GUIDONIA MONTECELIO – LIV Golf defections have cut off European stalwarts from the Ryder Cup, some of them for the first time in three decades. Rory McIlroy said Wednesday they are missing the Ryder Cup more than Team Europe is missing them.
Nowhere to be found at Marco Simone are Lee Westwood, who has been part of every Ryder Cup since his debut in 1997. Sergio Garcia, who began his seamless Ryder Cup career in 1999, attempted a last-ditch attempt to make good with the European tour and get to Rome.
Ian Poulter and his passion. Graeme McDowell and his heroics. All are with Saudi-funded LIV Golf, all of them ineligible to take any role in this Ryder Cup. That includes Henrik Stenson, appointed European captain for this team until choosing to sign with LIV last summer.
“It's certainly a little strange not having them around,” McIlroy said. “But I think this week of all weeks, it's going to hit home with them that they are not here. I think they are going to miss being here more than we're missing them.”
McIlroy caught himself briefly, aware his comments would be interpreted as another dig at the defectors, especially given the combative tone he has taken against LIV Golf since the rival league started up a year ago in June.
“I'm not saying that's like ... it's just more I think this week is a realization that the decision that they made has led to not being a part of this week,” he said. “And that's tough.”
Still to be determined is whether they are ever invited back. The European tour and PGA Tour have entered a partnership with the Saudi Arabian national wealth fund that pays for LIV Golf. The proposed commercial entity still has to be finalized and approved.
Among the discussions is how to integrate LIV players with their tours.
“The landscape of golf is everchanging and more dynamic, and we'll see what happens and whether they will be part of it in the future,” McIlroy said. “I always thought leading up to this week is when it's going to hit home that they are not going to be here.”
The Americans have already gone through the LIV effect, having played the Presidents Cup last year without Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed being eligible to qualify or having Phil Mickelson available as a vice captain.
Brooks Koepka made it back to the Ryder Cup, though only through an extraordinary performance in the majors, his only access to Ryder Cup points. He was runner-up at the Masters and won the PGA Championship.
“I feel like I'm representing the USA. That's what I've got on the front my hat this week,” Koepka said. “It's not a group of individuals in that locker room. We’re just all one team, and that’s the way we think.”
Team Europe had eight players at Whistling Straits at the last Ryder Cup who since went over to LIV Golf. Westwood, Garcia, Poulter, Paul Casey and Bernd Wiesberger played in the matches. McDowell, Stenson and Martin Kaymer were vice captains.
How many would have returned to compete is debatable because four of them were in their 40s and sliding toward the end of their careers.
When it comes to Europe and the winning culture it has created over the last four decades, the experience is equally valuable from leadership in the team room.
“We have some legends of the game that won't be there that would have been a huge presence in the team room,” Tommy Fleetwood said before arriving at Marco Simone. "Being in the team room with Poulter, Sergio, Henrik, GMac ... until you've been with them at a Ryder Cup, you don't know what they bring.
“It doesn't mean we're any less confident,” he said. “We do have plenty of experience. We have natural leaders. It means people are stepping into a role a lot sooner.”
McIlroy is ready to move on, openly supportive of captain's picks used on newcomers like 22-year-old Nicolai Hojgaard and 23-year-old Ludvig Aberg, who only finished his college career at Texas Tech four months ago.
He felt it was best for them to start a Ryder Cup before a home crowd, especially since they are projected to play in the matches for years to come.
Donald, close friends with Garcia from the daunting partnership they formed in the Ryder Cup, has made a point of keeping the focus on his 12 players, his back room, this version of Team Europe instead of who isn't at Marco Simone.
Jon Rahm has been outspoken about wanting Garcia to be part of the team, to make the Ryder Cup more about golf and less about politics. He keeps in touch with his fellow Spaniard, saying he spoke to him as recently as Monday, and with Poulter before that.
For now, it's about moving forward. Europe has a template of success — they have captured the cup 12 of the last 18 times — that it is not short on leadership from the old guard — Thomas Bjorn, Paul McGinley, Jose Maria Olazabal, Colin Montgomerie, Sam Torrance as examples.
“People that are still connected to the European team, and I would say invested in the European team. There's still a lot of winning culture around what we do," Justin Rose said.
“In life and in business and everything, there's obviously transition phases where you need to look to new leaders, and what would be great is if you can kind of slip through that period of transition unaffected,” he said.
Still, there was no denying the absence of so many who have been part of Team Europe for so long, whether that's Westwood or Garcia, Poulter or McDowell, all of whom would have been in line to be captains. And maybe there's still a chance.
“But the more we can blood the younger generation coming through, the quicker you're going to kind of skip through that transition phase,” Rose said.
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