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As Zach Johnson assumes Ryder Cup captaincy, questions already loom about successor

zach johnson and phil mickelson at 2021 ryder cup

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — You like lists? Check out this one, a list of American golfers who have won the Masters, won the British Open and been a Ryder Cup captain:

Hogan.

Snead.

Arnold.

Big Jack.

Watson.

Next year in Rome, when Zach Johnson serves as the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, there will be a sixth name on that list. Johnson spoke with obvious feeling about the honor of joining that fivesome when he was officially announced as the next American Ryder Cup captain at a press conference here Monday morning.

If the golfing universe were in its normal state, one might expect that list to grow from six to seven to eight in the next half-decade or so. You know, Phil Mickelson to follow Johnson, for the 2025 Ryder Cup, and then Tiger Woods after that.

Zach Johnson, with PGA of America president Jim Richerson, was officially named the next U.S. Ryder Cup captain on Monday. getty images

Based on what they have achieved in the game, could you possibly name two American golfers who would be more obvious choices as Ryder Cup captains than Phil and Tiger?

But right now, on this final Monday in February 2022, it’s almost impossible to say.

As we have seen with Woods over the years, his life takes unpredictable turns. His resiliency, though, is almost immeasurable.

Mickelson’s future is even harder to predict. It is almost a given, if you’ve taken even a casual interest in the PGA of America’s Ryder Cup playbook, that a Ryder Cup captain will serve as an assistant captain in the preceding Ryder Cup. It’s an open secret on all your better PGA Tour driving ranges that Mickelson was considered a lock for the 2025 Ryder Cup at Bethpage and that Woods, five years younger than Mickelson, would take the reins for 2027 in Ireland.

Yes, this sounds like crazy talk, all this long-range planning. Your correspondent cannot relate, as he is one to make his Marriott reservation for that night when leaving the Hertz lot. But this long-range planning is a real thing.

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Woods wanted a road game. You know, more of a challenge. (The Americans have not won a Ryder Cup in Europe since 1993, when Tom Watson had his first go as captain. Well, that one went well.) Also, the 2027 site, Adare Manor, in County Limerick, is owned by J.P. McManus, one of Woods’s old fishing-and-sipping buddies, from back in the day.

As for Mickelson, his public life is far more complicated now than it was just a few weeks ago. You can blame the lure of Saudi money and Phil’s mouth if you wish but there’s more to it than that. Were it not for the lure of Saudi money and Phil’s chatty ways, you could would have gotten very short odds that Mickelson would have been on the 2023 Ryder Cup team in some manner.

Johnson was asked Monday about Mickelson’s prospects as an assistant captain, if he doesn’t make the team as a 53-year-old player.

“Well, I’ll say, you know, that given basically where we are right now, I have no idea what lies ahead as far as my vice captains and who is on this team,” Johnson said. “I know that the 2020 was such, and 2023 will look vastly different. What that looks like, I don’t know yet.”

I thought I saw this thought bubble floating above Johnson’s head:

Phil? Phil’s a wild card. With Phil, who knows anything?

I have no idea what lies ahead as far as my vice captains. Zach Johnson

I should also point out that there was a certain level of grandeur to the morning event, even though Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press broke the news, that Johnson would be the captain, several days ago. It’s a big deal, in golf, to lead a Ryder Cup team. There were back-row seats reserved for Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, though neither attended. In the house was Seth Waugh, the CEO of the PGA of America, and Suzy Whaley, the first woman to serve as president of the PGA, one of the country’s oldest and most important golf organizations. The Ryder Cup trophy was also present, on a pedestal. It hasn’t been in the United States all that much in recent decades. Losers fly and winners keep the trophy.

On a wall, stage right, was a large mural with bleeding black-and-white photographs of all the Ryder Cup captains over time. There was Tom Kite and Jerry Barber, wearing glasses. There was Ben Hogan and Nicklaus, wearing ties. There was Raymond Floyd in a visor and Dave Stockton in a rodeo hat. Johnson’s turn is coming, to get on that wall.

What a career: 12 wins, including the Masters and the 2015 British Open, at the Old Course. He won the Masters in 2007, on an Easter Sunday. He’s a man of faith. He described his captaincy as a “serving role.” He said, “I’m going to be a servant for them.”

Being a public servant, or a public anything, has never been easy and it’s more difficult now than it’s ever been. The light never goes out, these days.

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Johnson was delivered a major complication by Mickelson. Winning any Ryder Cup is difficult. Picking six players is as complicated as a captain chooses to make it. The culture and language of Ryder Cup golf is far different from PGA Tour golf. When Johnson was looking for the common European phrase for what American golfers understandably call alternate shot, he went for fourball first, before settling on foursomes, after an assist from the man seated next to him, the president of the PGA, Jim Richerson of Riviera.

But Johnson is joining a list, a list that’s better than most, to use a phrase of the Florida Swing, a list with Hogan, Snead, Palmer, Nicklaus and Watson already on it. Look where golf has taken Johnson in his 46 years. Look where golf has taken this son of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

He’s a dreamer. Anybody who makes it to the PGA Tour has some dreamer in him. But there’s the dream, and there’s your life as you lead it.

Johnson’s life, he said on Monday, has exceeded his dreams. 

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com

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