ROME – When U.S. captain Zach Johnson got his Ryder Cup team together for the first time for a training camp at the Marco Simone course outside Rome on Friday, there was no need for a pep talk about team unity with Brooks Koepka coming in from the renegade LIV Golf tour.
That’s because it was just about unanimous: Everyone wanted the five-time major champion. Even if he did go chase the riches of the Saudi-backed LIV circuit.
“The only thing that was said about Brooks with the guys — specifically the top six that made the team on their own merit — was, ’We want Brooks Koepka to play for Team USA,” Johnson said.
Nine of the 12-man American team played Marco Simone for the first time. Koepka was on hand but three players were missing.
“Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay have family matters that definitely supersede what we’re doing,” Johnson said.
While Spieth's wife is about to give birth, Schauffele and Cantlay had “prior family commitments,” Julius Mason of the PGA of America added.
The team landed in Rome and went right out to play 18 holes under a searing sun. With only two caddies along for the trip, they rode carts around the hilly course, which is located just outside the capital.
The Americans will play another round on Saturday before returning for the Sept. 29-Oct 1 event, when Marco Simone will become the third venue in continental Europe to host the Ryder Cup after Valderrama in Spain (1997) and Le Golf National in France (2018).
“The common sentiments that I heard on the golf course was they really liked it, which is awesome, and I knew they would because Marco Simone is very, very good,” said Johnson, who saw the course for the first time last year.
“The rough was very thick. That was the other nugget that we talked about a lot. The putting greens were very good, very true, very nice. The fairways were awesome. It’s a great test and it’s a really, really good match-play golf course. So the guys are excited about the competition,” Johnson added.
Steve Stricker, Davis Love III, Jim Furyk, Fred Couples and Stewart Cink are Johnson's five vice captains. There'll be another unofficial vice captain back home: Tiger Woods.
“Tiger is very much a part of Team USA and has been for years,” Johnson said. “He is, for lack of a better term, on call with us. He is very much in the know as to what we’re trying to do. ... (We're) going to utilize his wisdom and he’s passionate about (the Ryder Cup). He wishes he could be here, but it’s just not in the cards for him physically. And that’s fine. I mean, he is with us. He’s just not here physically.”
Woods was a player on eight Ryder Cup teams and a vice captain in 2018. But he broke bones in his right leg and ankle in a February 2021 car crash.
While the U.S. routed Europe at home in Whistling Straits two years ago, the Americans haven’t won the Ryder Cup on European soil in three decades.
Rome presents a chance to break that trend.
“That’s exactly the way we’re looking at it. It’s just a great opportunity,” Johnson said. “What’s happened in the past is the past. It’s not relevant to us right now. This team is very much focused on where their feet are. We’re going to learn, obviously, from the past and things that have happened. But you can’t dwell on it. You just got to stay focused on really what’s right in front of you and these guys have done a great job of bonding together and keeping the big picture the main thing.”
With a dinner in Rome and plenty of time together on flights crossing the Atlantic, Johnson is promoting some team bonding exercises.
“We’ve got a couple of little things that we’re going to employ,” he said. “Some things that can maybe add some levity to the situation and also add some confidence and freedom to the team. … The team chemistry, the team synergy seems to be fantastic.”
Justin Thomas, another of Johnson’s captains picks, has already been influential in that category.
“JT has a natural ability of leading," Johnson said about Thomas. “It’s just the way he goes about his work and his business. It’s attractive to the guys. It’s a pretty magnetic attribute I think he has in his personality. So then you couple that with his talent, it makes for a pretty awesome teammate.”
Johnson pointed out the view of St. Peter’s Basilica from the highest parts of the Marco Simone course.
“I feel very young here as an American for obvious reasons,” Johnson said of being in Italy. “But I love everything about it. Obviously love the food. That goes without saying. But more than that, love the history. I mean, it’s the Eternal City. As a Christian, the meaning of this place is very special.”
Europe’s team will hold its training camp starting on Monday.
AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf