Mike McCoy (left) and Zach Johnson
Mike McCoy was 10 years old when he got his first job, as a caddy at the Wakonda Club in Des Moines. Zach Johnson was 13 when he got his start in the bag room at the Cedar Rapids Country Club.
Both have gone on to achieve great things in the game of golf. Johnson is the best professional this state has ever produced. McCoy is the most accomplished amateur golfer in Iowa history.
And now they’ll carry the flag for their home state at golf’s summit this fall. Johnson will captain the United States Ryder Cup team against Europe Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club in Rome, Italy. McCoy will captain the United States against a team from Great Britain and Ireland in the Walker Cup at the Old Course at St. Andrews Sept. 2-3.
“It’s crazy, if you really get down to it,” said Johnson, a two-time major champion, five-time Ryder Cup player and 12-time winner on the PGA Tour. “Twenty years ago, what’s the likelihood of this happening? Now given what Mike’s done, and how relevant he still is in the amateur game and how respected he is, there’s no surprise there. And on my side, when your peers say you’re supposed to do it, you do it. But from a 30,000-foot view it looks ridiculous.”
McCoy calls it a remarkable story.
“To have two guys that started from pretty humble backgrounds ending up captaining the two most important competitions of the year, it’s pretty amazing,” McCoy said. “I think Zach feels the way I do, that it’s really the greatest honor, bestowed on you by your peers and the governing bodies in the game, to select us to lead our country’s efforts. It’s just a huge honor.”
McCoy, 60, joins Boone native Ed Updegraff as the only Iowans to play in and captain a Walker Cup team. McCoy played in the 2015 Walker Cup, just one highlight in a distinguished career. He’s won 35 Iowa Golf Association-sponsored tournaments, including six Iowa Amateurs. He’s been the state’s Amateur of the Year 11 times and the Senior Amateur of the Year three times.
His success beyond Iowa includes the 2013 USGA Mid-Amateur, which earned him a spot in the 2014 Masters. He won the Senior British Amateur in 2022 and has twice been low amateur at the U.S. Senior Open.
Johnson, 47, is the only Iowa native to play in a Ryder Cup (2006, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016). He said his depth of experience in that pressure cooker will make him a better captain.
“Every experience in that arena is going to be beneficial,” said Johnson, who also served as a vice captain three times.
Even though the U.S. got thumped in 2006 at the K Club in Ireland, the rookie experience was pivotal in Johnson’s career. Especially the first match.
Zach and Chad Campbell were 2 down to Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley in their foursomes match heading to the par-5 16th hole. Campbell’s drive left Johnson 260 yards to a green that required a carry over water and was just 12 yards wide in the front.
As Johnson pondered the shot, captain Tom Lehman approached and said, “You’ve got the shot. Hit it.”
He laced a 3-wood to 20 feet, and it resulted in a birdie to cut the deficit in half.
“It was nerve wracking,” Johnson says now. “You want the ball. You want the last shot. But it was very difficult. If you’re playing conservative golf, it’s not one you do.”
Johnson made a 14-foot for birdie putt on the 17th hole that extended the match, then made a 4-footer for birdie on the last hole to win the hole and earn a halve.
“He played like a champion,” Lehman said.
Photo courtesy of The R&A / Getty Images
Lehman predicted that Johnson’s success in the clutch would pay dividends in major championships down the road. Zach won the Masters the following spring, added the Open Championship in 2015 (pictured right) and has nine Top 10 finishes in majors overall including a tie for third in the 2010 PGA and a tie for eighth in the 2016 U.S. Open.
“I’ve said it to the young guys who have made these teams, the Presidents Cup included, that when you’re called upon to execute, under these highly-weighted circumstances, and you come through, it’s going to make you a better player,” Johnson said. “I still talk about that shot (on the 16th) as one of the best shots I’ve ever hit in golf.”
His time as a player and vice captain have given Johnson a taste of what he faces when he makes his six at-large picks and then puts together his pairings. He’ll also lean on others for feedback.
“It’s a team when we compete, and a team when we’re trying to make a team,” Johnson said. “There’s volatility this year.”
Picking his team includes the uneasy alliance between the PGA Tour and LIV, as well as a weighted point system in elevated events that can rapidly alter the team standings. The selection process for the 2023 Ryder Cup was already determined when the PGA Tour added elevated events.
“I think it’s my responsibility, at this point, to utilize the template that’s been given to me, one that’s efficient and effective,” Zach said. “I want to win, but I want them in a position so they can be who they are. That’s my role.”
The bottom line is that Johnson will rely on all his experiences, including his marketing degree from Drake University, to guide him in the process.
“When I think about the Ryder Cup I smile, because it’s still the best thing I’ve ever been associated with competitively,” he said. “I flipping love team sports.”
The fact that he’s representing his country is another reason this is a special moment in McCoy’s career.
“I didn’t have a chance to serve in the military,” he said. “But this is a chance to represent my country, on an international stage. I just know, from the opportunity I had when I played (in the Walker Cup), the feeling you get inside when that flag goes up and they play the National Anthem. The lump in the throat you get when you’re wearing the red, white and blue, and your golf bag has USA on it, and you’re proud. But you know it carries a lot of responsibility.”
Mike McCoy during the flag raising ceremony at the 2015 Walker Cup at Royal Lytham & St. Annes G.C. in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire on Friday, Sept. 11, 2015. (Copyright USGA/John Mummert)
Mike does have some experience at St. Andrews. Most recently, he played in the 2018 Senior Open Championship there. He also played in two St. Andrews Links Trophy tournaments over the Old Course, spent last year on site for the Open Championship and has played the course numerous times as a member of the R and A. He’s also picked Johnson’s brain about the course where Zach won the 2015 Open Championship.
“I’ve studied it a lot,” Mike said.
McCoy’s days as the Walker Cup draws near are far from routine. On one recent day, he had to address whether or not his players wanted launch monitors for practice sessions and dealt with a proposal to change the team uniforms for the final day of competition.
“It seems like each day there are more and more things bubbling to the surface that you’ve got to deal with,” McCoy said. “Some of them are important, some of them are not.”
But determining who will make up his 10-man team is consuming most of Captain McCoy’s attention.
“We’re blessed with a lot of great players in America, and it’s a deep bench,” McCoy said. “The most difficult thing is going to have to leave a few of these good players behind. They’re all just outstanding people and they’ve got great support systems. That’s been the most rewarding part of all this.”
As he’s observed possible team members in competition, McCoy has been impressed with their character and deportment across the board.
“When you get them together in a team room the youth comes out,” McCoy said. “But when they put their shoes on and they grab their golf bag, they take on a whole different persona. They’re mature beyond their years once they get to the golf course.”
The level of talent he has to choose from is just as impressive.
“Three or four of these guys are going to be big stars on the tour, there’s just no doubt about it,” McCoy predicted. “The state and quality of amateur golf in America has never been better.”
Getting players who fit together is McCoy’s ultimate challenge.
“Quite frankly that’s what I’m most nervous about, getting it right,” McCoy added. “When I’m out there observing, that’s what I’m trying to figure out. Who are they going to complement? I’m going to have guys that like to play fast, guys that like to play slow, guys that are better drivers than others, guys who are better wedge players. Trying to put those pieces together is probably the biggest part of my job.”
Handling a myriad of personalities will also be important. Some players might want McCoy with them during a match to settle them down. Others might want to be left alone.
“I told all of them that if somebody goes 2 down I’m going to be there, whether they like it or not,” McCoy said. “I’m just trying to get it in their heads that we want to win every point. We’ve got to go out there with that tenacity.
That’s what I’m trying to instill.”
McCoy was on a losing team in 2015, and he doesn’t want a repeat performance as a captain.
“They don’t want that feeling that I had,” he said.
McCoy’s final team picks will be made after the U.S. Amateur concludes August 20 at Cherry Hills Country Club. The champion will earn one of those picks if he hasn’t already been named to the team.
McCoy has proudly carried the name captain since the USGA selected him on March 9, 2022.
“I’m ready to carry that responsibility,” he said.