‘Honor of a lifetime’: Zach Johnson named 2023 U.S. Ryder Cup Captain
Zach Johnson was never supposed to be here.
Not as a kid growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, whose thirst for playing sports exceeded his raw athletic ability. Not after completing a college golf career at Drake University with little fanfare, and definitely not when he was hopping from one mini-tour stop to the next in the early 2000s while trying to get his career off the ground.
“To say that my dreams reached this far would be a complete lie,” Johnson said.
But Johnson never let those perceptions hold him back. Inside the ropes, his dogged determination propelled him to a career that featured 12 PGA Tour wins, including a pair of major titles.
Johnson’s unrelenting demeanor and ability to fight until the final putt was never more evident than during the biennial matches, when the Midwest star embraced the team element that only the Ryder Cup provides.
A veteran of five Cups as a player, it took until 2016 at Hazeltine for him to experience a team victory. Despite that lean run of team results, Johnson’s individual Ryder Cup record stands at 8-7-2. His hallmark? Staring down his opponent and putting points on the board.
And now, it has led to what he called the “honor of a lifetime” as the 46-year-old has been selected as the 2023 U.S. Ryder Cup Captain and will lead a Team of 12 next year in Italy as the Americans look to break a three-decade drought.
“I’m not suggesting I love golf. I really, really like golf. But I love competition,” Johnson said. “And I just love the opportunity of taking an individual game and making it a team game. I love the chemistry, I love the camaraderie, and what it entails. So now that I’m going to be the leader of that Team, I’m hoping I can showcase that.”
Johnson turned pro in 1998 but didn’t reach the PGA Tour for another six years. His maiden win soon followed, and he made his Ryder Cup debut in 2006. Soon after, a major breakthrough came in 2007 at a blustery Augusta National, followed by a Monday playoff win in 2015 at St. Andrews to capture another major title at an iconic venue.
In the interim he was among the most consistent American players for nearly a decade, reaching a high of No. 6 in the world ranking and making four straight Ryder Cup teams from 2010-16. Along the way his gritty game and trophy haul gained the respect of his contemporaries, as evidenced by the support some of the game’s other notables offered to Johnson’s prospective captaincy.
It was only then, Johnson explained, that the thought of leading a U.S. Ryder Cup Team began to transform into a reality.
“What dawned upon me was when I had peers of mine come up to me and say, 1) you’re going to be the captain, 2) you should be the captain, and 3) you’re going to do a great job. I’ve had that in numerous instances, and I was kind of floored by it,” he said. “Frankly, when you have Davis Love III, and Tiger Woods and (Steve) Stricker, and Jim (Furyk) say, ‘Zach, you’re supposed to do this.’ Well, then I’m going to do it.”
Johnson learned plenty from both Furyk and Stricker, serving as a Vice Captain under the former in 2018 and under the latter last year at Whistling Straits. Coming off a record 19-9 romp a few months ago and with the key responsibilities Stricker had shouldered now his to navigate, Johnson expects to embrace a mindset of less is more as he looks to build upon the momentum unearthed along the shores of Lake Michigan last fall.
“I appreciate the fact that the hard decisions are in my lap. I love that responsibility. I’ve always kind of embraced that,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a pretty good template in place, and I’m not going to try to deviate away from that.”
Make no mistake: the task facing Johnson is a daunting one. Yes, the Americans will head to Marco Simone Golf & Country Club with the Ryder Cup in tow, but winning a road game has been more than a challenge. Next year will mark the 30-year anniversary of the last American victory on European soil, when Tom Watson led the U.S. Team to a 15-13 win at The Belfry. Since then, the scene has shifted from Spain to France and a few countries in between, all with the same disappointing result for the visiting Americans.
None of this is news to Johnson, who plans to relish an opportunity to flip that recent record on its head.
“I have always wanted to be a captain over there,” Johnson said. “I love when teams are not supposed to, but do. I love when individuals and teams go into a hostile environment and completely embrace it, completely welcome it and just lay the wood down. I just love that. That’s always been my mentality. I’ve always been a guy that’s not supposed to, so I hope I can portray that as a team.”
Now the work begins. Johnson has his qualification system finalized, and he has filled his first Vice Captain slot by bringing Stricker back into the fold. But none of the 12 roster spots are guaranteed. The sleepless nights wondering who to pair with whom are still a long way off.
What lies ahead is a brief period of acclimation before the 20-month whirlwind begins in earnest. There are practice rounds to book, scouting trips to take and potential players to evaluate – all while trying to remain competitive on Tour as a player who still holds out hope for victory No. 13.
Winning a Ryder Cup, and winning it on the road, won’t be easy. But Johnson hasn’t backed down from a challenge to this point, and he doesn’t expect to start now that “Captain” precedes his name.
While he does not yet know the dozen names he’ll lead to the first tee in Rome next fall, Johnson already has an idea of the message he’ll look to send in the Team room. It’s one that has been forged through two decades of exceeding expectations inside the ropes, of seeing first-hand what the Ryder Cup means and knowing how best to instill its top traits into the next generation.
“This is an opportunity, boys. And this is something that you may never get again. So let’s be a part of something that’s just absolutely fantastic,” Johnson said. “Obviously it’s an honor to be on this Team. But let’s just relish the opportunity to go over there and put the naysayers to rest, and get the job done and retain it. Because it’s ours.”