As Justin Rose steadied himself on the sixth tee, the silence around him was broken by a sort of low, guttural sound from the fans across the water. Heads turned to the fifth green just in time to see a single white ball roll toward the cup and fall into the hole with no golfer in sight.
The noise became a roar. Standing alongside Rose were Rory McIlroy, Tommy Fleetwood and their captain Luke Donald.
“A hole in one!” said McIlroy. And on par four. “Who was it?”
Donald pressed his finger to his earpiece and listened for news.
“Viktor,” he said and McIlroy grinned broadly. They will tell you that everyone on Team Europe loves everyone else – but all loves Viktor Hovland.
Then came the catch. “But it was his second ball,” Donald said. This was the final practice round before the start of the Ryder Cup on Friday, and Hovland had tried different clubs on each tee.
“This is a highlight,” Fleetwood said.
“But it’s a good three,” Donald joked.
At that moment, among the few thousand fans in this hidden corner of the Marco Simone Golf Club, there was a euphoric mood that underscored a point about the Ryder Cup: It’s never a fair fight. Home advantage is all that explains why the U.S. hasn’t won on European turf in 30 years. There are a few American spectators in Rome this week – you usually notice them – but the vast majority have come to watch Europe win back the cup.
A few hours earlier, thousands of fans had streamed through the gates. The Ryder Cup attracts a crowd of golf enthusiasts, from older couples who have booked a few days in Tuscany after it ends, to young and not-so-young men who exude the energy of a stag party.
In they came: giddy Brits drinking Peroni at 9am; elegant Scandinavians in Viking hats; Tanned Spaniards shout “Vamos!” wherever Jon Rahm went; exuberant Americans dressed head to toe in stars and stripes, the kind of men who talk with their shoulders, the kind of men whose only attitude is 11.
Like tourists on safari, they went in search of their favorite players. Her feet brushed quietly through the tall grass at Scottie Scheffler’s favorite bar, the Chipping Green. They huddled together while Matt Fitzpatrick refined his putting. They gathered by the thousands in the stands behind the driving range, where a small group of Americans worked on their long game and every shot was traced in bright colors on a giant screen.
Beside them, a lone European player was working his way through his repertoire: Hovland played a few short chips, a few spinning wedges, a handful of penetrating irons and woods before finally pulling out the driver, drawing impotent gasps from the spectators behind him. As he walked up to the first tee, there was an almighty cheer from the stands and he smiled. Everyone loves Viktor Hovland.
There was shade out on the track – individual trees were sacred life-givers to huddle under. The stands offered hamburgers and roast pork, as well as excessive amounts of the official Ryder Cup drink, Gatorade. Fans leaned from high verandas attached to a huge structure that looks like the side of a cruise ship, craning their heads to see as EU flags fluttered over the edge.
Home advantage really brings about three important things. The first is familiarity: several members of Team Europe have already played against Marco Simone and two of them – newcomers Bob MacIntyre and Nicolai Hojgaard – won the Italian Open here. The second is the ability to create a favorable course with thick rough designed to accommodate wayward U.S. drives, although the old differences between hard-hitting American golfers and shorter, more precise European golfers are now negligible.
And then there’s the crowd: 50,000 spectators will roam the pitch every day, and if history is anything to go by, they’ll turn this pleasant hill in Lazio into an intimidating cauldron for the American players. In 30C heat, after European fans have waited four years to experience Ryder Cup golf first hand, there are sure to be some flashpoints. At the moment it’s mostly a place of dizzying excitement. Marco Simone is part carnival, part theme park, and even a performance like Hovland’s can remind you that a sporting event is about to break out.
A few minutes after his ball dropped into the cup, Hovland marched on to the fifth green to thunderous applause, urged forward by his practice partners like a bowler who’d hit a five-fer. He took off his cap and flexed a bicep, and the crowd let out a loud “Oooooh” as he walked toward the hole and fished out his ball.
Maybe this moment meant nothing. After all, it was just a practice shot from a tee that will be 80 yards further back on Friday morning. But it was impossible to miss the triumphant mood in the air. European fans don’t just come here to watch the Ryder Cup; They came to win it. This will certainly make a difference in the next few days. How can you not play better when thousands of people want to put the ball in the hole?
Welcome to Rome, America. This won’t be a fair fight.