Max Homa returned from a scouting trip to the site of this week’s Ryder Cup in Rome incredulous with how the course had been set up.
Not only were the fairways reduced in width where a tee shot might land, but the rough was grown so thick, high and gnarly that slightly errant shots could disappear.
“One day someone hit it over a bunker, and we just lost it in the regular rough,” Homa said. “The whole first day I didn’t see a single ball from the rough hit the green.”
The one exception: Justin Thomas hit a ball in the rough onto the green from 100 yards away, a distance where touring pros are thinking about getting the ball to within a few feet from the hole, not just on the putting surface.
“The rough is borderline unplayable,” Homa said. “There’s going to be the highest, highest premium placed on being in the fairway, but they’re narrow.”
In other words, this sounds like a typical setup for a Ryder Cup played in Europe, where the home team hasn’t lost the biennial competition in 30 years.
The Ryder Cup, which alternates between Europe and the United States, is the rare event in elite golf where the home team has an advantage, given that it gets to determine how the course will be played. At regular professional events, the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour work with local tournament directors to bring consistency from week to week. For the major championships, the governing bodies dictate how the courses will be set up, and typically lay them out in predictably difficult ways.
But the Ryder Cup is different: What the captain of the home team says goes, right up until Sunday night of tournament week. And it’s codified in the Captains’ Agreement, which starts: “It is recognized that the home side has the opportunity to influence and direct the setup and preparation of the course for the Ryder Cup. It is hereby agreed that any such influence, direction and/or preparation will be limited to course architecture/course design, fairway widths, rough heights, green speed and firmness.”
This year, there’s an added bit of home team advantage at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club, because very few of the U.S. players are familiar with the course under any conditions. Several players on the European squad have at least played the course when it hosted the Italian Open on the DP World Tour.
In the hope of getting an understanding of how the course would be set up for the Ryder Cup, Zach Johnson, the U.S. captain, took the team on a scouting trip earlier this month.
“This is a course that most if not all of our guys have not played,” Johnson said in an interview. “To get their feet on the ground of Marco Simone ahead of the Cup is very important. Having some practice time there can only make a very trying, different, sometimes difficult week of the Cup that much more manageable and comfortable.”
Johnson, a five-time Ryder Cup player, knows the setup gambits both sides play. “Because it’s in Europe, there are tendencies their team seems to employ, with regard to course setup among other things,” he said. “We will utilize past experiences and data to make decisions.”
The setup shenanigans ultimately equal out. One of the most famous setup tweaks came when Paul Azinger, captain of the 2008 U.S. squad, set up the course at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky., to take advantage of his players’ ability to drive the ball farther off the tee than their European opponents.
All the hazards — bunkers, much thicker rough — were in the areas where the shorter-hitting Europeans were likely to land the ball, while the rough past the bunkers was cut shorter to make it easier for the American side to escape from wayward drives.
In 2016, at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., Davis Love III, the U.S. captain, put many pins in the middle of the greens, making it easy for the player, but less exciting to watch.
The European side has historically gone with a setup that features narrow fairways and higher rough, under the premise that American golfers are less accurate, along with greens that are much slower than those typically found on the PGA Tour. This year was no different, Homa said.
That leaves an obvious question: Why do the officials allow this?
The Ryder Cup is jointly sanctioned by the P.G.A. of America and Ryder Cup Europe, which is a blend of three organizations in Britain and Europe. Officials at the P.G.A. of America and Ryder Cup Europe said the setup was fair and it could reward or penalize players on either team.
“You are looking for it to be tough, but fair, and provide an exciting challenge,” said David Garland, director of tour operations for Ryder Cup Europe.
Kerry Haigh, chief championships officer at the P.G.A. of America, said: “The Ryder Cup is unlike our other championships in that the home captain has a lot of influence as to how the golf course is set up. Our aim is to make any Ryder Cup golf course setup fair for both teams.”
Once play starts, it’s up to the officials to maintain the course as it was at the outset. “If you want six-inch rough, four-inch rough or two-inch rough, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Haigh said.
Setup aside, both officials emphasized that this year’s course has some shorter holes that are meant to increase the excitement of the matches.
“There are a couple of drivable par 4s, the fifth and the 16th, which are both over water,” Garland said. “The course was completely rebuilt a few years ago for the Ryder Cup with the drama of match play in mind.”