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Facing the inevitable, Zach Johnson reflects on Ryder Cup loss

Ryder Cup, LIV thoughts and BBQ with Love III
Rex Hoggard and Ryan Lavner catch up with Davis Love III at Southern Soul to talk about what really happened inside the U.S. Ryder Cup team room, his true thoughts on PIF and LIV, and what makes for great BBQ.

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – It’s the quiet moments that stir the memories, both good and bad.

In the hectic year leading up to and the week of the Ryder Cup there’s no time for reflection or retrospection, but when the roars fade and each team moves on, it’s those quiet moments when a captain wrestles with every detail and decision.

For Zach Johnson, who led the U.S. team to another overseas loss last month in Italy, the cycle began in earnest. History can be a cruel arbiter but no one has been tougher or more thorough on Johnson than Johnson.

Could he have gone a different direction with his captain’s picks? Was there too much of a gap between the season-ending Tour Championship and the Ryder Cup (more than a month)? Was there something, anything, that he could have done to change the outcome?

“I’ve got a lot of 20/20 hindsight things that I certainly think about. Arguably, some regrets,” Johnson conceded this week at the RSM Classic. “But I think something of that magnitude, win or lose, you’re going to have that, that’s sports. And I think that’s when you care, you’re passionate about something, you’re going to have those natural feelings.”

Johnson is hardly alone in his reflection. Captains will always succumb to hindsight and second-guessing, but what is surprising is how captains, particularly those who have lost, process every decision.

Consider the 2012 Ryder Cup, a historic collapse by the U.S. team that is remembered in many circles as the Meltdown at Medinah after the American team took a 10-6 lead into the final day only to be stunned on Sunday in a 14 ½-13 ½ loss. Critics universally point to American captain Davis Love III’s singles lineup as a catalyst for failure but in the years since that defeat, Love always goes back to the simplest decision that cost the U.S. team.

“We were talking about the left hole location on 17 on Sunday at Medinah yesterday,” Love laughed. “It still bothers me that I didn’t force [PGA of America chief competitions officer] Kerry Haigh to put it on the left. We wanted it on the left. He said it’s always on the right. Oh, yeah, go ahead. If we had done … we, Davis, would have done a few things different in 2012, we would have probably won.”

Johnson has taken a similarly granular approach as he unpacks what happened at Marco Simone. But he also scales the larger picture. While those on the outside have focused on the six American picks and a team that was clearly rusty after a month away from competitive golf, Johnson’s focus is much more macro.

“I’m not one to tell them what to do or how to play, obviously I’m not their coach, but I am trying to put these guys in a position to play their best golf,” Johnson said. “I looked at every aspect of the Ryder Cup before and the week of and tried to diagnose it and study it and figure it out, like what’s the most efficient way to tackle each and every item.

“The common denominator that I go back to, that I wish I could have changed, or not changed – I wish it would have dawned on me earlier – is just the pure commodity of time and understanding that it’s precious.”

Time management has been a talking point for U.S. Ryder Cup teams ever since the deflating loss in 2014 in Scotland created a task force that has since evolved into a formal committee. While much of that work helped the U.S. team win two of the last four matches, it’s not the splashy changes, like more captain’s picks or a more involved process to select a captain, that seem to make the biggest differences.

Sports will be sports and as Johnson explained, winning a Ryder Cup overseas is just “really, really hard.” But if he had a captain’s mulligan he would have found a way to streamline the time demands the event places on players and allow them to prepare the same way they would for any other event.

“If I could have put more value into time management, I could have put my guys in a better position to play golf at a better rate early on,” he said. “I’m not suggesting that would have changed the outcome, not at all. I can’t determine that, that’s sports, right? I’m just saying I think in my seat I didn’t see what needed to be seen until after the fact.”

It’s that type of detailed nitpicking that Johnson has to look forward to, and based on player sentiment following the loss in Italy, he may get a second turn as captain in two years. But a second captaincy won’t quiet the voices in his head.

“Zach’s dealing with the ups and downs of that. If he’s the next three Ryder Cup captains and he wins all three of them, that will never go away that we lost in Rome. It’s tough,” Love explained. “Hopefully this fall or this winter we can sit down and talk about it because I haven’t really gotten to spend much time with him since.”

The irony isn’t lost on Johnson that his biggest regret of not managing his team’s time better during the matches is the same thing that fuels his second-guessing. All he has now is time and quiet moments filled with reflection.