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Roles as Ryder Cup captains a tougher one for Zach Johnson, Luke Donald: ‘New experience’

ROME, Italy — Control.

It’s a powerful weapon in golf. Players control their own ball, their emotions, their opponent and momentum of a round.

They do this with clubs in hand, determining their own fate with their own swings.

For Ryder Cup captains, that changes. They have no tangible control over the result because they’re not the ones hitting the shots.

That makes the dynamic to this week much, much different for U.S. captain Zach Johnson and European skipper Luke Donald as their respective sides duel it out on the hilly links of Marco Simone Country Club in the shadow of the Eternal City, Rome.

It makes the week a hell of a lot more stressful for both, who have played in a combined nine Ryder Cups spanning 32 matches.

Between 2006-16, Johnson competed in five Ryder Cups, played 17 matches and won 9 points for the Americans with an 8-7-2 record. He was on the losing end of three road Ryder Cups and is trying to lead the U.S. to a first win on European soil in 30 years.

Zach Johnson, captain of Team United States, and Luke Donald, Captain of Team Europe, pose with the Ryder Cup trophy.
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From 2004-12, Donald competed in four Ryder Cups, played 16 matches and scored 10.5 points for Team Europe with a 10-4-1 mark. He was on the winning side of all four Ryder Cups he played.

Both men, in their opening press conference of the week, were asked Monday which is more difficult — competing as a player or leading as a captain.

“I’ll go really quick on that one … definitely captain,’’ Johnson said. “When you’re playing, you, for the most part … you’ve just got to get ready, be prepared, ideally have your A Game, be a decent cheerleader for your teammates, that kind of thing. But this is a lot more difficult.

“However,’’ he added, “I’ve relished every second of it.’’

Donald was quick to agree with his American counterpart.

“I think being a captain is far more difficult than being a player,’’ the Englishman said. “As a player, you do this day-in, day-out. This is a new experience for both of us to be able to manage a team, to be able to manage different characters, to come up with ideas that you think will help your team.

“It’s been a labor of love in a way, but a really fun one. I’ve tried to enjoy the journey as much as possible. I’m glad the week is finally here. It’s been a long buildup, but yes, it’s a lot involved in being a captain, certainly, and certainly being a home captain, having some of those extra decisions that fall onto my plate.’’

Luke Donald and Zach Johnson made a promotional appearance by the Colosseum in Rome.
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Both would rather have the pressure of executing the shots on the golf course than calling the shots. There’s an uneasy element of helplessness to being a captain because control is taken from them and they can only watch and hope their players are in good form.

The dynamic is not dissimilar to Jets head coach Robert Saleh standing helplessly on the sideline Sunday against the Patriots watching his quarterback, Zach Wilson, flounder, squandering chance after precious chance to end the Patriots’ 14-game winning streak over them.

Sunday in Spain, the Solheim Cup captains, Suzanne Peterson for Europe and Stacy Lewis for the U.S., felt that dreaded sense of helplessness as their teams battled in the singles to the very end, with Europe finally retaining the cup with Carlota Ciganda’s victory over Nelly Korda in the penultimate match.

Donald said the dramatic Solheim Cup victory by the European women was noticed by his players.

“Certainly, a lot of the guys were talking about it, a lot of the guys were posting stuff on their social [media],’’ Donald said. “I think that’s only good inspiration for our team going forward for this week.’’

Asked what his heart rate would be like if the Ryder Cup comes down to the final couple of singles matches like the Solheim Cup did, Donald said, “It would be high. I think when you don’t have control, when you’re watching as a spectator, as I will be — I’ll be a captain, but I’ll be spectating — not being able to have any control over those shots, I think that’s when you really feel nervous.

“We would love to be out there just hitting the shots. At least you feel that you have control and you have destiny in your own hands. But you get to watch, and you rely on your players to come up with the goods, and obviously Carlota was able to do that, some amazing shots on 16 and 17 when it really mattered.’’

Both Donald and Johnson — come Sunday singles in Italy, which will surely determine whether the U.S. retains the treasured golden chalice or Europe gets it back — hope it’s one of their players who does what Ciganda did.

Because they’ll have no say in it with their own golf clubs. They’ll have no control.