroy has helped Europe to four overall wins in his six appearances, he has departed the past two with three points from eight matches.

At Whistling Straits, the Northern Irishman chipped in with a solitary point from four – his single’s win against Xander Schauffele – and broke down in tears afterwards because of his poor performance in Wisconsin. Thankfully, McIlroy vowed then to use that hurt to spearhead Europe’s bid to recapture the cup.

Also, he’s been in fine form: McIlroy has finished outside the top 10 once in his past 12 events, including a superb victory in July at the stacked Scottish Open. Finding a suitable partner, finally, remains a key problem for Donald to solve.

Will Thomas justify captain’s pick?

Imagine a relatively recent world No 1 and two-time major champion being viewed as a controversial selection. Such is life for US captain Zach Johnson, and such is the strength of his visiting team.

However, Justin Thomas’s 2023 has been miserable, prompting the need for a captain’s pick – the first time he’s required one.

Speaking of firsts, the American went winless this year for the only time since his rookie season, missing the cut in three of four majors and, in another first since turning pro, sat out the FedEx Cup play-offs.

Then again, his inclusion is understandable. In two Ryder Cup appearances, Thomas sits 6-2-1, and secured four of five possible points away in 2018, including defeating McIlroy in the top singles match on Sunday.

Extrapolate his performance to the President’s Cup, and Thomas has built a hugely impressive 16-5-3 record in team events. Then factor in his typically impenetrable partnership with Jordan Spieth: when paired, the long-time buddies have won eight of 10 matches.

What's more, the boisterous Thomas has that intangible, something the majority of European players agreed upon in the media this week: he’s the one who riles the US rivals the most. As Johnson said upon announcing Thomas as his pick: “You just don’t leave JT at home.”

Can rookie Aberg live up to hype?

If Thomas exists as the most talked about US pick, then ditto Ludvig Aberg on the European side. In contrast, though, the blossoming Swede has been billed as a potential star of the cup.

It’s easy to see why: Aberg stood alone as the best college player in the US in 2022 and again this year, and has been the world’s No 1 amateur. He then turned pro in June, and since missed one cut in 10 events. That stretch includes has four top 10s, and victory at last month’s European Masters – the final European Ryder Cup qualifying event.

His transition to the paid ranks has been seamless, his attributes clear. Unerringly long and accurate with the driver, Aberg leads in strokes gained off the tee for the seven events he’s played on the PGA Tour since June.

He's proved his mettle on the DP World Tour too, following confirmation of his captain’s pick by leading the flagship BMW PGA Championship after 54 holes – all his Ryder Cup teammates were competing – only to finish T10.

How he adjusts to becoming the first golfer to compete in a Ryder Cup without having played in a major forms one of the more intriguing subplots this week. Typically unflappable, it will go some way in the player dubbed by Donald a “generational talent” living up to his billing.

Will LIV Golf absentees cast a shadow?

Just when you thought all the commotion surrounding LIV Golf had largely subsided, up pops the first Ryder Cup since the breakaway tour began. To be fair, it has given the contest a very different feel this year.

As noted, Garcia, Westwood and Poulter aren’t there, not even in a non-playing capacity, primarily because of their defections from the DP World Tour to the Saudi Arabia-backed circuit.

Same, also, on the US side for Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, and Bryson DeChambeau, who jumped to LIV as well. On Sunday, DeChambeau reminded of his credentials, winning the tour's latest 54-hole event.

Of all the absentees, Garcia and Johnson look the greatest misses: in 2021, the former took three from four points, while the latter went five for five.

So, the only LIV representative representing at Marco Simeone will be Koepka, a five-time major winner following May’s US PGA Championship triumph. With a runner-up finish at the Masters too, Koepka narrowly missed out on automatic qualification, and generally enjoys having a point to prove.

And, as the oft-repeated joke in the build-up goes, of all the 24 players competing this week, Koepka is the most used to three-day tournaments.

Updated: September 27, 2023, 1:54 PM