Europe captain Luke Donald believes his side will be underdogs in next year’s Ryder Cup, despite having not tasted defeat on home soil for 30 years.
Two-time major winner Zach Johnson, who said Tiger Woods will be part of his team “in some capacity”, is bidding to become the first American captain to win away from home since Tom Watson at The Belfry in 1993.
The United States cruised to a record 19-9 victory at Whistling Straits in 2021 and although three members of that team – Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka – are ineligible after joining LIV Golf, Johnson has a core of young, world-class players at his disposal.
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World number one Scottie Scheffler, fellow major winners Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Collin Morikawa and Olympic champion Xander Schauffele were all part of the victorious Presidents Cup team last month, with Spieth and Thomas winning all four of their matches together.
“I think being at home is certainly worth something, we see that in all sports, but no doubt we’re going against a very, very strong opponent,” Donald said during a press conference with his opposite number in Rome.
“I think the US Presidents Cup team was the strongest they’ve ever been on paper. They have some phenomenal teams that seem to be tough to beat, guys like Schauffele and (Patrick) Cantlay, Justin and Jordan.
“These guys have win records that are north of 80 per cent so it’s going to be a tough challenge. I fully expect us to be underdogs despite that home percentage of wins over the last 30 years.”
Donald was on the winning side in all four of his Ryder Cup appearances as a player and was also a vice-captain to Thomas Bjorn for the 2018 win in Paris.
The 44-year-old’s first taste of defeat came in the same role under Padraig Harrington at Whistling Straits, a contest which may have marked the last appearances of stalwarts Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia, Paul Casey and Graeme McDowell.
The quintet are currently eligible to qualify for the team after their suspensions for playing in the inaugural LIV Golf event were temporarily stayed on appeal, with the full hearing to be held in February.
But it appears highly unlikely that Donald would use any of his six wild cards on the LIV rebels and the former world number one said he “could not be happier” with how the qualifying race has started.
Shane Lowry won the opening event, the BMW PGA Championship, ahead of Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm, while Robert MacIntyre defeated Matt Fitzpatrick in a play-off for the Italian Open at the Ryder Cup venue of Marco Simone Golf and Country Club and Italy’s Guido Migliozzi won the French Open.
“Bob MacIntyre and Guido, a few months ago felt like they’d lost their games a little bit, they talked about that, and I think seeing the importance of the Ryder Cup and how motivating that is has somewhat turned around their games,” Donald said.
“To see them winning tournaments is great for me. It’s been the ideal start.”
Johnson got his first look at the Ryder Cup venue on Monday and feels it will provide a stern physical test for the players and caddies, a factor which would not favour Woods following the injuries sustained in a car accident last year.
Woods competed just three times in 2022 and withdrew from the US PGA after three rounds, but the 15-time major winner is clearly part of Johnson’s plans.
“I don’t know if he will be here next year, but he will be part of this team in some capacity. He already is frankly,” Johnson said.
“He loves the Ryder Cup. He has made it a priority of his and wants to be a part of it as best he can. Obviously he’s gone through some things as of late that make it difficult, but he and I will be in constant communication.
“He has great ideas, is always positive and the beauty of where we are as Team USA is we’ve got some really great youth that are participating now at a higher level. They are great kids and their role model on the golf course is Tiger Woods.”