Jordan Spieth and Zach Johnson’s costly strategy leaves analyst ‘dumbfounded’

zach johnson and jordan spieth at ryder cup

Jordan Spieth and Zach Johnson on the 16th tee at Marco Simone on Saturday.

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When the wheels pop off Ryder Cup captaincies, there are certain moments, fairly or not, that come to emblemize those team leaders’ forgettable weeks.

To wit: Hal Sutton, in 2004, twice pairing Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, seemingly oblivious to the frostiness that existed between the two alphas; Wickelson went 0-2 in the U.S.’s nine-point loss. Nick Faldo, in 2008, dropping clunking jokes about his own players during the opening ceremonies (of Padraig Harrington, Sir Nick cracked, “He’s hit more golf balls than potatoes grown in Ireland); Europe lost by five. Corey Pavin, in 2010, arming his team with leaky rain gear (the skies opened at Celtic Manor, and the U.S. lost by a point). Tom Watson, in 2014, well…take your pick.

For Zach Johnson, who has helmed the woefully underperforming U.S. side at this 44th Ryder Cup, history might well show that that moment came early on Saturday evening as the sun was melting over Marco Simone, in the rolling countryside just east of Rome. The captain’s whereabouts: the tee on the drivable par-4 16th, where Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth were 2 down to Justin Rose and Robert MacIntyre in a match from which the Americans so desperately needed to earn at least half a point. With the U.S. down five at the time, Johnson’s team wasn’t just in a hole, it was in a canyon, peering up at a European team that had outplayed and outsmarted their opponents by virtually every conceivable measure.

Still, there was a glimmer of hope. The U.S. had, for the first time all week, some semblance of momentum, winning the first two afternoon matches by a combined score of 6 and 4. In the group behind Thomas and Spieth: more reason for optimism, with Patrick Cantlay and Wyndham Clark tied with Rory McIlroy and Matt Fitzpatrick. For Johnson’s team, a three-and-a-half point session was attainable.     

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Marco Simone’s 16th is the ultimate match-play hole: a par-4 of roughly 280 yards with water flanking the right side of the green. Players can get home with a gutsy blast, but loose or nervy swings can pay a steep price. As Thomas and Spieth were deliberating their options, at least one thing seemed a given: They would need no worse than a birdie — and quite likely an eagle — to extend the match. After MacIntyre (just through the back of the green) and Rose (front-left bunker) had hit their drives, Thomas took the tee and employed the only strategy he could: a full-send driver, which, like MacIntyre’s attempt, missed the green just long and left.

Then in stepped Spieth, who was not in good form, having struggled to find fairways in the first two days, too frequently leaving Thomas to fend for himself. But Spieth’s driving woes aside, surely this was no time to lay off the gas and rely on a wedge shot to set up a 3. The Americans had little choice but to be aggressive, and at least for a few moments it appeared that was the mentality with which Spieth was intending to play the hole. With his partner safely on terra firma, Spieth reached for driver.

At least one interested observer, though, wanted Spieth to more carefully weigh his options. In a rarely seen move from a captain, Johnson spoke with Spieth and Thomas about Spieth’s club choice. After the brief confab, Spieth swapped out his driver for a 3-wood and settled into his biggest tee shot of the week.

Spieth’s ball started on an aggressive line, at the right side of the green, but drifted further right on a hole where right is no good.

“Does he think he can reach with 3-wood?” a commentator said on the Ryder Cup’s World Feed broadcast.

Spieth could not. The ball came up about 30 yards short of the green and took one hop into the water.  

“I have no idea what that was,” said Hunter Mahan, the six-time PGA Tour winner, who also was on the World Feed call. “I’m really confused on why we just pulled a 3-wood.” Mahan added: “I’m not sure I made myself clear how dumbfounded I am by that decision.”

NBC Sports’ analysts were just as mystified.  

“Zach Johnson, the first time we’ve ever seen him do anything like that,” Brad Faxon said of the captain’s decision to insert himself in the proceedings.

Added Faxon’s boothmate, Paul Azinger: “He’s 3 down with three to go. He really wants to make a 1, and he took a club he can’t come close to the front of the green with. I don’t understand it. Birdie’s not going to do much for you.” Later, Azinger noted that even Spieth’s own caddie, Michael Greller, frequently has a hard time talking the hardheaded and risk-taking Spieth out of club selections.

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After taking a drop, Spieth spun a nifty, but ultimately meaningless, wedge shot to within five feet. Thomas got up and down for 3, but even a birdie wasn’t enough to extend the match. MacIntryre made a matching bird to give the Europeans a 3-and-2 victory.

After the match, Spieth and Thomas didn’t shed any light on their 16th-tee chat with their captain, but Johnson did, saying that he did not command Spieth to change clubs. He was merely on the tee box in an advisory role.    

“I was there giving them data, just pure data,” said Johnson, who has relied heavily on analytics throughout his captaincy. “That was it. Like, this is what we’ve seen; this is where it is; this is what he did in front of you; this is what he did in front of you, etc., etc.

“That’s it. He did change clubs. You’re right. He did. I’m not telling those boys what to hit, I can assure you of that. These guys are on the United States Ryder Cup Team. I’ll just put it that way. I tried to qualify and I didn’t. These guys did. I don’t need to tell them what to do.”

Still, reasonable minds might wonder whether plying a player with statistics moments before a crucial swing is the most prudent course of action. Even if Spieth had decided to ignore the stats and rip driver, his captain’s seed of doubt probably wouldn’t have been what Spieth needed or wanted in that moment.

With a dominating five-point lead though four sessions, Europe will need to squeeze only four points out of 12 Sunday singles matches to reclaim the Cup. Can Johnson pull a Ben Crenshaw and inspire his team to an unprecedented Ryder Cup comeback?

Data will tell you the task before them is nearly impossible.

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