By Mathieu Wood
With just over two weeks to go until Team Europe bid to reclaim the Ryder Cup from the United States, interest around golf’s greatest team contest is reaching fever pitch.
Earlier this week, on Monday, Europe's entire 12-player Ryder Cup team joined Captain Luke Donald and four of his five vice-captains for a trip to Marco Simone Golf & Country Club, host venue of this year’s contest.
They returned to England on Tuesday morning, with several members of the team heading straight to the range or the first tee at Wentworth’s West Course.
All 12 playing members of the team are in the field this week for the prestigious BMW PGA Championship – the fourth Rolex Series event of the DP World Tour season.
With three of the current top four players on the Official World Golf Ranking forming part of the European side, there is optimism Europe can extend their run of not losing on home soil since 1993.
Among the four Ryder Cup rookies are two – Sepp Straka and Ludvig Åberg – who are making their debut at the BMW PGA Championship, which features an increased prize fund of $9 million this year.
Shane Lowry, who defends his BMW PGA title this week, is excited about how the team shapes up, with two-time DP World Tour winner Nicolai Højgaard the youngest at 22 and Major Champion Justin Rose almost double his age at 43.
“You look around at the young players and how good they are… the way European golf is makes you want to make sure you work as hard as you can to play in more of these,” the two-time Rolex Series winner said.
“It gives fuel to my fire. It is an amazing team to be a part of and hopefully a very successful one.”
While Lowry is making his second consecutive appearance at the Ryder Cup, having lost on debut at Whistling Straits two years ago, fellow Major winner Rory McIlroy will be making his seventh consecutive appearance in the biennial contest.
The World Number Two, who made his debut at Celtic Manor in 2010, has four Ryder Cup wins from six appearances and has evolved into one of the leaders in the team room and on the course.
Bringing the team together in advance of this year’s contest was driven by Captain Donald, an exercise McIlroy is convinced will unite the team.
“It was amazing. I'm sort of surprised it's the first time we'd ever really done it," he reflected.
“There are a few new faces on the team, and I thought it was a great exercise in terms of getting to know one another a little bit better.
“I had an opportunity to play with Ludvig for the first time on Monday, which I was excited about. I told him, ‘I said I've been looking forward to this for a while’.
“That trip definitely got the juices flowing on Monday.”
For McIlroy, creating a culture that enables the younger members of the team to feel at ease in their surroundings is vital to what the team is trying to achieve.
“We are all part of a 12-man team and we are all trying to do our bit, and certainly no one is more important than anyone else,” he said.
While there will be no Italian player presence in Donald’s team, the former World Number One does have Edoardo Molinari and his brother Francesco as vice captains.
Three-time DP World Tour winner Edoardo has developed a reputation for helping several players with a statistical approach to their game and McIlroy believes his insight will be invaluable.
Asked to describe his character, McIlroy said: “The guru? He's delved really deep into the stats in terms of pairings for fourballs, for foursomes, course setup, what our team as a whole does well and what their team does well; how can we set ourselves up for success in whatever way possible.
“He also has formed a very close relationship with some of the players over the last few years because he does some of the stats for certain players.
“So, I think the players trust him.”
Viktor Hovland, who won the PGA TOUR’s FedExCup title last month, is among the players who is benefiting from Molinari’s trailblazing use of data analytics in golf.
The Norwegian began working with Edoardo after playing together in a practice round at Torrey Pines when it hosted the 2021 U.S. Open.
“When he's such a nice guy and has accomplished the things he's accomplished in this game, his information carries a lot of weight,” Hovland said.
“He's also an engineer. He's just a brilliant guy.
“When we started diving into some of the stats, you know, we picked up on a couple things, and I think especially this year, we figured out that, for example, my short irons, I've been short-siding myself way too much, almost twice as much as another good iron player.
“When you're short-siding yourself twice as much as other guys with short irons, that's hard to overcome, and that's just a way I have improved by not improving my skill set.
“That's just by thinking better and making better decisions. That's where Edoardo's stats come in very handy.”
When he's such a nice guy and has accomplished the things he's accomplished in this game, his information carries a lot of weight.
Well, with three top-ten finishes in his last five Major starts, the work appears to be bearing fruit.
While Hovland is still awaiting his breakthrough win at a Major Championship, European teammate and World Number Three Jon Rahm has won two of those titles.
The reigning Master champion’s first experience of playing at a Ryder Cup came in 2018 at Le Golf National, and the Spaniard is excited to have such a big event this week as his final preparation before the challenge of taking on the US team again.
“Well, it's about as good of prep as you can get, right,” he said. “It's a world-class stage. It's definitely a good week to perform well. Doesn't really mean anything towards The Ryder Cup. Playing good here doesn't mean you're going to perform well there.
“But if you're working on some things, it's definitely the right type of pressure to put it to the test.”
With the European team playing together over the first two rounds, the Ryder Cup narrative is likely to be one that prevails throughout the week, and it would be no surprise if one of them was lifting the BMW PGA Championship trophy on Sunday.