By Zach Johnson’s estimation, the Ryder Cup, which pits a team of American golfers against one from Europe, is the best event in golf—maybe even in all of sports. The non-playing captain of the US team has experienced everything one can in professional golf, and yet, he’s still in awe of the event—which kicks off next month in Rome. “It is the best form of competition that I’ve witnessed, that I’ve experienced, that I’ve seen on both sides as far as competing and watching,” he says.
Right now, Johnson’s job is to build the perfect team: six golfers have already qualified for the team, and he’ll be announcing his half-dozen captain’s picks tomorrow. He’ll have help in the form of vice captain Davis Love III, who sees his role as assuaging any difficulties that may arise both before and during the event, whether that be helping to select the six captain’s picks or snagging another cashmere hoodie for fellow vice captain Fred Couples.
“It is unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of in my profession,” Johnson explains, so it can be hard to predict exactly how his role will unfold as captain. From the agonizing process of whittling down his shortlist to organizing who will play and when they will do so, Johnson’s job is equal doses of preparation and reaction. Regardless, though, he’s just ready to get this thing going, as he tells GQ with an ear-to-ear grin. “It highlights your ‘why.’ You talk about, ‘Why were you out there until 7:30 working on your four footers?’ ‘Well, this is why.’” We spoke to Johnson and Love ahead of the tournament.
GQ: As the team gets ready to announce the captain’s picks, are you nervous, excited, or some combination of the two?
Zach Johnson: You just want to get the 12 guys together. Formulating a team is difficult, but at the same time, it’s part of the process and you can enjoy bits and pieces of it. I think the beauty of where we are right now is that our guys that have already qualified are, without question, invested, and are communicating amongst themselves, which is terrific, and to me and Davis and our crew of vice captains. They get along and they want to be together, which is extremely encouraging.
So, whatever nerves I may have…There are some, don’t get me wrong. I’d be lying to you if there wasn’t. But I think the excitement outweighs it. I’m stoked to get this going.
Davis, when you were captain, was everyone as close-knit as the players these days seem to be?
Davis Love III: Well, Wyndham Clark pointed it out recently. He goes, “We all know each other really well. We’ve known each other for a long time.” It was kind of that way back when I played. We had a group of guys that spent a lot of time together. I was lucky that I had mentors like Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw to play and practice with, but also had my generation of players like Fred Couples. Then, Tiger came along.
Their familiarity with each other probably makes your jobs easier, too.
DLIII: Yeah. Zach hosted a dinner recently with the top six, and they came into the room with an agenda. They knew who they wanted to talk about, who they wanted to pair with. It’s not like Zach has to tell them what the Ryder Cup’s all about and how this is going to work. They’re ready to go.
Zach, how involved were you with the design of the Polo uniforms?
ZJ: I had a little bit of input as to what I wanted to see on them, but I had help. One, I’m not very fashion-forward; two, I don’t consider myself that savvy. We’re incorporating, obviously, red, white, and blue through and through, and a little bit of Rome, Italy. We’ve got Roman numerals for 2023 right on the chest. We’ve got some banding on the sides down here that say Dodici Forte, which is “12 strong” in Italian. Why not? I mean, that’s a big cliche, but when in Rome, right?
Since golf isn’t normally a uniform-driven sport, it has to be functional, as well.
ZJ: Rome’s going to be warm. It could be rainy, but your gear, what you wear, this may sound kind of ridiculous to some, but it’s the truth, is part of your equipment. When you have fabrics and apparel that perform and execute as equipment, that helps eliminate something right off the bat, so you know you’re ready. Whether it’s really hot, really cold, really wet, whatever it may be, we have it at our fingertips.
DLIII: There are two things I still wear all the time from my days as a captain. The Ryder Cup cashmere hoodies and the puffy coats that we got, I think that was in Paris. Whenever [Tom] Lehman was captain, in 2006, somewhere back in there, he came to me and he said, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea. I’m going to use Ralph Lauren for the clothes.” And I go, “No, that’s a terrible idea.” And he said, “Why?” I said, “Because that’s my idea. Don’t steal my idea.” He did it and then I did it, and now they’ve become part of our team. If I can just keep feeding Fred Couples some of my stash of cashmere hoodies from ’16 and ’18, he’ll be happy.
He doesn’t need any credit, just a hoodie every once in a while.
DLIII: Just throw him a hoodie and he’ll keep coming back.
For the casual fan, can you attempt to explain what makes the Ryder Cup so special?
ZJ: It’s hard to summarize. I’ve always been a team sport guy to begin with. Granted, we do have coaches, we do have partnerships and things of that nature that you could justify as a team, no question, but this is a little bit different when you’re talking about the actual inside the ropes competition. It is unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of in my profession. It is the best form of competition that I’ve witnessed, that I’ve experienced, that I’ve seen on both sides as far as competing and just witnessing the event.
Here in New York people are already buzzing about 2025 at Bethpage.
ZJ: When you take this event and you put it 25 to 30 miles from Manhattan, I can’t even fathom what it’s going to be like. The back-to-back cities we have coming up are tremendous.
Davis, when I go back to your playing days from the Ryder Cup, what’s the first memory that pops into your head?
DLIII: The first tee at the Belfry in ’93 when I was playing with Tom Kite, and I was supposed to hit on the odd holes. I tried to talk him out of it, get him to hit on the odd holes because I didn’t want to hit off the first tee. It’s just amazing how nervous you get. We’ve had some losses over there, but being a part of that winning team in ’93 and then being on five other teams was just the best. If you said, “Give me your top 10 memories of your career,” nine of them are going to be at the Ryder Cup.
Zach, you’re still very competitive on the Tour, and you still play with these guys all the time. Have you thought at all about what it’s going to be there, but not playing?
ZJ: Once I was given the honor of being captain, it’s like, well, I still compete. I still love to play the game. Let’s see if I can try to make my team. I might be in the realm of captain picks, but that list is pretty long to get to me.
The beauty of my position is just that. Davis still competes with us every now and again, especially when he is completely healthy and he can do so. We can still go out there and rub his shoulders with these guys and just hang out. I’m not going to sit here and say that I understand everything about their mentality right now, because I am a half to a full generation ahead of them, but I do enjoy it. I really like being around good kids. They work so hard. They’re driven and they’re goal-oriented.
So this is their team, and I know my role now. I love to compete, I love to play. But this is my role and I’ve embraced that. We’ve always said it: Once you’re a part of one of these teams, you want to be a part of them forever. I don’t care if you’re cleaning towels or making sandwiches or what, but it’s that special.