‘I can’t answer that’: Zach Johnson grilled about Brooks Koepka-Ryder Cup awkwardness

United States Vice-Captain Zach Johnson congratulates Brooks Koepka of Team United States after the United States victory in the 2020 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits on September 26, 2021 in Kohler, Wisconsin

Zach Johnson, left, and Brooks Koepka at the 2021 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits.

getty images

Ryder Cup captains take on a host of duties when they helm a team: monitoring players’ form, scouting the host course, picking uniforms and rain gear. But this year’s captains — Zach Johnson for the U.S. and Luke Donald for Europe — have been confronted with a dilemma that faced no other captains before them: how to deal with the LIV players.

This has become an especially thorny matter for Johnson given the lights-out play of LIV pro Brooks Koepka of late. A week after winning the LIV Orlando event in April, Koepka had a two-stroke 54-hole lead at the Masters before underwhelming play in the fourth round cost him the green jacket. This week, Koepka has been back at it, seizing control of the PGA Championship at Oak Hill (as of this writing he had a one-stroke lead in the final round through 11 holes).     

Also playing Sunday at Oak Hill was Johnson, who himself had a nice week, carding a final-round 71 to finish knotted with another LIV star, Phil Mickelson, at 10 over. After signing his card, Johnson spoke to a cluster of reporters. No surprise, they weren’t particularly interested in Johnson’s five birdies or what he thought of designer Andrew Green’s much-praised Oak Hill restoration — no, the topic du jour was Brooks Koepka and how Johnson felt about the prospect of Koepka joining the U.S. team in Rome later this year.

Consider the very first question Johnson faced:

Talk about the performance of Brooks Koepka.

Johnson’s answer revealed everything you needed to know about his interest in discussing this subject. That’s because, well, he more or less ignored the question, saying: “Well, there’s only 54 holes in. The golf course is amazing. This is one that has withstood test of time and…”

We’ll stop Johnson there, because you get the idea. He didn’t seem particularly eager to speak glowingly of the player who had shot consecutive rounds of 66 on the fearsome East Course and at the time was sitting alone atop the PGA leaderboard.  

But the reporters in attendance weren’t about to let Johnson off the hook. For the next several minutes, Johnson faced a peppering of LIV-related questions that had him on his back foot and at moments visibly irritated.

The entirety of the back-and-forth is both colorful and revealing, so we’ve published it below, unedited.

Q. So assuming Brooks goes out and wins, what’s your assessment of him as a player?

ZACH JOHNSON: Well, look at his résumé prior to this week. He’s an amazing player. It wouldn’t surprise me if he won by five, and it wouldn’t surprise me if somebody else from behind him came up and challenged him. I mean, the amount of talent that’s on that leaderboard, and then you throw in the mere fact that — what I appreciate about Brooks is just how he goes about his work in massive tournaments. He’s a rare breed mentally where he just is able to bring out his best in the most difficult and trying of circumstances.

Q. If he wins, it’s probably a moot point, isn’t it? Wouldn’t he move to No. 2 in the points?

JOHNSON: I have no idea, based on numbers, I don’t know but it would vault him up substantially. Well, it would vault anybody up substantially if they are an American player, right? I don’t know the actual science behind that.

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Q. You talked about character and chemistry as part of the makeup for choosing the teams. Is he a guy that most guys would get along with?

JOHNSON: Well, that’s not an accurate statement. I mentioned chemistry. I don’t think I mentioned character. So take that in context.

I mean, chemistry is important on any team. It’s important with any leadership of any team. It’s important with anything you’re trying to construct if you want to go out and win. My No. 1 goal as the leader is to go put these guys in a position to win, whatever that looks like. Time will tell.

Q. Do you feel comfortable — would you feel comfortable having Brooks or any LIV player in your team given the chemistry you’re talking about?

JOHNSON: I think it’s too premature, frankly irresponsible, to even have any sort of opinion about that. I think given where we are at right now, there’s a lot of points out, No. 1.

No. 2, you have a bunch of elevated events.

Shoot, No. 3, if you go back on history, there’s names right now that probably on both tours that we’re not even mentioning that could have a chance given what’s from us.

So I haven’t even begun to discuss picks with anybody that I trust in my circle, specifically the vice captains. I feel like it’s irrelevant to even discuss.

Q. Would you feel comfortable, is what I asked?

JOHNSON: Would I feel comfortable with what?

Q. With having a LIV player on your team?

ZACH JOHNSON: I don’t know. I can’t answer that. I’ll say this: The guys that are on the PGA Tour that make that team, they have direct ownership in that collectively.

So for me to stand here and say that I would feel comfortable or uncomfortable with it would be, I would think, irresponsible on my behalf because it’s not my team.

Q. Have any of them told you they would be uncomfortable with a LIV player?

JOHNSON: No one’s voiced it to me, but we haven’t talked about it. There’s been no comfortable or uncomfortable talk.

Q. Earlier in the week you said you have not witnessed the LIV Golf, you haven’t been going out and watching it. Is that something you’ll change? We have seen at the Masters, we are seeing it here—

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JOHNSON: Are you expecting me to go to LIV events and spectate?

