US captain says LIV's Brook Koepka was easy pick for Ryder Cup

AP photo by Jeff Roberson / Brooks Koepka celebrates after winning his singles match for the U.S. during the Ryder Cup in September 2021 at Whistling Straits Golf Course in Sheboygan, Wis.

ROME — When U.S. captain Zach Johnson got his Ryder Cup team together for the first time for a training camp at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club on Friday, there was no need for a pep talk about unity with Brooks Koepka coming in from the renegade LIV Golf League.

That's because it was just about unanimous: Everyone wanted the five-time major champion — even if he did leave the U.S.-based PGA Tour last year to chase the riches of the Saudi-backed LIV circuit.

"The only thing that was said about Brooks with the guys — specifically the top six that made the team on their own merit — was, 'We want Brooks Koepka to play for Team USA," Johnson said.

Koepka was on hand as nine members of the 12-man American team played Marco Simone for the first time.

"Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay have family matters that definitely supersede what we're doing," Johnson said.

While Spieth's wife is about to give birth, Cantlay and Schauffele had "prior family commitments," Julius Mason of the PGA of America added.

The team landed in Rome and went right out to play 18 holes under a searing sun. With only two caddies along for the trip, they rode carts around the hilly course, which is located just outside the Italian capital city.

Europe's team will hold its training camp starting on Monday.

The Americans will play another round Saturday before returning for the Sept. 29-Oct 1 event, when Marco Simone will become the third venue in continental Europe to host the Ryder Cup after Valderrama in Spain (1997) and Le Golf National in France (2018).

"The common sentiments that I heard on the golf course was they really liked it, which is awesome, and I knew they would because Marco Simone is very, very good," said Johnson, who saw the course for the first time last year.

"The rough was very thick. That was the other nugget that we talked about a lot. The putting greens were very good, very true, very nice. The fairways were awesome. It's a great test, and it's a really, really good match-play golf course. So the guys are excited about the competition," Johnson added.

Stewart Cink, Fred Couples, Jim Furyk, Davis Love III and Steve Stricker are Johnson's five vice captains. There will be another unofficial vice captain back home: Tiger Woods.

"Tiger is very much a part of Team USA and has been for years," Johnson said. "He is, for lack of a better term, on call with us. He is very much in the know as to what we're trying to do. ... (We're) going to utilize his wisdom, and he's passionate about (the Ryder Cup). He wishes he could be here, but it's just not in the cards for him physically. And that's fine. I mean, he is with us. He's just not here physically."

Woods was a player on eight Ryder Cup teams and a vice captain in 2018, but he broke bones in his right leg and ankle in a February 2021 car crash.

While the U.S. routed Europe at Wisconsin's Whistling Straits two years ago, the Americans haven't won the Ryder Cup on European soil in three decades. Rome presents a chance to break that trend.

"That's exactly the way we're looking at it. It's just a great opportunity," Johnson said. "What's happened in the past is the past. It's not relevant to us right now. This team is very much focused on where their feet are. We're going to learn, obviously, from the past and things that have happened. But you can't dwell on it. You've just got to stay focused on really what's right in front of you, and these guys have done a great job of bonding together and keeping the big picture the main thing."

With a dinner in Rome and plenty of time together on flights crossing the Atlantic, Johnson is promoting some team bonding exercises.

"We've got a couple of little things that we're going to employ," he said. "Some things that can maybe add some levity to the situation and also add some confidence and freedom to the team. ... The team chemistry, the team synergy seems to be fantastic."

Justin Thomas, one of Johnson's captain's picks, has already been influential in that category.

"JT has a natural ability of leading," Johnson said. "It's just the way he goes about his work and his business. It's attractive to the guys. It's a pretty magnetic attribute, I think, he has in his personality. So then you couple that with his talent, it makes for a pretty awesome teammate."

Johnson pointed out the view of St. Peter's Basilica from the highest parts of the Marco Simone course.

"I feel very young here as an American for obvious reasons," Johnson said of being in Italy. "But I love everything about it. Obviously love the food. That goes without saying. But more than that, love the history. I mean, it's the Eternal City. As a Christian, the meaning of this place is very special."