PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Zach Johnson was on a ski vacation in Colorado in late January when what he figured was a routine video call turned into much more. On the call was the entire Ryder Cup committee asking him to be the next American captain.
“I had a pretty good ski day that day,” Johnson said Monday with a broad smile. “I had some blue pants and a red top and I hit the white powder.”
The gold Ryder Cup trophy was on a table next to him at PGA of America headquarters as Johnson was introduced as the 30th U.S. captain. His job is to try to achieve what six previous captains could not — win the Ryder Cup away from home.
The 2023 matches are at Marco Simone in Italy.
Johnson is used to beating the odds.
He did not go to a powerhouse college program as a self-described “normal guy” from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was pea shooter in an era of cannons. But he won 12 times on the PGA Tour, captured majors at Augusta National and St. Andrews and had a winning record in the Ryder Cup (8-7-2) despite playing on only one winning team.
“I love going over there and competing. I love stretching myself. I love being uncomfortable,” Johnson said. “It is going to be hard. But it’s also just a beautiful opportunity to go out there and give these guys an avenue to be themselves and play with freedom and that’s kind of how I’m going to approach it.”
The expectations of the Americans winning on European soil for the first time since 1993 at The Belfry will be greater than ever. They are coming off the biggest blowout ever over Europe, a 19-9 margin at Whistling Straits.
Johnson wasn't about to change anything.
The U.S. went from eight automatic qualifiers and four captain's picks to six of each because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 that left an uncertain PGA Tour schedule and eventually led the matches to being postponed one year.
Johnson said it will stay the same for 2023 — six qualifiers, six picks — with the same points system in place. PGA Tour players can earn points only at the majors, The Players Championship and a World Golf Championships event this year. And then in the Ryder Cup year. there will be points for every tournament (except opposite-field events), with the four majors getting one-and-a-half more points (double for the winner).
In keeping with the guidelines that came out of the Ryder Cup Task Force in 2014, Steve Stricker goes from being the captain to one of the assistants.
Johnson dodged all questions related to another potential assistant — Phil Mickelson.
Mickelson's inflammatory remarks about the Saudis who are funding a proposed rival league, and his acknowledgement that he was willing to work with the Saudis to manipulate change in the PGA Tour, has damaged his reputation.
Four corporate sponsors have decided to end partnerships with Mickelson, while Callaway Golf has said it has put its relationship on pause.
Mickelson was thought be a shoo-in as captain for Bethpage Black in 2025, and future captains typically serve as an assistant, as Mickelson was in Wisconsin last fall.
“Given basically where we are right now, I have no idea what lies ahead as far as my vice captains and who is on this team,” Johnson said.
He offered roughly the same answer the three times the subject of Mickelson or the rumored Saudi league was mentioned.
“The unknowns are just that,” he said.
What he has is great depth in American talent, and a team that is desperate to end three decades of losing away from home. Seven players from the last team were in their 20s and six were Ryder Cup rookies. That included Collin Morikawa, who already had won two majors before playing in his first Ryder Cup.
“All I know is the American depth of golfers right now is pretty amazing and fantastic to watch,” Johnson said.
Johnson said having six captain's picks will allow him to get the right players who fit the team and Marco Simone. The Americans had a two-day practice session at Whistling Straits ahead of the last matches. That won't be as easy to do for Italy.
“The logistics are not ideal,” he said. “The notion of going there early, I'm going to make it a priority. How it looks, I don't know.”