Ryder Cup X-Factors & Sleepers: Justin Thomas, Ludvig Aberg, Scottie Scheffler, Viktor Hovland & More
Pictured (left to right): Ludvig Aberg, Viktor Hovland, Scottie Scheffler & Wyndham Clark
The beauty of the Ryder Cup is that any player on either the Europe or U.S. Team’s 12-man roster can transform into the most important within three days. Anyone outside of the biggest names can become the biggest X-Factor or the biggest sleeper.
Even so, we can try to put names to each of these titles.
Let’s dig in as I do just that for this week's Ryder Cup in Rome, Italy.
Most Important Player
United States: Scottie Scheffler
It might be too simplistic to suggest that the world No.1 is also the most important to the U.S. Team’s hopes. The truth is, Scottie Scheffler’s prominence in Rome has everything to do with the fact that throughout this year, he’s been Dr. Jekyll from tee to green and Mr. Hyde with a putter in his hands.
Such incongruous splits have led to a campaign during which he won just twice – and not in the past six months – yet posted an astonishing 10 other top-five results.
It’s impossible to not be intrigued as to whether Scheffler’s ball-striking gives him a high enough floor that he can cruise to a few victorious matches or if his putting prevents him from winning holes and claiming points.
Whereas the European team can rely on its big names to clinch matches, there’s not quite the same sense of confidence when it comes to Scottie. If he finds the fuel that led to a 2-0-1 record in his first Ryder Cup two years ago and not the stuff that left him 0-3-1 in last year’s Presidents Cup, that will be a massive step in the right direction for this U.S. Team.
Europe: Viktor Hovland
I’ve nominated Viktor Hovland for this category while bypassing his fellow studs Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm. That’s because each of those players, despite not owning dominant records in this event, are at least known commodities here. They might claim five points, they might get three, but it’s difficult to believe they won’t be a major boost to their team’s chances.
The third member of Europe’s presumed Big Three is Hovland, who’s fresh off capturing the final two legs of the FedExCup Playoffs. Two years ago, he made his Ryder Cup debut, and while the Norwegian shouldn’t be wholly judged for his performance during a week when the entire team was outclassed, an 0-3-2 record is certainly one he didn’t want to write home about.
It’s within reason that European captain Luke Donald will go top-heavy with his lineup by playing his best players in each session. That places a great deal of importance on Hovland bringing his recent stellar stroke-play record into these matches.
United States: Justin Thomas
I don’t know who came up with the term “X-factor” or how it originated, but I’d like to move up in the alphabet to explain just how much of a difference JT could make this week.
Maybe he should be the A-Factor instead. There’s a reason why Thomas was named to the U.S. Team as a captain’s pick and – surprise, surprise – current form wasn’t it.
No, he’s on this roster because he’s a world-class ball-striker who’s had success in this event previously and should fill the role of much-needed team leader throughout the week.
There’s a sense that the man who now infamously missed qualifying for the FedExCup Playoffs will enter this week with a massive chip on his shoulder. He’ll not only want to stick it to his European opponents, but he’ll also want to prove wrong all those doubters who’d hoped he wouldn’t be on this team, while also hoping to prove a little something to himself, as well.
If he can play the kind of golf we’ve witnessed from him in the past, it gives the American side a nice jumpstart from its most fiery competitor. If he can’t find it, well, he might want to stay away from social media – and far from the lockers of Keegan Bradley and Lucas Glover.
Europe: Marco Simone
If you’re just now diving into Ryder Cup content and haven’t previously examined the makeup of each team, you may be forgiven for believing Marco is a stud ball-striker out of Italy who’s been making a name for himself on the Euro circuit. (Perhaps you’re thinking of Guido Migliozzi…?)
No, Marco Simone Golf & Country Club is the host venue for this week’s festivities, and much like Le Golf National in Paris served as a perfect setup for the home team, there’s hope that this venue will give the Euros not just an emotional advantage, but an analytical edge, too.
That might be easier said than done, however, as the data suggests these two teams essentially average almost the exact same distance off the tee and find the same amount of fairways.
There are whispers that Europe’s captains and assistants believe their team will have an edge with long- and mid-irons into greens as opposed to wedges, and they’ll attempt to set up the course with that knowledge.
If Marco Simone benefits the home side as Le Golf National did, that’s going to offer a bigger advantage than if it plays neutral for the two teams.
United States: Wyndham Clark
Don’t be surprised to see Wyndham Clark paired with Brooks Koepka this week, at least in the four-balls format. How do I know that? Call it intuition.
Or maybe it’s the fact that Clark essentially said this on SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio’s Gravy and the Sleeze while Koepka basically backed it up in an interview with Sports Illustrated.
The U.S. Open champion enjoyed a breakthrough campaign that also included a victory in a signature event at Quail Hollow. He ranks 20th in Birdie Average on the PGA Tour this season, proving he can make ‘em in bunches, and with Koepka backing him up in the partnered matches, he should have the freedom to rip some drives and go flag-hunting with his irons.
Europe: Ludvig Aberg
Those who haven’t yet watched this phenom swing the golf club should prepare to be impressed with an effortless swing which produces awe-inspiring results.
Those who have watched Ludvig Aberg, though, are probably questioning how he can still be categorized as a sleeper. That’s a fair point, as the first player to compete in a Ryder Cup without first playing a single major championship has all the goods to be a superstar.
Not like, next year, or the year after that. I’m talking about this week.
He’s so talented that it would hardly be a shock if he pairs with Hovland, a fellow Scandinavian, for a few matches and never looks back. With his first DP World Tour victory already in his back pocket from a few weeks ago, Aberg’s real coming-out party could come here.