Ryder Cups are on Stenson’s mind at Italian Open

GUIDONIA, Italy (AP) — The Ryder Cup occupied a big portion of Henrik Stenson’s thoughts after grabbing a share of the lead in the first round of the Italian Open on Thursday.

And it wasn’t just about his late push to qualify for Europe’s team at this month’s event at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.

Stenson also had plenty to say about the redesigned Marco Simone course outside Rome that will host the 2023 edition of golf’s biggest team event in Italy for the first time.

“It’s certainly a lot more hilly than I expected,” Stenson said. “It’s quite a lot of elevation, either up or down, on quite a few of the holes, and some of the greens are very tricky. It’s got some big ridges and some mounds on them, and given the pace that we’re putting on this week, it makes putting really difficult at times. So a little bit different than I expected, but happy to get a good score in.”

Stenson shot a bogey-free 7-under 64 with seven birdies to join Kalle Samooja of Finland and Min Woo Lee of Australia in the lead.

Eddie Pepperell, Scott Hend and Edoardo Molinari — who had a hole-in-one on the seventh — were each one stroke off the lead.

Tommy Fleetwood was tied with three other players one stroke further behind after a double bogey on the par-3 17th amid an otherwise flawless round.

Over the last two weeks, Stenson has tied for fourth in the Czech Masters and placed third in last week’s European Masters at Crans-Montana, Switzerland.

While Stenson sits 49th in Europe’s Cup standings with only two weeks of competition remaining before the team is selected, the 45-year-old Swede has been on Europe’s team five times and could still become a valuable asset for this year’s squad.

“It’s certainly on my mind,” Stenson said. “I’m trying to just go about my things and play as good of a tournament I can here. I’ve done that the previous two weeks and managed to get some strong results, so I’m just trying to improve and carry on playing well. So that’s where my head is at and if we can make something happen we’ll see in the next few weeks.”

Having previously hosted the Italian Open in 1994, the Marco Simone course was completely rebuilt for the Ryder Cup over the last several years.

Views of St. Peter’s Basilica in the far distance from several holes remain, but the overhauled greens are now extremely undulating in order to test the world’s best players.

With lush green fairways nestled between brown burnt high grass, Stenson declared it unlike any other course he’s ever encountered. But he also suggested that more modifications need to be made before 2023.

“If you hit the ball really long you can cut some corners — that could potentially favor the U.S. team more than the European team,” said Stenson, who could be in the mix to be named Europe’s captain for 2023 if he can’t qualify as a player.

“It’s quite American in terms of the green complexes. I’ll probably give a little bit more putting advantage to the U.S. team rather than the European team on that end, too,” Stenson added. “So we’ll see what we can change around to make it more in favor of the European players.”

Fleetwood, who played a major role on the Europe team that won the 2018 Ryder Cup, wasn’t ready give a full assessment yet.

“I get that you can set a course up to home (advantage) but at the same time I always think it’s the best players in the world and whatever the golf course, whatever the test, it shouldn’t make that much difference,” Fleetwood said.

“We’ve had some practice rounds and then played one day,” he added. “After a week of it I think you’ll get some good feedback and we’ll see if there are any changes needed to be made or what players fancy. But overall I think we’re on a great start.”

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More AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf

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