Q. Yeah. As a captain, it seems logical if these guys—

JOHNSON: I think the luxury of me being captain I’m still relevant and prevalent out on the PGA Tour and that’s where my status holds. So for me to abandon that on a week where I could be out there and go where the bulk of my players are certainly going to come from there, I don’t know, what time will tell, but the bulk are going to come from there would be irresponsible on my behalf and inappropriate if I were to leave what I am trying to do as a competitor and as a leader.

Q. Would that stand as the whole season? Do you have no plans to go to any?

JOHNSON: Hasn’t been discussed. I’m not one that’s ever to say never but it’s not been discussed.

Q. What would you say to other golfers looking to establish their ranking in the golf world and their purpose, as well?

JOHNSON: I can’t speak on behalf of them but I like perspective. I know where my foundation is. A lot of us guys out here have a great band, specifically, on the PGA Tour. We meet every Tuesday night and discuss things and talk about things.

You know, we try to keep things straight and narrow in the sense that, hey, we are playing golf for a living. It’s pretty crazy.

Q. If you can explain why you couldn’t or wouldn’t go to watch a LIV event but can you access stats or numbers to assess performance there?

JOHNSON: Oh, 100 percent.

Q. Do you get the CW event to watch their broadcast or YouTube?


Q. That’s where it’s on television.

JOHNSON: I didn’t know that. I do get to see it — I have to ask my kids. I think I get the CW.

Q. The point is, you can still assess and analyze the players without going to watch them?

JOHNSON: Sure, that’s what I’m saying. I don’t need to be present. I’m not in the U.S. Open, and given my travel schedule and what I have behind that and in front of that, there’s no reason for me to go out there and spectate when I can watch to continue television.

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Q. This question is going to persist and persist and persist, but being asked about LIV guys and whether they are or are not going to be on the team. Is there any question that will be solely your decision, or is there influence, from?

JOHNSON: Oh, I’ve voiced that. It’s not solely my decision. It’s going to be my leadership council and it’s going to be those that finish in the top six. I mean, specifically, if I’m going to get down to the meat of it because there’s 13.

Q. What about the PGA of America?

JOHNSON: You know what, this is my first go-around. I don’t have any idea what their intentions or motivations are. You’d have to ask them.

I do know that they have given me liberties to construct my own leadership, and then from there, obviously my duties and responsibilities are a given.

Q. So if a LIV guy is in the top six, he will have a say in what happens?

JOHNSON: If he makes the top six?

Q. Yeah.

JOHNSON: Yeah, he’s on the team. He’s got direct ownership in that, absolutely.

Q. Have you spoken to Brooks or DJ specifically about the Ryder Cup and whether they want to be there?

JOHNSON: Let me think about that. I haven’t seen DJ this week in person. I’ve seen Brooks a couple times in person. Don’t believe — you could ask him, too. I don’t believe we’ve spoken about the Cup. I may have spoken to Dustin at the Masters about it but I can’t — I can’t — if it was, it was something very obscure.

I mean, we’d be lying to ourselves and say that they don’t want to be on the team, right. I’ve heard that narrative. I mean, I get it, too. I’m an American. I want to be on my own team. That’s your goal every two years.

Q. All of this seems very complicated and difficult and not anything that captains previously had to deal with. Do you feel that way?

JOHNSON: Well, that’s your feeling?

Q. Yeah?

JOHNSON: Well, I don’t know if it’s difficult yet. I think the difficulties could come. I just think there’s so much golf. Honestly, it would not surprise me if there’s a guy, like I said, on either tour that pops up that we are not discussing because that’s happened so many times: When Scottie Scheffler came out of the blue two years ago; Ryan Moore came out of the blue in 2016 because of his play coming down the stretch.

Quality of play and form relative recent to the event, either Cup, Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup, has shown to be a proven factor. Horses for courses is a proven factor. I have no idea. It could be a really no-brainer, easy decision. I don’t want to have any sort of misconceived notions or pressures because there’s nothing there yet. There’s just so much fluidity and so much unknown.

Q. He will vanity is in the room and you’re constantly being asked about it?

JOHNSON: Well, that’s on you. I’m not asking the questions.

Q. That’s what I mean—

JOHNSON: That’s my responsibility. That’s what I signed up for. I’m willing to take any and every — whatever takes the burden off the players, that’s my responsibility. I’m happy to do it. It’s not a difficulty for me.

Q. Do you worry about the perception from the LIV guys, respectfully, what you’re saying here is, you’re too busy to go and watch them play. You’ve got too many commitments elsewhere. It’s probably not a massive leap for them to think that you are not in their plans.

JOHNSON: Again, that’s your opinion. You’re making something up.

Q. It’s my interpretation, I agree.


Q. But that is how it could look?

JOHNSON: I don’t speak in hypotheticals.

Alan Bastable

Golf.com Editor

As GOLF.com’s executive editor, Bastable is responsible for the editorial direction and voice of one of the game’s most respected and highly trafficked news and service sites. He wears many hats — editing, writing, ideating, developing, daydreaming of one day breaking 80 — and feels privileged to work with such an insanely talented and hardworking group of writers, editors and producers. Before grabbing the reins at GOLF.com, he was the features editor at GOLF Magazine. A graduate of the University of Richmond and the Columbia School of Journalism, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and foursome of kids.