Ryder Cup 2023: Asking the captains if this week would be like the fall of the Roman Empire went … OK

September 25, 2023

Mike Ehrmann

ROME — One of the sneaky truths of the golf writing business is that the week leading up to the Ryder Cup can get pretty dull, for two big reasons. First, player and captain access is highly limited; you get them for short spans with the rest of the media, and aside from that they're mostly off limits. Second, the event doesn't start until Friday, so along with the dearth of content due to restricted access, there's an extra day of potential thumb-twiddling thrown in there. Those facts, plus my state of extreme jet lag on Monday, led me to raise my hand and ask for a second question at the first captain's press conference with Luke Donald and Zach Johnson—a little bit selfish, to be honest, but the energy was flagging—and go a little bit off the rails in what had been an otherwise staid Q&A.

"So because we're in Rome," I began, "obviously this is the site of a famous historical empire that never lost at home until some serious internal divisions weakened them and then the barbarians were at the gates and they took over. This may be a jet-lag question—I desperately need sleep—but Luke, do you worry that you're something like the last Roman emperor? And Zach, do you ever think of yourself as a Visigoth dressed in bear furs ready to attack?"

Before we get to their answers, let's examine how I did with my history. It's true that the Roman Empire was based in Rome—I nailed that—and it's also true that Rome fell because of internal strife and invasion by Germanic tribes like the Visigoths. In fact, the Visigoths were the first outsiders to sack Rome in 800 years when they looted the city in 410 AD. Did they wear bear furs? I have no idea; I'm not sure where that came from. (To any Visigoths I've offended, I sincerely apologize.) Did the last Roman emperor fall with that Visigoth attack? Wikipedia says no. But overall, for an extremely tired question at a press conference, I'll take a B+.

As for the parallel—Europe is the failing Roman Empire, undefeated at home for 30 years in the Ryder Cup but reeling due to LIV decimations, and Americans are the barbarians at the gate who have spent decades learning from the enemies. Sure, it's a little tortured. I'll own that.

Now, what did they say? Donald went first.

"Well, history is always important," he said, laughing. "We know that, and hopefully the beginning of the history of the Roman Empire will be kind to European golf this week."

"Wow," Johnson added.


Mike Ehrmann

"I'll keep my answer short," Donald concluded.

I'm not 100 percent sure what he meant about the beginning of the history of the Roman Empire, unless he was choosing to correct me and say, "hell no, this isn't the end, this is the beginning." Which is fine, but I'm not just seeing the parallels.

Johnson went next:

"I do love history, and I do appreciate certainly what this country is about, and specifically this city," he began diplomatically. "I mean, Luke and I had the pleasure, I would even say distinct honor of walking the streets of Rome in Europe a year ago and actually hitting a ball by the Colosseum and the ruins and whatnot. I don't take that for granted, whether you're talking empires, biblical importance, whatever it may be, I mean, this history, the history of Rome, I mean, it's the eternal city."

"All that being said, this is golf." (The other reporters laughed at this line, cruelly undermining my thesis.) "I mean, this is sport. I'm going to keep it pretty simple. That's the way I operate. I'm going to let whatever drama you're trying to get into, I'm going to let that happen inside the ropes with our golf balls."

Afterward, in an exchange relayed to me by our Dave Shedloski, who put the hard question to Johnson again—do you feel like a Visigoth in bear furs— the U.S. captain said, "I don't even know who the Visigoths are."

So, in the full analysis, I have to admit that my idea didn't go over so well with the big guys. A few other journalists made some remarks in passing afterward, so maybe this has some legs as the week goes on. But in any case, if the Americans win, and Johnson strikes across the fairways of Rome like the conquering King Alaric of the Visigoths (maybe wearing bear furs, maybe not) and Donald weeps like Honorius at seeing his empire ravaged, just remember where you heard it first.