Zach Johnson was 17 years old the last time the United States won the Ryder Cup on European soil, a two-point victory at the Belfry in England in 1993.
As the 2023 American Ryder Cup captain, it is Johnson’s charge to end what will have been a 30-year winless period when the matches commence in Rome 19 months from now.
A first step in doing that, the 46-year old Johnson will keep what worked from the Americans’ dominating 19-9 victory over the Europeans at Whistling Straits last September, giving himself six captain’s picks after six automatic qualifiers have been selected.
From there, Johnson will try to end three decades of hearing the European fans singing ‘Ole, ole, ole’ in celebration on Sunday night.
“Going over there is not easy. I get that. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s just my mentality that I’m going to embrace what that difficulty is all about,” Johnson said at his introductory press conference Monday morning in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
Johnson’s announcement as the successor to Steve Stricker came as no surprise. Since the PGA of America established a Ryder Cup task force in the wake of the disastrous 2014 week at Gleneagles, an operating system has been established with the goal of creating consistency to what had been a more haphazard process.
“The stuff (Zach) does behind closed doors is what I think makes the big difference and I think every guy that’s played on a team that he’s been an assistant or played with him would definitely agree with that.” –Brooks Koepka
A five-time Ryder Cup player and a vice captain to Jim Furyk in 2018 and Stricker last year, Johnson has been a part of the process. With the support of several past captains and with Stricker, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas on the selection committee with a handful of PGA of America officials, Johnson was a logical selection.
He immediately named Stricker as his first vice captain.
“When I had peers of mine say that it’s my turn, I should do it, I accepted it with open arms,” Johnson said.
“These guys said it’s your turn to go. I’m welcoming it.”
With 12 PGA Tour wins including two major championships, Johnson remains competitive on the PGA Tour, allowing him to be a contemporary of sorts with the younger group he will captain.
“I like Zach. He’s always been fun in the team rooms. He’s been kind of a little bit of a rah-rah guy, which is always good,” Brooks Koepka said.
“We all knew he was in line, knew it was going to happen sooner or later, so it’s nice to see him get one. The stuff he does behind closed doors is what I think makes the big difference and I think every guy that’s played on a team that he’s been an assistant or played with him would definitely agree with that.”
Johnson takes over at a time of uncertainty in professional golf with the proposed new Saudi golf league threatening to disrupt the sport’s existing structure. There have been suggestions that any players from the United States or Europe joining the new league would not be allowed to participate in the Ryder Cup matches though there has been no official comment on the matter.
“Those are extreme unknowns and hypotheticals,” Johnson said. “We are going to continue down the same path we have the past few years.”
As for whether Phil Mickelson, mired in a personal and professional mess at the moment, might be part of the 2023 team, Johnson deferred.
“Given where we are, I have no idea what lies ahead as far as my vice captains and who will be on my team,” Johnson said.
As a player, Johnson has been a grinder with an extra dose of tenacity. He’s never been one of the game’s longest hitters but he has offset that with his ability to score and has been a particularly good wedge player.
Born and raised in Iowa, Johnson grew up playing team sports before gravitating to golf.
“I loved everything when it came to team sports but golf picked me,” Johnson said. “I loved being with other guys for a common goal.”
Given the United States’ struggles in the Ryder Cup over the past three decades, Johnson finds himself inheriting the captain’s position after one of the most dominating American performances in Ryder Cup history.
“It is going to be hard but it’s also a beautiful opportunity to go out there and give these guys an avenue to be themselves and play with freedom.” — Zach Johnson
It’s likely the bulk of the Whistling Straits team will be part of Johnson’s squad at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club in Rome and the new captain doesn’t plan on making any major changes to what worked so well for Stricker.
Players will accumulate points only in the majors, the Players Championship and the two World Golf Championships this year. In 2023, points will be available in every PGA Tour event through the second FedEx Cup playoff event, the BMW Championship, when the six automatic qualifiers will be locked into place.
Johnson will make his six captain’s picks three weeks before the Ryder Cup matches.
“The committee really liked the system,” Johnson said. “We don’t feel like we need to change it.”
Like Stricker, Johnson intends to give players plenty of freedom during Ryder Cup week to prepare as they want. Stricker minimized structure and it paid off.
Unlike Stricker, who captained a team in Wisconsin where he lives, Johnson will be trying to put an end to three decades of overseas failure.
“I love being uncomfortable. That’s an odd thing but I like when it’s hard,” Johnson said.
“It is going to be hard but it’s also a beautiful opportunity to go out there and give these guys an avenue to be themselves and play with freedom.”
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