Throughout the remainder of the holiday season, we will provide a look back at some of the best content from our writers at Global Golf Post Plus. This article originally published on Sept. 24. Enjoy.
It remains undefeated. A dozen years after Paul Azinger forged a new direction for U.S. Ryder Cup teams – a “pod” system that broke up a 12-man team into three four-man units – the formula has resulted in victory every time it has been tried. Whether it’s the Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup or Presidents Cup, outcomes have been the same. When U.S. captains stick to Zinger’s formula, they win. When they go away from it, even for a match or two, they lose.
Given that success rate, it is time to revisit the 2008 Ryder Cup and the new way of thinking that Azinger brought to American team golf.
It’s easy to forget that between 1985 and 2006 Europe won seven matches to the United States’ three with one draw, and embarrassed the Americans in the last two leading into Valhalla in Louisville, Kentucky. But for the largest final-day comeback in history by the Americans in 1999, the miracle at Brookline, Europeans would have (and perhaps should have) won six in a row. Things were so askew with American Ryder Cup teams that the Associated Press wrote, “Let’s have no more talk about the Americans having the best players, the most major championships, the strongest team. They are now the underdogs in this every-other-year matchup, unable to compete with the camaraderie, creativity, or fearlessness of their European counterparts.”
American players past and present read those words with clenched teeth, not because they thought they were false or unfair, but because they knew the analysis was spot on.
“There were four of us – Paul Azinger, Lanny Wadkins, Payne and I – who were always talking about Ryder Cup stuff. Strategies, what you would do, that kind of stuff.” – Dave Stockton
Azinger was one of those. He had always loved the Ryder Cup. When asked to remember Payne Stewart, Dave Stockton said, “There were four of us – Paul Azinger, Lanny Wadkins, Payne and I – who were always talking about Ryder Cup stuff. Strategies, what you would do, that kind of stuff.”
The PGA of America had asked Azinger to captain the 2008 team at Valhalla. But Zinger agonized over how to reverse the fortunes of the perennial losers. The last tw0 outings, 2004 at Oakland Hills in Michigan and 2006 at The K Club outside Dublin, Ireland, had been especially embarrassing. Europe won those two by a combined score of 37-19. If they had been fights, the refs would have stopped them in the third round.
Azinger had played on enough teams to know that the captain’s role was limited. It’s not like a Ryder Cup team went through training camp or spring practice. Guys who tried to beat each other’s brains out one week were thrust together on a Monday as teammates and expected to perform for flag and country. What could someone like Zinger, who had never coached anything in his life – “my wife and I had daughters so I’d never so much as coached a Little League team,” he said – do to turn the American Ryder Cup ship around?
Then he had an epiphany in his living room. “Lying on my couch with my shoes off, I sipped sweet iced tea and watched a show about Gibson guitars on the Discovery Channel,” Azinger said. “When the show ended, I was too lazy to hunt for the remote, so I started watching a documentary on how the navy turns raw recruits into SEALs, the most effective and feared fighting force ever assembled. Between segments on special weapons and tactics training and ‘drown-proofing’ the recruits, one of the officers said, ‘We break the men into small groups. That’s the core. Those guys eat, sleep and train together until they know what the others are thinking. Every man knows what his fellow SEAL is going to do before he does it. They bond with each other in a way you can’t understand if you’ve never been there.’ ”
Azinger knew that the reasons thrown out for American failure were poppycock. To read accounts in the media, you would have thought the Europeans traveled in packs by train and stayed in the same houses year-round while the Americans were a collection of 12 men with 12 private jets who each never had conversations outside his personal entourage. Both characterizations were nonsense, as was the assertion that American players didn’t care about the Ryder Cup because they weren’t being paid. Granted, that perception hadn’t been helped in 1999 when Mark O’Meara went public with complaints about the PGA of America raking in nine figures while the players barely got a pat on the back. Then in 2002 when Tiger Woods was asked about the disparity between how the U.S. and Europeans viewed the Ryder Cup, Tiger asked the media, “Can anyone tell me Jack Nicklaus’ Ryder Cup record? How ’bout how many major championships he won?” The message could not have been clearer.
Azinger, however, knew the Americans cared. He’d been there. He was in that press conference with Tiger in 2002 and stood on the first tee with him that year at The Belfry in the English midlands. Zinger and Tiger were paired in the first match out on Friday, which they lost to Darren Clarke and Thomas Bjørn. Azinger had felt the nerves and seen the tears. He had celebrated team victories and endured the silent agony of American defeat. He knew that U.S. players wanted to win for themselves and for their nation.
