The Devil for Europe was in Azinger's Details

It was the singular Charles Barkley, who at the height of his corpulence and charm, famously claimed he had been misquoted in his autobiography. That was never going to happen to Paul Azinger in “Cracking The Code,” the Ryder Cup book he co-authored with Ron Braund that is excerpted in this issue of Global Golf Post.
Besides having an infinitely better golf swing than Barkley (who doesn’t?), Azinger has a superior eye for specifics. Or, as he put it over the phone to me last week, “I micro-managed every word.”
In this case, Azinger’s keen attention to detail has produced a compelling inside look at the 2008 Ryder Cup. In “Cracking The Code,” the man who captained the Americans to a wildly exciting victory over the favored Europeans in Kentucky, literally gives us chapter and verse on how and why.
Azinger had a game plan. He sold it to the bosses at the PGA of America. And they selected him over Corey Pavin, who now has the unenviable task of duplicating Azinger’s Ryder Cup heroics against Europe this fall in Wales. Hard to imagine Pavin being any more prepared than Azinger was. “I micro-managed that part, too,” Azinger says.
But after the Monday team meeting at Valhalla Golf Club, Azinger smartly pulled back the reins. “This book is not an arrogant, ‘Oh, look at what we did,’ “ Azinger says now. “All a captain can do is create an environment and get out of the way. It’s just common-sense business principles.”
In the book, Azinger reveals these principles, in the greatest detail yet, while explaining the “pod system” culture he created. He carved out three distinct four-man groups from his 12-man roster. And the result was a shared sense that everybody had at least three guys that had their backs at all times.
There was the “aggressive” pod of Phil Mickelson, Anthony Kim, Justin Leonard and Hunter Mahan. There was the “steady/supportive” pod of Stewart Cink, Chad Campbell, Ben Curtis and Steve Stricker. And there was the “encouraging” pod of Kenny Perry, Boo Weekley, J.B. Holmes and Jim Furyk.
Tiger Woods, you may remember, was still recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and unavailable to Azinger at Valhalla. Given the checkered history between Woods and Mickelson, I couldn’t resist asking Azinger what pod he would have placed Woods in if Tiger had been on the team.
“The encouraging pod,” Azinger said without hesitation. “Three guys in that group had a tendency to get down on themselves, which is why I put Furyk in with them. If Tiger had been on the team, I would have moved Furyk to another pod and told Tiger the same thing I told Jim: encourage them.”
Meanwhile, there are a few things you should know about Paul Azinger you might not find in his book:
Azinger has always been a “what you see is what you get” guy. He showed up on Tour unannounced and unannointed in 1982 with a strong grip and a hold-on swing they don’t teach at any of the fancy golf academies. He hadn’t been able to break 40 until his senior year in school.
But he worked and he prepared. And he was tough. He won a major, the PGA Championship, in 1993. He took 1994 off to beat lymphoma. He produced laughter and tears with his unforgettable eulogy at close friend Payne Stewart’s funeral in 1999. And he was a force as a team room leader in five Ryder Cups as a player.
He respects the controversial Johnny Miller on television because Miller prepares and because, Azinger says, “Johnny still cares who wins.” But, Azinger adds, “He’s a polarizing influence. I want to be positive.” None of which means Azinger can’t be sharply candid. 
For his part, Azinger has learned to work “with” the sometimes-difficult Nick Faldo in the TV booth. Azinger even once said of the flinty Brit, “He’s a good dude.”
But Azinger won’t hesitate to remind you there is no “i” in team while recalling what Irishman Padraig Harrington relayed to him about the message captain Faldo gave the Euros in Kentucky. “Nick told the team to practice and prepare as individuals,” Harrington said.
Azinger remains baffled why Pavin hasn’t spoken a word to him since Valhalla. Others say it’s because Pavin, an assistant captain in 2006, thought he should have been the captain in 2008. If that’s true, Azinger wonders why anybody would consider that to be his fault.
Azinger told me he “absolutely” won’t captain the U.S. team again. But in the next breath he added,  “I suppose 10 or 15 years down the road I might do it. I hate to give a definitive no. But I’d go about it differently.” 
Just like at Valhalla, though, he would keep the details private until after the matches. In Kentucky, he said, “the players bonded with a secret. They were empowered.”
The rest is in the book. “Cracking The Code” hits the stores in the U.S. Tuesday and is also available through Amazon.com.
Meanwhile, if Pavin eventually contacts Azinger, this is part of what he will hear: “Experience is overrated. Confidence trumps experience. What you did two years ago isn’t going to have a lot to do with your golf now. That’s my belief.”
And you can quote him on that.


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