Zach Johnson says a bug which has spread through the US team room was a factor behind their sluggish start to the 44th Ryder Cup on Friday, with his players “low on energy”.
The United States captain insisted, however, that it was “not an excuse” for going 6½ points to 1½ points down on the opening day, adding that his players were still “hungry” and confident they could turn things around.
Speaking after a chastening day for Team USA, who were hammered 4-0 in the morning foursomes before fighting back to claim a half point in three of the afternoon fourballs, Johnson said there were some “unforeseen things” which he had had to “navigate around”.
A touch of the lurgy may help to explain why Johnson benched three of his biggest hitters – Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth – for the opening session, although all three appeared in the afternoon so it was difficult to draw any concrete conclusions.
Johnson was rather cryptic with his information. Asked whether his afternoon pairings had been pre-prepared or whether they were a reaction to what had happened in the morning, he replied: “Well, we have contingencies based on a lot of things. You know, I would say that we’d love to have everything drawn out way, way ahead of time. But there’s certain things you cannot control, and we are trying to control the controllables in our team room, and I’ll leave it at that.”
Asked whether he was referring to illness – specifically head colds – he added: “Yes, we have got some congestion and some… just signs of things that are unfortunate. It’s one of those where sometimes the energy is probably a little low. But the ability and desire to go out and play is still there. That’s what we are weighing. Every one of them still wants to play every match, which is encouraging.
“The bottom line is there’s been some unforeseen things that we’ve had to navigate around, which is really unfortunate, in the sense of health. It’s not an excuse, because we have depth, but I’ll just say, I’m grateful we have a team doctor.”
Asked whether it had been spreading through the US team, Johnson said: “It kind of has, yeah. I’m being honest, yes, it has. It has spread through my team.”
It was Johnson himself who looked sick as a dog at the end of a dramatic day, with Europe drawing level in three matches down the stretch to send the crowds at Marco Simone into raptures.
It was always going to be a gamble benching big-hitters like Koepka, Spieth and Thomas. And it came back to bite Johnson badly. It took over six and a half hours for any red to appear on the board at all, by which time momentum was firmly with Team Europe.
While Luke Donald has stayed with all the same pairings for Saturday morning’s foursomes, Johnson has unsurprisingly mixed things up, bringing the aforementioned names back in.
Spieth and Thomas, who halved their match against Viktor Hovland and Tyrrell Hatton on Friday afternoon, will take on ‘Fleetwood Mac’, the combination of Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood, in Saturday’s opening match. Although in alternate play, the accuracy of their driving will be a concern given Marco Simone’s tight fairways.
Koepka, meanwhile, has been paired with world No 1 Scottie Scheffler in a heavyweight pairing for the US in the second match, against Viktor Hovland and rookie Ludvig Aberg.
Johnson said he had nothing against the course, praising the setup and saying it was consistent with what they had practised on when they came for their reconnaissance a few weeks ago.
“A test of a good golf course is one that requires all shots to be fired and your whole arsenal to be on, and I think Marco Simone does that very, very well. And then you compound that with the fans who are absolutely tremendous. I mean, this place is spectacular right now.”
Asked what gave him confidence that a comeback was possible, he concluded: “Because of the 12 guys in my team room. Every one of them is feisty. Every one of them is hungry. Every one of them plays golf for the right reasons in the Ryder Cup.”
Johnson said there was no way of knowing whether not having played any competitive golf since the FedEx Cup last month – Koepka aside, who played in the LIV Chicago event last week – had made any difference to his players’ performance. There have been suggestions the US team arrived in Rome ‘undercooked’.
“Yeah, we did look at that,” Johnson said. “It’s one of those… you can hash it out a number of different ways. We’ve seen success when you do play [competitive golf] leading into big tournaments, whether it’s a major or a Ryder Cup or whatever, we’ve seen success.
“We’ve also looked at it and found success with a lot of rest. There’s something to be said about rest and recovery and preparation, too. I don’t know if it’s fair to, you know, go one way or the other on that. It’s too subjective and too – well, it’s just impossible to really predict that.”