But it wasn’t until that night in his living room that it dawned on him why the Americans couldn’t seem to get it done. “Military experts knew that in the heat of battle you couldn’t get a battalion or a company to gel as a single fighting unit,” Azinger said. “The numbers were too big. But you get three, four, five, maybe as many as six guys to lay everything on the line for the men beside them. Small groups – men who ate, slept, trained, hung out, and sometimes fought together – were a key to military success.
“At that moment, I thought it could be the key to America’s Ryder Cup woes as well.”
Thus was birthed the pod system, an idea of breaking a 12-man team into three groups of four and having those four players – placed together on the basis of their personality profiles and not their golf skills – eat together, practice together, play ping-pong together in the team room, and be accountable to one another. He also assigned an assistant captain to each pod, someone who also fit the personality profile of the players he was assisting.
“The Europeans don’t have pods but, in a sense, they instinctively do,” Azinger said. “They have different nationalities. The Spaniards always hung out and played together. The English were most likely to practice and eat and play together. The same with the Swedes and the Irish. The only times that changed was when good friends were paired together like Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood.”
Azinger went a step further. He changed the system to allow for a hot player to earn his way onto the team late in the qualifying process. And he changed the number of captain’s picks from two players to four. That allowed him to do something unprecedented. He built three pods with nine players – eight who had qualified and one that he picked. Then he allowed the players to fill out their own pods. Technically, the picks were the captains to make. But Zinger only made one of them. He let the players make the rest. It was the ultimate delegation. And it created the ultimate bond.
For the first time in decades, the Americans entered the 2008 Ryder Cup as legitimate underdogs. Woods was injured and could not play. And the team had players such as Chad Campbell, Ben Curtis, J.B. Holmes, Anthony Kim, Kenny Perry and Boo Weekley. Hunter Mahan and Steve Stricker played in their first Ryder Cups in 2008 and Justin Leonard, who hadn’t played in one in almost a decade, came in with a record of 0-3-5. They were up against the likes of Sergio García, Pádraig Harrington, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Paul Casey and Graeme McDowell. On paper, the tables had turned. The Americans should have been trounced.
Instead, Zinger’s pod system became America’s secret weapon. The underdogs prevailed, winning the cup in a trot, 16½-11½.
And just like that, the U.S. abandoned it. Corey Pavin did not adapt the pod system in 2010 and the U.S. lost at Celtic Manor in Wales. Davis Love III went to a modified version in 2012 at Medinah – six pods of two men each – and the U.S. lost to a European singles rally. In 2014, Tom Watson had a mutiny on his hands by the end at Gleneagles in Scotland. And in 2018 in France, Jim Furyk didn’t fully embrace the system and the U.S. lost again.
Juli Inkster not only embraced the pod system for the Solheim Cup, she called Azinger and had him walk her through the process. She actually gave her players a Myers-Briggs personality profile test and assigned nicknames to each pod. Nancy Lopez, Wendy Ward and Pat Hurst were the team moms for their respective pods with Inkster acting as head coach and lead cheerleader. It worked in Germany in 2015 and Des Moines, Iowa, in 2017. Then in Scotland in 2019, one player asked to break the mold and play outside her pod. She lost, and so did the Americans.
In 2021, the Solheim Cup and Ryder Cup will be played in the same year. It is yet another opportunity to put Azinger’s theory to the test. U.S. Solheim captain Pat Hurst has already committed to using the pod system at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio. So far, Steve Stricker is uncommitted for his Ryder Cup team at Whistling Straits, although he will certainly remember his maiden voyage into the fire at Valhalla.
As Azinger put it, “at the highest level of professional golf, the difference between winning and losing is razor thin. One putt out of a hundred that lips out instead of going in is all it takes. The Ryder Cup is one of the biggest pressure cookers in sports, and one of the few golf events that can bring the game’s greatest players to tears. The job of the captain is to create an environment where our players can bond and thrive as a team – and be standing on the right side of that razor-thin line come Sunday afternoon.”
So far, his pod system is undefeated in creating that environment. Hopefully, future American captains will take notice.
Top: U.S. captain Paul Azinger celebrates winning the 37th Ryder Cup during the closing ceremony at Valhalla. Photo: Rui Vieira, PA Images via Getty Images
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