In the end, Zach Johnson wasn’t afraid to stir emotions with his captain’s picks for the U.S. team in the upcoming Ryder Cup in Italy. On Tuesday, Johnson announced his six choices—Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Collin Morikawa and Sam Burns—and at least two of those picks will likely create much debate among the players and fans.
Koepka, who won the PGA Championship in May, was picked despite leaving the PGA Tour last year for the Saudi-backed LIV Golf League, while Thomas didn’t play well enough to reach the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs, but is this era's emotional leader.
The chosen players join thos who had automatically qualified for the team: Scottie Scheffler, Wyndham Clark, Max Homa, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele and Brian Harman.
The Americans will try to win a second straight Ryder Cup after routing Europe in 2021 at Whistling Straits, with the bigger task being beating the host team on its soil for the first time since 1993. That's six straight wins at home for Europe. The Cup competition is set for Marco Simone Golf & Country Club outside of Rome, Sept. 29-Oct. 1.
"To say I'm excited about these gents is an understatement," Johnson said. "They check all of the boxes—fierce competitors, great versatility, great flexibility when it comes to the pairings."
Though not much of a surprise because of his polarizing position in the game, LIV's Bryson DeChambeau was left off despite four top-10s, including a win, this season.
Thanks in large part to his victory in the PGA Championship at Oak Hill and tie for second in the Masters, Koepka remained among the automatic qualifiers in the U.S. standings until he was knocked out following the BMW Championship, where Max Homa and Xander Schauffele passed him. However, given the 33-year-old's departure to LIV, he could be a dividing figure, if not in the locker room, then for fans. Johnson's choice likely was made somewhat easier with the prospects that the PGA Tour and LiV's founding Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia are working on a deal to create a new business venture.
"When it came to BK, his experience, his temperament, the way he goes about his work, his passion for the Ryder Cup—all spoke voliumes," Johnson said. "... He and I have had communications a lot over the last few months, very candid discussions, when he started to make his way onto this team. He earned his way onto this team when you get down to the pennies and dollars of it. It was a pretty easy pick.”
This will be Koepka's fourth Ryder Cup and he's 6-5-1 overall. He went 2-2 in Wisconsin two years ago, including a 2-and-1 singles win over Bernd Wiesberger. Koepka has yet to lose a singles match.
"I think you're just playing for something bigger than yourself. You don't want to let the guys on the team down," Koepka said. "It's a fun event; it's the most nervous I've ever been in a golf tournament."
Koepka has overcome career-threatening injuries over the past several years to get back to his current level. "The last few years have been a lot," he said, "but at the same time that's what I've been grinding for, that's what I've been trying to get into shape 100 percent to feel good for this moment."
Thomas, a 15-time tour winner, presented Johnson with a tough circumstance because of an ill-timed and uncharacteristic mediocre ’23 campaign in which he posted only three top-10s in 20 starts. But, as the captain, said, “He, without question, has been the heart and soul of Team USA in the Ryder Cup, our emotional leader I would say. I don’t think he would argue with that. He leads by example. … In my mind, he was born for this and you just don’t leave JT out.”
Thomas has a 6-2-1 record in two Ryder Cup appearances, including a 2-1-1 mark two years ago. He twice played with good friend Spieth in alternate-shot foursomes at Whistling Straits and they went 1-1.
Thomas missed three of four cuts in the majors this year and recalled the awkward moments with the media on Friday at July’s Open Championship, when the obvious question about Ryder Cup status was bound to come up. “Everyone’s thinking it, and I know I’m thinking it,” Thomas said. “I did put a lot of pressure on myself because it does mean so much to me. That being said, I think it was a valuable learning experience for me. It’s something that I will use going forward. … You can want something too bad, and I’m sure all of us have wanted to win golf tournaments too much or forced the issue. There are potential times this season that I did.
“I’m very fortunate to be here,” he added. “Zach has been very vocal, and made it sound great that we’re all equal on this team. I feel just as important as everybody else, and my teammates have voiced that the same way.”
Johnson spoke of losing sleep over having to make calls to those whom he didn’t pick, and among the toughest for him was Young, the 23-year-old who posted six top-10s this season and lost 6 and 5 to Burns in the Dell Technologies Match Play final. Young seemed all but a lock to make the team after vice captain Fred Couples said on his radio show in July, “Cam Young will be in Italy.”
Burns, 27, who has five PGA Tour wins to Young’s zero, was ultimately the choice and will be making his first Ryder Cup appearance. He did play for the American squad in the 2022 Presidents Cup and didn’t notch a victory, going 0-3-2.
“Stud athlete,” Johnson said of Burns. “Tremendous putter, which is always good in the Ryder Cup. To say he meshes well with the guys would be a massive understatement.”
Another American player who had to be gutted by being passed over was Bradley, who was trying to make his third Ryder Cup team and first since 2014. He'd made a strong case with two wins and six total top-10s this season.
Golf Channel's Todd Lewis said in a tweet that Bradley responded to Tuesday's news by telling him, "I could tell by the response from Zach when I answered the phone that I wasn’t on the team … I’m super bummed out. I thought I put together a really good year with two wins … I am pulling for the U.S. Team.”