Not many people have mixed allegiances in an event as partisan as the Ryder Cup, but Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Mark Blackburn considers himself true “Switzerland”—in the neutral sense, not the European sense—this week. It’s more than just the fact that he’s from England but is married to an American and lives in Birmingham, Ala. Blackburn is also pulling double-duty in Rome as the swing coach for Max Homa on the American team and Justin Rose for Europe.

“I’ve got two passports in real life, U.S. and British, and I feel like I have two coaching passports this week,” says Blackburn, a Golf Digest Staff Professional and the 2020 PGA National Teacher and Coach of the Year. “Both of the players I’m with this week need to know that I’m fully invested when I’m with them. That means all I’m rooting for is for my players to play well.”

That has presented some logistical hurdles already in a week in which Italy’s reputation for, um, casualness with organizational details turned the Tuesday morning bus ride from the coaches’ hotel from an anticipated 30 minutes into a 105-minute festival of wrong turns and colorful curse words.

Mark Blackburn is a Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher.

The late arrival meant Blackburn had to double-time it to get to the practice area first with Homa during his warmup and then Rose’s 90 minutes later. Once Rose was ready to go off the front for his practice round, Blackburn went to the back to catch Homa for nine, then joined up with Rose as he finished before capping the day with a sort of open-gym at the practice range for both players’ fine-tuning. In 14 hours on duty, Blackburn covered 16.6 miles—or 25,825 steps—on a course he calls one of the most brutal walks players (and support teams) face. “I wore my backpack with two laptops in it for the first nine holes, but that was a bad choice,” he said with a tired laugh at 10:50 pm local time. “I won’t make that mistake again.”

Even though he has been issued official team gear from both sides, Blackburn will be wearing neutral gear from Titleist and his home club of Greystone in Alabama for the week to avoid having to dart into a closet for a Superman-style jumper change. “This is obviously a huge event, but I’m approaching it—and trying to get my players to prepare for it—just like any other tournament,” he says. “Any player who plays well this week is one that will find a way to play ‘normal’ with all the extra energy and emotion and excitement that is always a part of the Ryder Cup. It’s such a cool challenge.”


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