Sports

Zach Johnson Tries to End a 30-Year Drought

Zach Johnson, a five-time Ryder Cup player and a two-time major champion, is at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club in Rome this week as the captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He’s trying to do something no American captain has done in 30 years: beat the European squad on its home turf.

It’s an illustrious list of captains who have tried to bring the Cup back to the United States but failed that includes Jim Furyk, Corey Pavin, Tom Kite, Curtis Strange — all major champions. The last time the U.S. squad won in Europe was in 1993 when Tom Watson, in his first stint as captain, led a team that won at the Belfry in England.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

How did you mature as a player over your five Ryder Cups?

The Ryder Cups I participated in without question helped pave the way for many of my wins, especially the major championships, and instilled in me a confidence that is hard to capture anywhere else. If a player can execute in the Cup, he will be able to execute shots under duress in a major or any other event with real confidence. That confidence I gained in 2006 — even though the team lost — carried over to the 2007 Masters and beyond.

What were the lessons you learned that you imparted on this year’s squad?

First, regardless of what the media says or whatever any of the outside noise may be — it’s still just golf. There is a tee, a fairway, a hole. You know how to play golf, and you’re here because you’re one of the best in the world at it.

Second, just because it’s the Ryder Cup and the pressure is immense, it doesn’t mean you, as a player, have to do anything different. Just be yourself, do the things you’ve always done to have success and trust what got you here.

Third, what’s happened in the past, either good or bad, doesn’t matter. This is a new team with new members on a new course presenting a new opportunity.

How did the selection of players work?

It’s a collaborative process involving my vice captains as well as input from the guys making the team. I rely on my vice captains for sure. Many of them have sat in my seat before and bring so much to the table. We also utilized our statistics team that brought us both objective and subjective data to help make the best-informed decisions to put our best team of 12 together.

What have you learned from past captains on how to make a team gel?

One, the more we can be together as a team, to any capacity, the better. Two, picking a team doesn’t have a perfect formula. There’s current form of play, what the golf course demands, best pairings, experience or lack thereof, and many more aspects. Three, a good team has ownership and investment by its players. That will be a primary goal from the beginning. Having some of these players take on leadership roles — some vocal, some by example — will be paramount.

What was the idea behind the scouting week in Rome before the Ryder Cup?

This is a course that most, if not all, of our guys have not played. To get their feet on the ground of Marco Simone ahead of the Cup was very important. Having practice time there can only make a very trying, different, sometimes difficult week of the Cup that much more manageable and comfortable. Plus, we were together as a team, hanging out, eating together, seeing Rome together, bonding.

You and Luke Donald, the European captain, are contemporaries. Has knowledge from playing against him factored into your decision making?

My friendship or past experiences with Luke on or off the course will not dictate any of my decision making. Neither one of us is hitting any shots.

What will be the biggest challenge of playing in Rome?

The European team is stacked with stars like Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland. We will be playing in front of a hugely partisan crowd in Rome trying to break a 30-year drought by winning away from the United States, playing as an underdog. With this being said, our team sees this as a great test and opportunity to go compete on the grandest stage in golf and bring the Cup back home.

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