Mike McCoy, Zach Johnson to share special 2023
Written by Rick Brown, Iowa Golf Hall of Fame member
I don’t know how many rounds of golf I’ve watched Zach Johnson (right) and Mike McCoy (left) play during their distinguished careers. I do know it’s well into three figures.
And I don’t know how many stories I wrote about them during my time as the golf writer at the Des Moines Register. Again, it’s well into triple digits.
I chased them on golf courses for years, chronicling their success in Iowa, the United States, even Ireland. I covered them in a wide range of events, from the Sani to the Masters in Augusta.
They have been and always will be two of my favorites, for reasons that go beyond the fact that they were outstanding golfers and gave me plenty to write about. They are gentlemen golfers, humble and first class in every way. They never refused my interview request, and were always gracious with their time. They were, as the saying goes, Iowa Nice.
And as their list of accomplishments grew, they never forgot their golfing roots here in Iowa. They’ve always brought a bright spotlight to this state with their play. And the lights will shine even brighter in 2023.
Johnson will serve as captain of the United States Ryder Cup team in Rome. And McCoy will serve as captain of the Walker Cup team at St. Andrews.
“Can you believe that Iowans will captain the Ryder Cup and Walker Cup in the same year?” said Chad Pitts, executive director of the Iowa Golf Association.
This is a proud moment for Iowa, as well as the state’s underrated but robust golf community. Johnson’s 12 PGA victories include the 2007 Masters at Augusta and 2015 Open Championship at St. Andrews. He’s played on five Ryder Cup teams and had a winning record (8-7-2).
“He’ll do anything to help the team win, first of all,” said Davis Love III, the U.S. captain in 2012 and 2016. “He’s a great teammate. And he always plays well, too. Guys look up to him and respect him.”
Tom Lehman was Johnson’s first Ryder Cup captain, in 2006 at the K Club in Kildare, Ireland.
“It’s been fun to watch him play and cheer him on and be happy for all the things he’s accomplished,” Lehman said. “He’s come such a long way and done so much. If he was a really nasty person it would be pretty easy to not care so much. But because he’s such a great human being and such a wonderful guy, you feel like every success that comes to him, he deserves it.”
McCoy’s pinnacle achievement was winning the 2013 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at Birmingham Country Club in Birmingham, Ala. That victory got him into the 2014 Masters.
A year later, McCoy’s distinguished national career was recognized when he was named to the 2015 Walker Cup team. Closer to home, Mike won the Iowa Amateur six times and has been the Iowa Golf Association’s Player of the Year 11 times.
McCoy will become the second native Iowan to serve as Walker Cup captain. Dr. Edgar Updegraff, who grew up in Boone, captained the 1975 team. That competition was also at St. Andrews. McCoy does know a little bit about St. Andrews. He played there in the 2018 Senior British Open.
Johnson and McCoy are two guys who cut their golfing teeth in the state at an early age, and then took a big bite out of the competition.
McCoy was 10 years old when he became a caddy at the Wakonda Club in Des Moines.
Caddies got to play on Monday. The pro at Wakonda at the time, Jack Webb, took McCoy under his wing. Bill Rose, another pro at Wakonda, later became McCoy’s instructor and helped him elevate his game.
Johnson was also introduced to golf at the age of 10, joining pro Larry Galdson’s junior program at Elmcrest Country Club in Cedar Rapids. Zach’s instructor during his high-level career, Mike Bender, is another Iowan. Webb, Rose, Gladson and Bender are all in the Iowa Golf Hall of Fame alongside McCoy and Johnson.
Johnson and McCoy’s success stories are anchored by hard work, and a bulldog mentality. Johnson was never the No. 1 on the golf team at Drake. When his college career ended, he had to decide whether to pursue professional golf or fall back on his business and marketing career.
He decided to give golf a try, since he’d experienced improvement every year and now had an opportunity to devote himself to the game on a full-time basis.
“Everything that came with being a professional golfer, I was willing and able to do it,” Johnson said.
Golf, not business and marketing, became his calling card and opened the door to a career that is taking him to the Ryder Cup in a third capacity. First as a player, then a vice-captain, and now captain.
Success wasn’t a given for McCoy on the golf course, either. Growing up on the south side of Des Moines, he’d carry his golf bag to the city bus stop, then catch a ride to the A.H. Blank course to play. He fought through some tough times early in his career. But as he improved, his zest for competition grew as well.
“You can always improve on something, and I did love the competition,” McCoy said. “I loved surprising myself. And I would beat players that were older than me and better than me. That kept me going right into college (at Wichita State). That’s when things started breaking free for me, and I could see myself becoming a good player.”
I had the good fortune to cover McCoy and Johnson at the 2014 Masters. It was a pinch-me moment, watching two of Iowa’s greatest players ever at one the game’s great shrines. It all came into focus on the Tuesday of tournament week, when Johnson and McCoy played the front nine together in a practice round..
I can still remember interviewing McCoy in a room outside Augusta National’s locker room after the second round and thinking to myself, “We’re not in Iowa anymore.”
Nine years later, Johnson and McCoy will share the title of captain at two of the sport’s elite events. Just two guys from Iowa.