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Bringing Luke Donald back as Ryder Cup captain was Europe's smartest possible decision

November 29, 2023
ROME, ITALY - OCTOBER 02: The captain of the European Ryder Cup team, Luke Donald reading the morning newspapers at the Cavalieri Hilton on October 02, 2023 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, golf fans were greeted with the announcement that Luke Donald will return as European Ryder Cup captain, leading his team to Bethpage Black in 2025 in an attempt to reprise his winning campaign at Marco Simone this fall. It was a move teased as early as the post-match European press conference in Italy, though that happens often in the euphoria of victory, and usually without follow-through; no captain has served two consecutive cups for either team since Bernard Gallacher led Europe from 1991-1995.

The only other “returning” captains since were Tom Watson in 2014, brought back after first serving in 1993 by what we can safely call a rogue decision from PGA of America president Ted Bishop, and Davis Love III, who served as home captain in 2012 and 2016, the latter term when a flailing American side was seeking stability in the top job following the Gleneagles debacle. Otherwise, the captaincy has been seen as a one-and-done opportunity; in fact, when Colin Montgomerie campaigned for a second term in 2014, it was Rory McIlroy, among others, who publicly made that point explicit and helped secure the captaincy for Paul McGinley.

What changed this year, and why was it both smart and logical for Europe to rely once again on Donald?

First, from a purely competitive angle, winning a Ryder Cup on the road has become one of the toughest tasks in sport. Since 2006, the home team has won a staggering eight of nine Ryder Cups. The only exception came in 2012 at Medinah, when it took the greatest Sunday comeback in the history of the event from Europe to reverse what looked like another easy American home victory. In most of these Ryder Cups, it hasn't really been close, with the European romp at Marco Simone marking the fifth straight home blowout. The reasons for this are a little mysterious—the most common explanations are a mix of hostile fan presence and course setup—but the obvious truth is that the away team needs to fight for every advantage it can get.

Just as the reality of home dominance was unfolding, both the Europeans and Americans were becoming increasingly professional in their approach to the Ryder Cup. The post-Gleneagles task force in the U.S. corresponded roughly to the emerging Ryder Cup Committee in Europe, which sought to consolidate home successes and chip into the increasingly competent Americans who were suddenly winning reliably at home. The captaincy had already progressed beyond its historically ceremonial role, and it was perhaps inevitable that one side would soon hit on what seems like the obvious next evolution:

Instead of trotting out a new captain for each away Ryder Cup, why not bring back a leader the players like, and who has already won at home?

Donald checks all the boxes, and hence, here he is.

If you're keeping score, it's worth noting that the Solheim Cup has been doing this for years already, and of course at the start of the European era in Ryder Cup history, Tony Jacklin resuscitated his side via four straight captaincies, and likely could have kept going into perpetuity if he wanted. The delay in implementing the tactic in the modern Ryder Cup is not because of a lack of vision, but rather the sheer number of worthy former players waiting for their turn.

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The buy-in from European players and vice captains to Donald's approach to the Ryder Cup made his return as captain an obvious choice.

Jamie Squire

That brings us to the second key point: none of this would have been possible without LIV Golf. When you think of the potential captains-in-waiting for Team Europe, a shocking number, from Ian Poulter to Lee Westwood to Sergio Garcia to Henrik Stenson to Graeme McDowell to Martin Kaymer, are all now part of LIV. What was once an extremely crowded European pipeline is now basically empty, at least until a potential partnership is ironed out between the PGA Tour, LIV and the DP World Tour when all of those stars may become eligible again. Notably, Donald would never even have been captain at Marco Simone if not for Stenson's defection, and now, a little less than two years from Bethpage Black, there aren't a lot of other obvious choices.

In short, while it was the smart move to bring Donald back under any circumstances, the strangely vacant pipeline brought on by LIV Golf made it a much easier decision from a diplomatic standpoint. In the end, there wasn't even a debate—a source close to the decision-making process said there was total consensus among European leadership and called it a "home run." If Donald wanted the job, it was his.

This was the wisest decision Europe could have made, and the only one that really stands up to scrutiny. It will be popular with the players, it's strategically sound, and it gives them the best possible chance of accomplishing the impossible: winning a Ryder Cup away from home.

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