ROME -- It took a day and half (and one timely tweet), but the United States found its rallying cry at the 2023 Ryder Cup as the event itself found its footing. And all of this happened because of … a hat.
Rather, it happened because of the absence of one.
Midday Saturday,that Patrick Cantlay, who had neither won nor halved a match before the afternoon four-ball session, created a fracture in the U.S. locker room with his decision to go hatless this week in protest of players not being paid for their participation in the Ryder Cup. Whether that report was true ( ) is almost besides the point because the publication of a single tweet completely changed the tone and tenor of this Ryder Cup.
As Cantlay plodded along Marco Simone in his ensuing four-ball match with Wyndham Clark against Rory McIlroy & Matt Fitzpatrick, fans sang and danced and waved their caps at him. Paul Azinger called the report "garbage" and "clickbait" on NBC's broadcast. Yet, the story became a thing.
The fact that it spread so quickly around the property proves the power of social media. For most of the day, it seemed like a fairly amusing, benign Ryder Cup moment that was a bit emblematic of the historical American performance in Europe. At one point during Cantlay's match, a group of fans started singing, "We'll play you every week. We'll play you every week." The confident European fans were having some jolly fun at the Americans' expense, a practice as old as Ryder Cups themselves.
Then came the 18th hole.
With the final match of the day tied, Cantlay poured in a bomb and exploded in celebration. It became clear the normally-placid Cantlay had been affected throughout the day by the chanting and singing. His caddie,by staying on the green and celebrating a bit too long.
What was LaCava doing? Waving his hat back at the crowd, of course.
This eventually led to a heated exchange in the parking lot in which McIlroy dropped several expletives while being restrained. Well prior to that, it more quietly led to several of Cantlay's teammates waving their own hats at him as he tipped an invisible hat of his own to touch off the 1 UP win over McIlroy & Fitzpatrick.
As far as celebrations go, it was perfect. As far as momentum goes, it certainly raised some eyebrows entering Sunday singles.
The Ryder Cup still feels over, just as it did Friday night, but there's a nagging feeling that, perhaps, hatgate has created a narrow path to something special. The U.S. still trails 10.5 to 5.5, but it undoubtedly had a look of confidence late Saturday that it had not through the week.
Here is a difficult truth for the Americans: It should not take a tweet about a hat -- a tweet about a hat! -- to get the best players the United States has to offer fired up to play a road Ryder Cup.
Cantlay said the quiet part out loud after his afternoon match.
"I've never had so many standing ovations going to tee boxes and greens," said Cantlay. "I thought it was fantastic. You know, I told Wyndham -- when we were going to the first tee today -- that we were going to use all the energy out there as fuel, and we did."
The entire strange day tells a story about how the U.S. is now motivated and ready and suddenly holding momentum. It's just maybe not the story they want told.
Don't let McIlroy's histrionics or LaCava's bravado or any of the other theatrics from Saturday evening distract from the fact, that for the first day and a half, the U.S. looked listless and played even worse.
There are a thousand ways to sum this up; here is perhaps the best: A golfer who won The Players in March and a golfer who won the PGA Championship in May were paired together this morning on the American side. They lost to a pairing that had a player who was playing in the Calusa Cup in April ... and that match didn't even reach the 12th hole.
Road Ryder Cups are an obstacle course within which teams must fight to stay upright. The U.S. barely fought for its first 12 matches. At times, it appeared as if the Americans almost preferred to roll over. Understandable to a degree as, for most of these guys, it was the first time they were the object of other fans' ire. That's no small thing.
In situations like these, you have to find a rallying cry, something to hold onto. You have to engender your own energy, manufacture your own juice. And yet, over and over and over again on the road, the U.S. seems willing to let external forces dictate the way its players feel, act and play.
If the U.S. looked like it got punched in the mouth for three straight sessions, well, that's because it did.
Ryder Cups are won on short and long runs of enthusiasm. At home, this energy seeps from every crevice of the property. You have three straight days of home fans pushing and pulling you toward the finish line. On the road, you have to figure out how to create it from almost out of nowhere because everyone on the property is trying to keep it from spilling over.
This seems to happen to the U.S. every time a Ryder Cup is hosted in Europe, and it is no way to win this event. As well-intentioned as Zach Johnson has been throughout, this has to be a reflection of his captaincy.
For most of Friday and even into Saturday, the U.S. looked as if it was unaware that it would be on the business end of 40,000 drinking, jeering European fans. Justin Thomas was the only player (other than a brief moment from Scottie Scheffler) who turned that energy around to try and get his teammates going.
Finally on Saturday afternoon, Cantlay made monster birdie putts on the final three holes. Sam Burns got himself going, too, winning his match alongside Collin Morikawa. So did Max Homa, who won both his matches with Brian Harman.
Cantlay's bare head was not the only place the U.S. hung its hat on Day 2 -- making putts, chipping in and getting chippy with the crowd seemed to help as well -- but in the end, it was everything related to hatgate that seemed to give them the greatest momentum.
No team has ever come back from this great a deficit in the Ryder Cup. It has taken all-time performances in the past just to win from a 10 to 6 deficit on Saturday night. The probability that this U.S. team comes back from 10.5 to 5.5 is quite low.
It could happen, but it almost certainly will not. All of it feels a bit too little, too late.
The reality for this U.S. team is that, despite the bedlam that took place late Saturday and even beyond, they probably lost the event on Friday afternoon or even before. The reality is that they had to show up from the first match, not the 13th. The reality is that they have to figure out how to take a haymaker early and respond because of what this event means, not because of some report on Saturday afternoon.
The reality is that, by the time the hat tweet that fueled a 3-1 session found itself center stage at this Ryder Cup, the event was likely already over.
Rick Gehman and Patrick McDonald break down all the action from Day 2 of the 2023 Ryder Cup. Rory McIlroy is heated, Patrick Cantlay's hat and so much more! Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.