GUIDONIA MONTECELIO, Italy (AP) — Rory McIlroy’s chances of winning the Italian Open a year ago at the Marco Simone course that will host this week’s Ryder Cup vanished when his tee shot on the reachable par-4 16th splashed into the pond right of the green.
That came two days after Europe captain Luke Donald made a novice’s error by hitting the wrong ball upon landing in the thick rough, earning himself a two-stroke penalty and a triple bogey.
A year earlier, Tommy Fleetwood’s bogey on the same hole meant that he ended up finishing one stroke behind the winner, Nicolai Hojgaard.
If there’s one hole on the course outside Rome that is destined to be decisive in this year’s competition between the United States and Europe, it’s No. 16 — as long as contests make it that far in the match-play format.
Bob McIntyre and Adrian Meronk, the last two Italian Open champions, both birdied 16 in their final rounds.
“Dave (Sampson) of European Golf Design made a course fit for drama,” Marco Simone superintendent Lara Arias said in a recent interview. “And that’s what you want in a Ryder Cup. Everyone is going to be saying, ‘Wowwww.’ That’s the Ryder Cup.”
Measuring 352 yards, the safe play on 16 is a 200-yard downhill tee shot that sets up a wedge to the green with a pond to the right. But it will be tempting to hit driver which must fly 300 yards to cover a creek, with two bunkers guarding the green and the water on the right.
Holes Nos. 5 and 11 are also potential driveable par-4s.
“What’s good about Marco Simone is it’s got a lot of long holes, a lot of short holes. It’s got a lot of left, lot of right, lot of up, lot of down. It’s got a lot of character. And I think that’s a sign of a really good golf course,” United States captain Zach Johnson said.
“So it’s got some long par 3s, it’s got some short par 3s. It’s got some long par 4s, short driveable par 4s, some par 5s that you can get after. So for this tournament and for the format that we play, it’s magnificent.”
Another signature of the Marco Simone course is the high, brown native grass beyond the narrow fairways.
“The rough is thick,” Donald said after his team held a training camp on the course this month. “The primary rough is pretty similar to what we played in the Italian Open. Outside of that with some wayward tee shots it’s very thick where you could lose some golf balls.”
The native grass is indigenous to the area — meaning it was probably around during the times of Ancient Rome, as evidenced in colorful plant-themed mosaics unearthed in a a first-century Roman villa next to the 10th hole.
“The native grass does not get treated with water or fertilizers and it’s cut only twice a year, so it’s low maintenance and highly sustainable,” Arias said. “It also provides a great contrast in colors between the fairways and the greens.
While it pains Arias, she ordered most of the native grass to be cut down for Ryder Cup week to make room for the 50,000 spectators expected each day.
“Otherwise it would just get trampled on,” Arias said.
Still, she is leaving 6 ½ feet of native grass inside the ropes at a height of five inches.
Two more key factors at Marco Simone figure to be the physical test of walking the hilly back nine potentially twice a day for some players — and doing that in sapping heat and humidity.
Temperatures are forecast to rise above 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius).
The elevation on the back nine allows for views of St. Peter’s Basilica 12 miles (20 kilometers) away from the 11th green and other spots.
“The potential heat could be a challenge with the hills,” Johnson said. “It probably will be one of the warmer Ryder Cups in Europe — certainly in my time it’s going to be the warmest. Even if we have a 70 degree day, that would be warm based on where we played in the past. So heat, hills, maybe the sun beating down: It’s going to be a tough test to walk. And it’s also going to be a part of the equation of how we put guys out.
“So you’re going to try to take that all into play. It’s going to be tough on our players but it’s going to be really tough on the caddies. And they’re very much an integral part of the team.”
Without most of their caddies on hand, the Americans used carts during their training camp.
“At one point we actually had (the caddies) invited,” Johnson said. “But the players and a lot of the caddies were like, ‘You know what? We got four days to prepare for that golf course the Ryder Cup week. They feel confident they can get their work done. … They need more time off.’”
Four holes at Marco Simone are lined by water: No. 5, No. 8, No. 16 and No. 18. There are also a couple of creeks; and all of the water drains into the pond on No. 8.
“So later on we can re-use the water to irrigate the golf course,” Arias said.
It might not be just Americans and Europeans on the course. That’s because a colony of nutria, amphibious rodents, live on the Marco Simone grounds and have been known to roam the fairways.
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