A tale of two captains: Luke Donald is smooth sailing while Zach Johnson has tough decisions on the horizon
Last week, European Ryder Cup captain Luke Donald talked of clarity; five days later, U.S. Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson saw only fuzzy images and distorted shapes.
For Donald, his “clarity” is the byproduct of the DP World Tour’s decision to essentially fine players off the tour and off this year’s Ryder Cup team. The European circuit hasn’t handed down broad suspensions for players who violated its conflicting-event release policies when they joined LIV Golf, but in the wake of a favorable ruling from an arbiter in the United Kingdom, it has doled out heavy fines that make maintaining membership, at the least, difficult to justify.
According to various sources, LIV Golf has agreed to pay those fines, but in one case, a player who joined the breakaway circuit last year is on the hook for nearly £500,000 and counting. Last week, Henrik Stenson resigned his DP World Tour membership, which is required to play on the European Ryder Cup team, and others are sure to follow.
It’s that clarity, for better or worse, that’s made Donald’s job easier.
Johnson’s gig, however, only became more complicated Sunday thanks to Brooks Koepka’s commanding victory at the PGA Championship. Although the U.S. captain would never admit it, the best scenario is for Koepka to perform equally brilliantly at the U.S. Open and Open Championship to lock up his spot in the team room in Rome.
The victory moved Koepka to second on the U.S. points list, and the math is on his side that he remains inside the top 6 through the BMW Championship in August to earn one of the six automatic qualifying spots. That, at the least, would take any potential decision-making out of Johnson’s hands, since the PGA of America has ruled that any player who maintains membership in the association, which Koepka and the other players who have joined LIV Golf have done, is eligible for the team.
Although he was referencing the ongoing debate between LIV Golf and the world golf ranking, PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh appeared to concede as much last week at Oak Hill, “This is not an us versus them,” he said.
It’s certainly not the players who seem to be locked into an us-versus-them mentality. There was none of the animosity or vitriol between the two sides at the Masters, and that vibe only hardened at the PGA Championship.
Keegan Bradley gushed about being able to reunite with good friend Brendan Steele at Oak Hill, and Jon Rahm appeared to speak for many on the subject: “I never got into the feud. I’ve never had any negative feelings towards any player that went over to LIV.”
Last week, when the final players – Bryson DeChambeau and Matt Jones – were officially removed from the antitrust lawsuit that was filed against the Tour, much of the antipathy went with it. It’s no longer personal between players on both sides; now it’s a complicated antitrust bout between two corporate behemoths that will likely take years to litigate.
Although Johnson did his best to stay out of the fray on Sunday, as Koepka marched to victory, he conceded that any player who automatically qualifies for the U.S. team will be a welcomed member of what he’s dubbed his “leadership council.”
“[If Koepka’s] on the team, he’s got direct ownership in that, absolutely,” Johnson said.
In the twisted reality of the moment, the bigger headache for Johnson would be a scenario where Koepka finishes just outside the top 6. Would the captain and his leadership council look beyond the politics of the day and focus only on the good of the team? What if that meant selecting a non-PGA Tour player?
Johnson was understandably aloof when asked about the scenario, but if world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler’s take following his final round at Oak Hill is any guide, the players are more than willing to put the politics aside for a chance to accomplish something that hasn’t been done in 30 years: win an overseas Ryder Cup.
“I want to win the Ryder Cup. I don’t care about tours or anything like that. I want to win the Ryder Cup,” Scheffler said. “It’s something we talked about last year when we finished — or I guess a year and a half ago now. We want to beat those guys in Europe. It’s been a long time since we’ve beat them.
“Whoever the best 12 guys that make a complete team, it’s different than individual tournaments. We want a team of guys that are going over there together to bring the cup back home, and that’s all I really care about.”
With two more majors looming, which reward double points, Johnson’s headache may not stop with Koepka. For the second-consecutive major, three of the final top-10 finishers play on the LIV Golf tour, and both Bryson DeChambeau (No. 42 on the U.S. points list) and Dustin Johnson (No. 37) could just as easily complicate the conversation the way Koepka has.
Donald may have lost key pieces to his team – most notably Sergio Garcia, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter, not to mention Stenson, the Europeans’ ousted captain – but at least he won’t have to wrestle with the once-in-a-generation choices that Johnson seems certain to face.