Ryder Cup

Ryder Cup 2023: Luke Donald got very creative in how he inspired his European team


Richard Heathcote

October 01, 2023

ROME — The Europeans had a nickname for their American counterparts during the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club near Chicago. They called them the “Ice Princesses.” They were cold and calculating and clinical. They were all business. They seldom interacted with the large American galleries, opting to concentrate on their mission.

It worked beautifully. For 48 hours.

By contrast, the Europeans, led by their passionate captain Jose Maria Olazabal, were loose and fun loving and embraced their underdog role. They stopped for photos and signed autographs and bantered with American fans. When they began their improbable Sunday singles rally after trailing by four points, they were merely matching their level of play to their enthusiasm. The flat-footed Americans lacked the intensity to respond. Europe authored its “Miracle at Medinah,” a stunning 14½-13½ triumph.

As fiery tennis great Jimmy Connors once said after losing to an unranked opponent in the U.S. Open, “It was all just flat. Flat, flat, flat. You don’t get very far without firing yourself up emotionally.”

Which brings us to the proceedings this weekend in the 44th Ryder Cup at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club, where the European team, determined to erase the memory of their record loss two years ago at Whistling Straits, pulled hard at every emotional string and inspirational source it could muster and dealt a powerful U.S. team a decisive 16½-11½ defeat.

On Monday, captain Luke Donald presented each player with a short video that contained good-luck wishes from their families. Their team room at the Waldorf-Astoria was adorned with collections of photos of the 12 players from infancy to present time. And videos played that showed highlights from each players’ careers. That last touch might have been the most meaningful. What is more inspirational than seeing clips of your best self?

“Luke Donald has done a great job,” NBC broadcaster and winning 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger said on Friday after Europe jumped to what proved to be an insurmountable 4-0 lead in the opening foursomes session. “Their team room was designed to give them confidence, and he’s done it.”

Donald explained his thinking on Sunday. “Some of the things that we talked as a group was it's really, really important to not just play for each other but play for those that mean the most to you,” the Englishman said. “I think that's super powerful. You know, I gave the guys some videos on Monday. Just some people that mean a lot to them, two-minute videos, really giving them encouragement.

“I think that's why we always play this game," he added. "It's not just for ourselves. That's what makes the Ryder Cup so special is we play it for the people that mean so much to us.”

There was more for the European lads to feast on Saturday morning when the host organizers unfurled a giant banner honoring the late Seve Ballesteros, Europe’s inspirational lightning rod, in the grandstands left of the first tee. Seve still resonates with the younger generations.

By contrast, the U.S. team room was very nice. But also reportedly nothing particularly special except for some terrific still shots of past American Ryder Cup heroes. As one observer said on Sunday, the U.S. doesn’t have its own version of Seve as an eternal Ryder Cup flame.

This is not to suggest that captain Zach Johnson didn’t have his American team ready. And the U.S. players certainly had an emotional investment. All one had to see was world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler reduced to tears Saturday morning after he and Brooks Koepka were saddled with the worst loss in history, a 9-and-7 foursomes setback at the hands of Viktor Hovland and Ludvig Aberg.

But there are degrees of emotion and not all are worth channeling. Playing incredibly well top to bottom—which sure didn’t hurt—the European team was infused with positive energy that Donald tapped into brilliantly.

“I really can’t believe that we would out-prepare the American team and they weren’t going to out-prepare us,” said Justin Rose, who at 43 was the oldest player in the competition. “Obviously, something clicked for us. There was just a feeling we had as a group that was very strong, a certain unspoken energy. We bonded incredibly well. And I believe we wanted it more.

“Nothing will ever be better than 2012 at Medinah,” added Rose, who contributed to that European rally by beating Phil Mickelson in singles, “but, yeah, there was a similar sense of purpose and sense of optimism.”

Dispassionate does wonders in the cauldron of a major. Maintaining an even-keel disposition is a crucial character asset. One must stay cool in the heat of a major. In the blast furnace of the Ryder Cup, coolness only gets you burned. The Ryder Cup requires an investment of self and ego and id. If their guys go ballistic, your guys need to go nuclear. It doesn’t need to be demonstrative to be effective. Just bring the intensity.

It was no coincidence that the humbled American team played its best golf on Sunday, even if it was an even 6-6 split in singles. They were inspired by the play of Patrick Cantlay late Saturday in four-ball as he single-handedly turned a loss into a victory against McIlroy and Matt Fitzpatrick.

“We needed to rally around something; we were getting our butts kicked to start the day,” said world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, who battled Jon Rahm to a draw in Sunday’s opening singles match. “And so you're always looking for something. And the way Patrick finished off his match last night I think was big for our team.”

Saturday night trailing by five points is a bit late to find a rallying cry.

Johnson adhered to a leadership philosophy coming into the week that “less is more.” With seven players returning from the dominant 2021 U.S. team, the Americans figured that preparation, talent and a dash of analytics would be enough. A cynic would boil down the difference this week to Europe making more putts, especially in the closing holes. But desire, properly channeled and juiced with inspiration, provides an amazing fuel for success.

So, less certainly was not more. Less was less. And a loss.