Rickie Fowler’s looking to ride it to another level in his return to golf this week at the Frys.com Open.
The bounce doesn’t necessarily happen overnight, but Ryder Cup rookies who come through in the clutch can see large dividends return to them when they re-join the PGA Tour.
Just ask Zach Johnson.
Or better yet, ask his caddie, Damon Green.
Johnson’s game reached another level after his first Ryder Cup experience in 2006.
“Playing in that Ryder Cup, pulling off the shots Zach did, it probably changed his career around,” Green said. “I really think it helped him win the Masters.”
Johnson believes it’s no coincidence he won the Masters in the spring of ’07 after his first Ryder Cup showing the previous fall.
“I had won once on the PGA Tour, and I had other opportunities to win, but once I played on the Ryder Cup team, I think that really did catapult my game,” Johnson said. “I think the biggest thing I learned is that I could execute shots under the most extreme situations, meaning under pressure, with all that’s at stake in a Ryder Cup.”
Fowler closed out his first Ryder Cup with four consecutive birdies in Wales 10 days ago. He came from 3 down with three holes to go to steal a half point from Edoardo Molinari, who left the course in a daze.
Fowler may find the memories of the shots he pulled off in that terrific finish will help him hit even bigger shots in the future. Johnson did.
In Johnson’s first match in his first Ryder Cup, he pulled off a series of shots he still draws upon for the confidence they bring.
And it’s remarkable what one clutch shot can do for a golfer’s soul.
In his first Ryder Cup match at the K Club in Ireland four years ago, Johnson and Chad Campbell were paired in foursomes, the alternate-shot format. They were 2 down with three holes to go against Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley when Johnson found himself over the kind of shot that can reverberate through a career. It may sound funny that it could come on the first day of the Ryder Cup, but that tells you the intense nature of that competition, what every hole and every point means to its participants. There’s choking and heroics at every hole. It’s what makes the Ryder Cup so special.
In the middle of the 16th fairway at the K Club four years ago, Johnson stood 250 yards from the pin with a large decision to make. Should he go for the green in two? It was far from a no-brainer, not with water in front of the green and right of the green. It was a tough call with the pin tucked left on a sliver of a narrow green and a steep bank making any miss left an impossible up and down.
“I was thinking 'I can hit this shot,’ but I just didn’t know if it was a smart play,” Johnson said.
American Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman was there, and Johnson consulted with him.
“You need to go with the shot you’re comfortable with,” Lehman told him. “I don’t care what shot you hit, just make sure you’re 100 percent committed to it.”
Johnson turned to Green, who didn’t flinch.
“We’re 2 down with three to play,” Green told his player. “You’re hitting 3-wood.”
Green can still see the shot, the gorgeous line, the beautiful arc, the ball landing at the front of the green and rolling 20 feet from the flagstick.
“It was magnificent,” Green said. “He had to hit a career 3-wood just to get it there.”
A two-putt birdie pulled Johnson and Campbell to 1 down.
“Up until that point in my career, it was the hardest shot I had ever encountered,” Johnson said.
At the 18th, Johnson repeated his feat, hitting yet another 3-wood onto the green at another par 5 to help win the hole and earn a half point in a dramatic charge.
“Those are shots you try to cling to, to keep in your memory banks, not just the outcome, but the memory of walking behind the ball, getting over the ball, your rhythm, the process,” Johnson said.
Johnson said a lot went into his Masters’ victory, the extra offseason preparation he took after the birth of his first son, but he counts the Ryder Cup experience as vital, especially the way he and Campbell closed that first match. Green said Johnson’s big finish actually started at the 15th hole, when he went over to Green with Harrington setting up over a chip shot.
“Zach turns to me and says, 'Padraig’s going to make this chip, and I’m going to knock my putt in right on top of his,’” Green said. “Sure enough, Harrington chips in. The crowd had just gone crazy, and Zach stands over his 15-footer, and he holes it. I’ve got goose bumps right now thinking about it.”
The Ryder Cup’s filled with so many of these moments, turning points in early matches that resonate profoundly, that create a Ryder Cup bounce in the wake of the matches. European players will enjoy them, too. They’re coming over the next year.
Johnson’s first Ryder Cup didn’t end triumphantly. The Americans got squashed, and he lost his singles match. Johnson had the distinction of drawing Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke as his opponent in the most emotional match that year. Clarke was still mourning the loss of his wife, Heather. With Irish crowds cheering him on, Clarke won the match, 3 and 2.
“If there are golf gods, they were certainly with him,” Johnson said. “I just felt like I didn’t have a chance in that match. Darren is a phenomenal player and an even better person.”
Even with that defeat, Johnson got his Ryder Cup bounce. He’s hoping to ride another one into next season. At Wales, Johnson came through with another clutch victory. He tied the matches, 13 ½ to 13 ½, late in singles when he defeated Harrington. It came with more Ryder Cup memories to build future triumphs upon.