5 burning questions heading into the 44th Ryder Cup in Rome

The 44th Ryder Cup gets underway Friday morning at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club in Rome, and there are plenty of questions surrounding both teams.

Rookies litter each roster, and some key stars on each squad are playing less than ideal coming into the week.

But the Ryder Cup is different.

Before the action, we take a look at five burning questions, starting with a player whose selection to represent the United States has been a hotly debated topic across the sport.

Which Justin Thomas will show up in Italy?

Team USA player Justin Thomas reacts to his putt on the 16th green during day one foursome matches for the 43rd Ryder Cup golf competition at Whistling Straits. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Team USA player Justin Thomas reacts to his putt on the 16th green during day one foursome matches for the 43rd Ryder Cup golf competition at Whistling Straits. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Johnson’s selection of Justin Thomas to represent the United States in Rome came with both doubts and duhs. Yes, the 2022-23 PGA Tour season didn’t go as planned for the Alabama product. Across 15 made cuts in 21 starts, Thomas grabbed 11 top-25 finishes – eight of which came before the calendar flipped to June – and just four top-10s.

On the flip side, the Americans weren’t in a position to leave that kind of player, that kind of leadership at home.

In two previous trips representing the Red, White and Blue, Thomas has put together a 6-2-1 overall record, including a 2-0-0 record in Sunday singles.

And folks wanted to leave that guy on the sidelines?

But now it’s time to put up or shut up. Captain Johnson has put his faith in Thomas, and it’s time for the 30-year-old to deliver.

He did play in the Fortinet Championship this month and looked much improved, eventually finishing solo fifth.

Which Thomas will we see in Rome? Only time will tell.

This is Rory McIlroy's team now. Can he lead Europe to victory?

2018 Ryder Cup
Rory McIlroy of Europe attends a press conference after Team Europe win the 2018 Ryder Cup following singles matches of the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National on September 30, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

Sergio Garcia – gone. Ian Poulter – gone. Lee Westwood – gone.

He might not be the oldest player on the roster – Justin Rose at 43 is – but this is Rory McIlroy’s team.

This will be the seventh time he puts on the Blue and Yellow, and now he has to take the reins.

Across McIlroy’s first six appearances, he’s gone 12-12-4 and 3-2-1 in Sunday singles. Nothing to turn your nose up at, but probably not good enough in his eyes.

The record took a beating two years ago at Whistling Straits, a week that saw McIlroy go 1-3-0 – his only win coming Sunday against Xander Schauffele – and being benched for the first time in his Ryder Cup career as he watched Saturday foursomes from the sidelines.

He gave an emotional interview afterward, letting fans across the globe know what this event means to him.

The difference this time around is he’s coming into the week in fantastic form.

Since tying for 47th at the Wells Fargo Championship in early May, McIlroy has made 12 worldwide starts. He’s finished outside the top 10 once – T-16 at the Irish Open – and added a stellar come-from-behind win at the Scottish Open.

Rome is the perfect opportunity for McIlroy to put the world on notice.

And if he needed any more extra motivation, U.S. team member Wyndham Clark gave him serious bulletin board material.

Can Ludvig Aberg be Europe's version of 2021 Scottie Scheffler?

2023 BMW PGA Championship
Ludvig Aberg lines up his putt on the 16th green on Day 3 of the 2023 BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth Golf Club near London on September 16, 2023. (Photo by Glyn Kirk / AFP)

Two years ago Steve Stricker selected a young, winless Scottie Scheffler to represent the United States at Whistling Straits. The Texan was coming off a season in which he finished inside the top 25 16 times and the top 10 eight times across 24 made cuts.

Scheffler delivered for Stricker and Team USA, going an undefeated 2-0-1 including a Sunday singles win over then-World No. 1 Jon Rahm.

It paid off to take the ascending, young star.

Fast forward to 2023 and Europe has implemented a similar strategy. Luke Donald selected Ludvig Aberg with one of his six captain’s picks, ignoring the fact that the Swede has never played in a major championship.

Granted, Donald’s decision was a bit easier than Stricker’s, as Aberg has already found the winner’s circle, claiming the hardware at the European Masters. He was also in the driver’s seat at the BMW PGA Championship in his very next start before a tough Sunday sent him tumbling down the board – 4 over, T-10.

Aberg has a chance to become the next European superstar, and that journey might start in Rome.

Will Viktor Hovland cement himself as Europe's No. 3?

Ryder Cup 2021
Team Europe player Viktor Hovland lines up a putt on the fourth green during Day 2 foursomes for the 43rd Ryder Cup golf competition at Whistling Straits. (Photo: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)

Like McIlroy, Viktor Hovland turned it on after a subpar finish at Quail Hollow Club. He’s since accumulated three wins – Memorial, BMW Championship and Tour Championship – and rose to No. 4 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

With European stalwarts Garcia, Poulter and Westwood out of the picture after their moves to the LIV Golf League, the 44th Ryder Cup in Rome will serve as the first building block in finding the long-term future of Team Europe.

The 26-year-old has a chance to cement himself as No. 3 behind McIlroy and Rahm, but judging by his debut in 2021, it’s tough to know if he’ll answer the call.

The Norwegian played in all five sessions in Wisconsin, going 0-3-2. Is it fair to judge his record when all of Team Europe struggled? Maybe not. But Hovland will have to up his match-play game in Rome if he wants to be viewed as a key European piece moving forward.

Will Brian Harman and Wyndham Clark answer the call?

2023 BMW Championship
Wyndham Clark of the United States walks across the third green during a practice round prior to the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields Country Club on August 16, 2023 in Olympia Fields, Illinois. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

The Ryder Cup points system puts significant importance on major championships. So when Wyndham Clark and Brian Harman each claimed their first over the summer, they virtually punched their tickets to Rome.

However, in three starts since claiming the Claret Jug, Harman finished T-31 in a 70-man field at the FedEx St. Jude Championship, T-5 at the BMW Championship and 23rd in a 30-man field in Atlanta.

It’s a similar story for Clark, who has just one top-20 finish – third at the Tour Championship – since hoisting the hardware in LA.

This will be both players’ national team debut, and it comes on hostile soil.

As the Americans look to end a 30-year drought of not winning in Europe, Harman and Clark will have to hold their own against a strong opponent. Plus, Clark has this quote to back up: “I’d love to play Rory. I mean, I have the utmost respect for Rory … Because of that respect, I also want to beat him. I like to think I am better than him, and I want to prove that.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek