A dismal losing run in the biennial event on this side of the Atlantic for the United States since 1993 included a heavy defeat at Gleneagles nine years ago, when Mickelson made himself unpopular with the majority of golf fans when he turned on his captain, Tom Watson, in a post-match press conference.
On the back of that unfortunate episode and the result as well, the PGA of America set up a special taskforce to try and instil some team unity and, according to Johnson, progress has been made in that respect heading into the latest edition of the transatlantic tussle.
“I played on a lot of those teams,” said the US captain in reply to being asked if American sides had perhaps lacked the same team ethos as their European opponents since that last victory over here at The Belfry. “Unfortunately, three of them over here, while the experience was amazing, the result was not what I anticipated.
“I applaud the PGA of America for allowing myself and some of my peers before me to have direct ownership in how we navigate Team USA. I think it's in a better place than it was seven, eight, nine years ago , and I think it's all because of that collaboration between us players, The PGA of America and some of the other powers that really know what's going on because we are passionate about this very cup.
“You learn from things. You learn from defeats probably more so than wins. I think the efficiency has probably amped up a little bit and that's part of it. But, when it comes down to it, you've got 12-on-12, all pros, all know what they are doing, and it comes down to execution, and that's the beauty of sport. That's the beauty of competition.”
Johnson was speaking during the first press conference of the week at Marco Simone Golf Club in Rome, where, as is the tradition with the event, he was joined by his opposite number, Luke Donald. On a sunny but breezy day in the Italian capital, it was more a case of some gentle jousting than two gladiators battling it out in the Colosseum back in the day.
It was perhaps inevitable, of course, that they found themselves facing a question about Rome’s rich history as an American journalist, who joked that it may have been prompted by jet-lag, asked Donald if he worried if he could end up defeated like Caesar, the Eternal City’s last Emperor, while also asking Johnson if he’d envisaged himself as a Visigoth dressed in bear furs ready to mount an attack.
“Well, history is always important,” replied Donald, smiling, to his part of the question. “We know that, and hopefully the beginning of the history of the Roman Empire will be kind to European golf this week.” As for Johnson? “Wow,” was the first word he came up with before adding: “I do love history and I do appreciate certainly what this country is about, and specifically this city.
“I mean, Luke and I had the pleasure, I would even say distinct honour of walking the streets of Rome a year ago and actually hitting a ball by the Colosseum. I don't take that for granted, whether you're talking empires, biblical importance, whatever it may be, I mean, this history, the history of Rome, I mean, it's the eternal city.
“All that being said, this is golf. I mean, this is sport. I'm going to keep it pretty simple. That's the way I operate. I'm going to let whatever drama you're trying to get into, I'm going to let that happen inside the ropes with our golf balls. Cheers!”
Both teams had flown in earlier in the day and, though Johnson admitted his team felt “exhausted” after their journey, that didn’t stop Justin Thomas, perhaps the US captain’s most controversial pick, turning up at the course to hit a few balls in the middle of the afternoon. As did Viktor Hovland, winner of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup last month but, of course, wearing European colours for this assignment.
Led by his compatriot Suzann Pettersen, Europe retained the Solheim Cup following a 14-14 draw at Finca Cortesin in Spain on Sunday, with Donald admitting he’s hoping that acts as timely inspiration for his players, especially after the home side recovered from losing the opening foursomes session 4-0.
“Obviously a very tough start,” observed the former world No 1, “and I thought it was a very admirable comeback. Some great golf by both teams. When I started watching it on Sunday, it looked like Europe kind of had it in the bag. They got up early. The US came back fighting and really didn’t look very hopeful at the end.
“Then a couple of players, [Caroline] Headwall and [Carlot] Ciganga, produced amazing turnarounds in their matches and it was enough to enough to get the tie and retain the cup, and obviously couldn't be happier for Suzann. Certainly a lot of the guys were talking about it. A lot of the guys were posting stuff on their social, and I think that's only good inspiration for our team for this week.”
Friday’s action starts in this contest with foursomes. “Pretty simple really,” said Donald of that decision. “We feel like as a team, statistically we are stronger in foursomes within our team than we would be in four-balls. Why not get off to a fast start? That's it.”