Can the US really afford to leave out Brooks Koepka? Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson says he doesn’t watch LIV events but the ex-world No 1 is a man in form after winning PGA Championship
- Two big themes have dominated the first two golfing majors of the 2023 season
- Prevalence of LIV rebels on Sunday leaderboards and Ryder Cup implications
- Can the US Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson afford to leave out Brooks Koepka?
If there have been a pair of steady themes through the first two majors of this golfing season it is the prevalence of LIV rebels on Sunday leaderboards and a recurring question that tends to exist in close proximity.
What exactly is the US Ryder Cup captain, Zach Johnson, going to do with them? It is very much an American dilemma and one that is causing him considerable awkwardness.
Based on conversations a few of us had with Johnson after his final round at the US PGA Championship on Sunday, it is either a subject he doesn’t know how best to address publicly or an issue he wishes to ignore altogether.
Alas, the form of Brooks Koepka in particular is making that awfully hard. At the time of going to press, it was not known if the four-time major winner had converted a 54-hole lead into a victory at Oak Hill.
But the fact he has entered the final round here in the same position as that which he held going into his last loop at the Masters would indicate two things: that he is once again a force of nature on the biggest stages and very much one of the 12 best players from the United States.
If there have been a pair of steady themes through the first two majors of this golfing season it is the prevalence of LIV rebels like Brooks Koepka (pictured) on the Sunday leaderboards
The four-time major winner is hoping to convert a 54-hole lead into a victory at Oak Hill
But young Norwegian Viktor Hovland (pictured) is hot on his tail at the US PGA Championship
Johnson’s European counterpart Luke Donald has enjoyed the greater clarity on his side of the ocean — the rebels who defected have largely resigned their DP World Tour memberships and so are not available for selection.
Johnson has no such simplicity in his scenario, as the American defectors remain eligible if they can garner enough ranking points prior to October’s match in Italy to be top-six in the US Cup standings, or if they make a case with their performances for one of Johnson’s six picks. The politics of the LIV furore have made a saga of that powderkeg situation.
Phil Mickelson, who himself was second at Augusta, on Sunday weighed in, pointing to his belief that it should be a showdown between the best golfers of the US and the best of Europe, irrespective of which circuit they represent.
Mickelson said: ‘I don’t see the benefit of the Ryder Cup changing from what it historically has been, which is the US versus Europe. I don’t see the benefit of changing that. And I don’t see how it’s any of the concern of the PGA of America what tour we play. But that’s just my opinion.’
Clearly the US side may benefit in a sporting sense if Johnson was open to using a captain’s pick on Koepka and Dustin Johnson, for instance, assuming they do not acquire enough points for automatic qualification via the LIV circuit, which has so far been shunned by golf’s rankings authority.
As it stands, though, Johnson is offering little encouragement on that front. Indeed, he said he had no plans to attend any of the LIV events, citing his schedule on the PGA Tour, and appeared to suggest he has not followed any of the broadcasts either.
‘I think the luxury of me being captain is I’m still relevant and prevalent out on the PGA Tour and that’s where my status holds,’ said Johnson. ‘So for me to abandon that on a week where I could be out there and go where the bulk of my players are certainly going to come from, would be irresponsible on my behalf and inappropriate.’
Asked to clarify if he would go to one of the LIV tournaments to keep a closer eye on week-to-week progress, he added: ‘Hasn’t been discussed. I’m not one that’s ever to say never but it’s not been discussed.’
Koepka’s form makes it difficult for US Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson (left) to leave him out
Fellow LIV defector Phil Mickelson said players on the rebel tour should be allowed to play
McIlroy has struggled badly at the tournament but entered the final loop with a decent chance
While 46-year-old club pro Michael Block (centre) was aiming to hold on for eighth position
Johnson has indicated it is too early in the year for such deliberations, which extend to whether the ‘chemistry’ he wants in his team room would be compromised by selecting a LIV golfer. That may raise eyebrows with less than five months until the clash in Rome.
Out on the course Koepka was bidding to keep the debate alive. He had criticised himself for ‘choking’ on the Sunday at Augusta, but here he started rapidly, with three birdies in a row.
It was near enough the perfect opening on a course that was offering more opportunities than the previous three days. But his playing partner in the final group, Viktor Hovland, battled back to cut Koepka’s lead.
The Norwegian landed a 16-foot birdie early on as he attempted to maintain his chase and he trailed by one shot with nine to play.
The previous rounds had been contested in a mixture of frost, downpours and strong gusts, but for the final day it was warm and largely still, with this brute of a course softened into something more friendly.
It was 2pm local time when Rory McIlroy had his chance to attack the set-up, playing alongside Michael Block, the 46-year-old club pro from California whose recent past included a ninth-placed finish in a regional championship and a cheque for $185 (£148).
If Block was able to hold on to eighth here, which was his starting spot on Sunday after three rounds of 70, his takings would be $535,000 (£430,000). Funny old game, which may well be McIlroy’s shared view of a tournament where he has struggled badly and yet entered the last loop with a significant chance.
He opened with a laser of a three-wood off the first tee, followed it with a 144-yard approach to one foot and walked off with a birdie. He played the next five holes in one over, leaving the dream to hang by a thread.
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