The Ryder Cup is finally here. US skipper Zach Johnson says it's time to let the thoroughbreds loose

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United States' Team Captain Zach Johnson gestures as he makes a speech during the Ryder Cup opening ceremony at the Marco Simone Golf Club in Guidonia Montecelio, Italy, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. The Ryder Cup starts Sept. 29, at the Marco Simone Golf Club. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

GUIDONIA MONTECELIO – Big winners two years ago in Wisconsin, the Americans know a Ryder Cup victory away from home has been out of reach for the last 30 years.

Among the challenges is a pro-European crowd ready to cheer and jeer every miss.

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So it was no surprise Thursday on the eve of the Ryder Cup to hear U.S. captain Zach Johnson do all he could to curry favor with the host nation in the opening ceremony. He offered endless praise of Italy and immigrants who have added so much to American culture and character.

“And this week, in a small way, we hope America can give something back to Italy,” he said.

European captain Luke Donald thought of one thing America could offer.

"Yeah, a little gold trophy would be nice on Sunday evening,” he said.

The battle for the 17-inch Ryder Cup, in U.S. possession since that 19-9 beating at Whistling Straits in 2021, gets started Friday morning at Marco Simone. It's a golf course built for big excitement at an event that really doesn't need much help.

It's not so much the reachable par 5s and short par 4s. Viktor Hovland charged up the crowd Thursday with his “mulligan albatross." After an errant tee shot, he dropped a ball on the tee at the 302-yard fifth and knocked it in with a 3-wood.

This is as much about the hills and layout that allow for good views and lots of noise. Playing before a hostile crowd is never easy, and perhaps one reason Team USA has not left European soil with the Ryder Cup since 1993.

Johnson believes this year will be different, just like captains of the previous six visiting U.S. teams before him. He felt good enough to sit out Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas from the opening session of foursomes Friday morning, along with Brooks Koepka, a five-time major champion he said was built for big stages like this.

“Really at peace with where things are," Johnson said. “Extremely confident in our 12 guys.”

Johnson is sending out world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler and his close friend, Sam Burns, to face Masters champion Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton in the first of four matches in the opening session.

Four matches of fourballs follow in the afternoon, with the same schedule on Saturday and then 12 singles matches on Sunday to decide the cup. The Americans are defending champions and only need 14 out of the 28 points available to retain the Ryder Cup.

In other opening matches, Hovland and Swedish rookie Ludvig Aberg will face the Ryder Cup rookie duo of Max Homa and British Open champion Brian Harman; Collin Morikawa and Rickie Fowler face Sepp Straka and Shane Lowry; and the anchor match feels like heavyweight material — Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele against Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood.

McIlroy is the most experienced Ryder Cup player and No. 2 in the world. Fleetwood went 4-0 in his partnership with Francesco Molinari in his memorable debut before a home European crowd outside Paris in 2018.

“It's a really strong American team, and they have a lot of really tough partnerships. We’re going up against one of them tomorrow in Xander and Patrick. They’ve got an incredible record,” McIlroy said. “I just hope I can live up to Francesco, is really all I'm trying to do here. If I can live up to Francesco, I think we'll be OK.”

The four days of buildup to the opening session felt as long as the two years since the last Ryder Cup. Teams played 9-hole practice rounds in-between team photos, interviews, gala dinners and motivational moments within their respective team rooms.

Once the ball is in the air before an enormous arena around the first tee, the action becomes relentless all the way through to the end.

The captains and their assistants have analyzed the statistical data of their players and potential partnerships. They have watched them practice.

“There comes a point when you’ve just got to let your thoroughbreds run,” Johnson said. “And I think we’re at that point. But I’m confident in the approach we’ve had up to this point.”

The only surprise was sitting Spieth — in his fifth Ryder Cup — and Thomas for the opening session, though they likely will be playing fourballs in the afternoon. It's the first time Spieth has not played in the opening session.

Johnson said it was a matter of numbers — four matches means he had to sit four players (U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark also is sitting). And it's unlikely most players will go all five matches given the heat and terrain outside Rome.

“The eight guys I have down on paper are the ones that we feel best put us in the position to get off to a great start,” Johnson said. “I have the utmost confidence in these eight and the utmost confidence in Jordan and Justin. I know we’re talking about a great tandem, but it’s a situation where it’s not about their form. They’re playing great. So it’s really just a matter of trying to dissect all five sessions.”

No one keeps score outside the ropes, but it felt as though Donald went 1-up in the opening ceremony by speaking beautifully in Italian to welcome the crowd, and then including the 12 caddies as making them every bit of the team.

But it's decided by keeping the ball in short grass, holing points, earning points.

“I have a lot of faith in my team, but at the same time, I certainly don’t underestimate the U.S. side. There’s some strong players,” Donald said. "There’s a lot of players that played two years ago in Whistling Straits. They have some pairings that have astronomical win percentages, that have had a lot of success.

“I'm very happy with the progress of my team,” he said. “The preparation the last few days has been fantastic. They've given a lot over the last three days. They're very engaged, and they are ready to compete.”

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