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Zach Johnson got his foursomes pairings wrong. Will it cost USA the Ryder Cup?

Zach Johnson got his foursomes pairings wrong. Will it cost USA the Ryder Cup?

The American skipper raised some eyebrows with his morning selections. Now his troops are well behind the 8-ball at this Ryder Cup

 

Still a long way to go, of course. But they may be talking about Thursday afternoon, before a ball was even struck, as the point where the USA lost the Ryder Cup.

As skipper Zach Johnson revealed his foursomes pairings at the opening ceremony, even the most pessimistic European fans were raising an eyebrow – and American social media was going bananas. We all had a feeling what could be coming.

What was he thinking? Scottie Scheffler and Sam Burns to start – knowing they’d have to go up against a powerhouse pairing from Luke Donald? They were thumped 4&3 by Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton.

Max Homa and Brian Harman facing the Scandinavian horde of Viktor Hovland and Ludvig Aberg? It was a Viking massacre. Same again please chaps. 4&3.

Rickie Fowler and Collin Morikawa against Sepp Straka and Shane Lowry. Another early bath for the Americans – this time 3&1.

And Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay? Oh look, that’s only Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood in their way. Cue 2&1 and a clean sweep.

On the bench? Four major champions. Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas are Team USA whirlwinds. Brooks Koepka and Wyndham Clark took two of this year’s big four tournaments.

Yes, yes, it’s tough to play five matches so let’s spread the load. And other such drivel. Thomas had been struggling, it is true. Johnson also seems blinkered when it comes to LIV Golf.

But leaving them all out as you look to set a great foundation? Well, it’s a statement. I bet they couldn’t stop laughing in the European team room.

The result was the USA found themselves 4-0 down on a continent where they haven’t won for 30 years. They needed to shut the crowd up, to dampen the enthusiasm, to get Donald second guessing himself.

Instead, Johnson gave the Europeans a gift.

Let’s temper ourselves for a second. Last week’s Solheim Cup has showed you can be right up against it and still prevail (or tie at least). It’s 6.5-1.5 but 20 points remain to be played.

But what makes this such a disaster for the USA is the feeling it could all have been avoided. Make no mistake, this one is on Zach.

Sam Burns, and foursomes, was always going to be a risk in a Ryder Cup.

Johnson deflected in his press conference following the announcement of the pairings: “History will show, and you can look it up, that being a rookie is almost irrelevant.”

He was being asked about the Homa/Harman pairing – we’ll get to that in a minute – but I wonder which books he had been reading.

This is not the Presidents Cup, however much the PGA Tour would like to dress that tournament up. This is not like playing a regular tour event. It’s not even like playing a major. It’s the most intense environment – try hitting a tee shot in front of 7,000 baying spectators in the 1st grandstand – these players will ever face.

That pressure doesn’t let up. It leaves you tingling, short for breath. It’s inspiring if it’s going your way. Claustrophobic if not.

In fourballs, there is a little room to hide, a chance for your partner to get you out of jail. In alternate shot, if you’re ragging it all over the golf course then you’re going to be losing holes.

And Burns was putting it anywhere but the short stuff off the tee. Scheffler, massively out of rhythm as a result, was soon following suit.

I know he’s the World No. 1 but, once again, foursomes for a guy who has been putting so badly he’s brought in emergency help in the shape of Phil Kenyon?

ryder cup first tee shot

It’s been a disaster for Zach Johnson but can Europe keep the momentum going?

You didn’t need to be Nostradamus to see which way this one might go.

On the rookie debate, you might say the same applies to Aberg, but he’s riding the crest of a wave – momentum and form pushing him forward. A modern day Paul Way.

It’s all just a blur to the Swede and Hovland – calm, unflappable, and a deadly ball striker – felt the perfect partner.

So let’s move on to that game. The Homa-Harman selection was another curious choice. Harman’s a stellar iron player, there can be no doubt, but he’s the shortest hitter – comfortably – on either of these teams.

I keep saying this but doesn’t that feel odd in foursomes? Has Homa ever been hitting from as far back as he was on so many holes at Marco Simone?

It’s hard to second guess what your opposing skipper is going to do, but wherever Shane Lowry was in this opening session, Zach also needed a duo able to nullify the fire of a player with a point to prove.

There were plenty who thought the Irishman should have been sitting this Ryder Cup out. They had to eat their words as, in an excellent partnership with Sepp Straka, he came out massively pumped up.

Rickie Fowler has had a great season, while Collin Morikawa’s struggles led some to question whether he might be on the team in the first place. And Fowler showed some fight, draining an absolute bomb on 12, but that was pretty much the only putt they holed all morning.

That left Schauffele and Cantlay to fight a rearguard action – and combat arguably Europe’s marquee pairing. McIlroy’s dart on 17 snuffed out any remaining life.

Johnson played his hand, went all in, and lost. Now he relied on unloading his bench in the afternoon fourballs and hoping they could get him out of jail.

To be fair, they did their very best. You expected an afternoon reaction. There was one. It took two eagles in the last three holes from Rahm – two miracles – to secure half a point against Scheffler and Koepka.

Hovland and Hatton, two down with five to play, somehow managed to finish all square against Spieth and Thomas in a quite memorable contest. Thomas answered all of his critics.

The Americans chucked the kitchen sink at Europe but didn’t make a dent in the deficit. Justin Rose made sure it got even wider.

All of which only exemplifies the crazy choices the captain made ahead of those opening excursions. Will tomorrow’s foursomes adventurers fare better? Johnson’s team still look spectacularly undercooked, the legacy of five weeks off following the end of the FedEx Cup playoffs.

He over-thought alternate shot within the context of the overall match. He has paid the price. Europe are cock-a-hoop. Can they keep the momentum going and regain the trophy?

Have your say on Zach Johnson’s foursomes pairings?

What do you think? Can the Americans come back from this, or are Europe primed to win back the Ryder Cup? Let me know with a comment on X.

Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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