Ryder Cup: US captain Zach Johnson safe choice to face Europe in Italy 2023

By Iain CarterBBC golf correspondent
US Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson
Zach Johnson is the 30th captain of the United States Ryder Cup team

Zach Johnson was the continuity candidate; an understated, underdog kind of guy who American golf believes is best qualified to keep the Ryder Cup in US hands.

You don't win the Masters in 2007 as one of the shortest hitters on tour without having a tonne of fight, likewise eclipsing a stacked leaderboard eight years later to win The Open at St Andrews.

So the Iowan, who has just turned 46, looks an ideal choice to succeed another over-achieving yet undemonstrative figure. Steve Stricker used those sort of qualities to pilot America to a record 19-9 win over Europe at Whistling Straits last September.

It is Johnson's task to ride the momentum generated by that brilliant win and become the first US skipper to win on European soil in three decades.

"There's certainly some gravity to the situation, I welcome it," the new Captain America told BBC Sport. "I love difficult situations, I love being an individual that shouldn't.

"That was the way I was taught, because that individual who shouldn't sometimes does and that's going to be my approach.

"It is going to be hard, very difficult but let's embrace what we have, a great opportunity to go out there and have fun and showcase some great, talented US players."

Like Stricker, Johnson will select half of his team. His predecessor was more nimble than his opposite number Padraig Harrington by insisting on six wildcard picks for the 12-man team after Covid-19 disrupted the original qualifying period.

Continuing this selection policy was discussed with America's Ryder Cup committee, which includes Stricker - who Johnson has already named as one of his vice-captains - as well as leading players including Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.

"It was pretty unanimous that we wanted to keep things the way they were," Johnson explained.

"And I think the overall notion of going to a venue that we've never seen before and frankly the European Tour has only seen once or twice, we want some freedom involved.

"Not to say horses for courses but you want to have the ability and freedom to pick the guys that might fit the golf course a little bit better.

"I haven't set foot on it, I'm excited to do so but what I do know is that the European team has a little bit of say in the make up of the golf course. And they should.

"We do over here and that's the beauty of the Ryder Cup. I think the six picks just allows that."

Johnson accepts he is taking over at a febrile time for the game, with a potential Saudi-funded super league still a possibility. The prospect of the breakaway league has stalled Europe's appointment of Harrington's successor.

The most likely candidate, Henrik Stenson, is a potential defector as are fellow Ryder Cup legends Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter. They could be banned from future matches if they take the Saudi millions.

"Clearly I can't speak to what the European tour is doing and how they're going about it because that's not my business," Johnson said. "I really don't know.

"I do know they'll pick a leader that's worthy and have a team that's really good.

"As far as the current climate, I can just tell you this, there are a lot of unknowns, a lot of hypotheticals, but Zach Johnson is a member of the PGA Tour and also a member of the PGA of America and that's where I stand."

The controversy surrounding a potential super league has already hit Phil Mickelson, a vice-captain at Whistling Straits. The six-times major champion has lost his main sponsors and is taking a break after his strident comments criticising the PGA Tour and Saudi regime were published.

How likely is it that Mickelson will be part of Johnson's backroom team, especially having been previously earmarked as a potential captain for the 2025 match in New York?

Johnson plays a predictably straight bat. "I'll tell you this, Phil is a friend of mine and I can just leave it at that. A dear friend of mine," he said.

"And I don't know what the team's going to look like both from a serving standpoint and obviously from a playing standpoint. My allegiance is with these two great institutions over here, the PGA Tour and PGA of America."

The new American captain has never visited Italy but is planning a recce of the new look Marco Simone course near Rome, which has been rebuilt for the 2023 match.

It staged last year's Italian Open but is also a largely unknown quantity for the European players. "They haven't seen it that often," Johnson said.

"I don't know if that's an advantage. What I do know is a disadvantage (for us) is that they're going to have their fans out there and they're going to be great. That's a hostile environment and it's awesome."

It is easy to gain the impression that Johnson is already relishing the prospect.

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