When Paul Azinger captained the United States to victory at the 2008 Ryder Cup, he did it on his terms. In his new book, Cracking the Code, Azinger reveals the key pieces of his scrupulous strategy, from team building, to tough talk, to who exactly determined his captain's picks (hint: not Zinger). Captain Pavin, we suggest you listen up ...
Years before the PGA of America asked me to be 2008 Ryder Cup captain, I was considering how I might build and lead the team. Lying on my couch with my shoes off, I sipped sweet iced tea and watched a show about Gibson guitars on the Discovery Channel. 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 troops, one of the officers explained the strength of these Special Operations Forces. "We break the men into small groups," he said. "That's the core. Those guys eat, sleep, and train together until they know what the others are thinking."
Interesting concept, I thought. Small groups. Tight bonds.
I sat up as the officer continued, "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."
"Hmm, that might work," I thought out loud.
My wife, Toni, had just stepped into the room, and she asked, "What might work?"
"We've been trying for years to get all 12 guys to come together as a team," I told Toni. "Tour players are hardwired to beat the guys next to them, then one week a year we think they should go against their nature and become a championship team. But maybe twelve is too big. If you want to bring the Ryder Cup team together, maybe you have to break it apart."
Even as I was saying it, I realized the idea was something I had instinctively felt for years. Now it was coming clear. We needed to take the concept of the SEALs and somehow apply it to golf. 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. The numbers were too big. But you could get three, four, five, or 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 answer to America's Ryder Cup woes as well.
With the exception of Steve Stricker, no single player jumped off the page [when it came to my captain's picks]. And the tournaments didn't reveal anything; unbelievably, foreigners, including two players from the European team, won six straight beginning two weeks before the PGA Championship and all the way up to Ryder Cup week. Vijay Singh from Fiji won three of the six, Carl Petterson from Sweden won once, Padraig Harrington from Ireland won the PGA Championship, and Camilo Villegas from Colombia won the day before I had to make my picks. As I watched Camilo hole the final putt to win, I turned off the TV and slumped on my couch for a few minutes, wondering what to do. If I was looking for a hot hand, I wasn't finding it among the Americans on the tour.
Finally I called Dave Stockton [one of Azinger's assistant captains].
"Who do I pick?" I said. "I have 20 choices and I don't like any of them."
Dave said, "Don't forget your pod system. Don't look at your choices in terms of the overall team; look at them in terms of how they fit in your pods."
Great advice, I thought. We hung up and I walked into my office. I looked at the eight players who had made the team and quickly came up with four two-man combinations. Knowing I was picking Stricker, I had nine players. After a little jumbling and shuffling around, and several phone calls to players already on the team, I soon came up with three three-man teams. Then I took my list of 20 possible picks whose profiles we had considered and imagined how each would fit in the system. Just like that, every player on the list made sense. I went from not wanting any of them to wanting all of them, once I saw how and where they fit in our plan. It was at that moment that I knew the pod system was going to work.
I could have picked any of them, but in the end, I didn't pick a single one.
I let the players do it.
That's when I called the guys one more time. I couldn't get Boo [Weekley]. He might have been knee-deep in a swamp hunting hogs, but I reached everybody else. I said, "I'm sorry to bother you again, but we're all in this together now. You're engaged and invested in the process, and I appreciate it. You all have ownership in your pod, but I want to take this one step further. I want to empower you."
To a man they asked, "What do you mean?"
I explained. "You currently have a three-man team. I'm going to give you a list of names that are green lights for your units, and I want you to pick your fourth man. I want you three to get together and fill out your pod. If you decide to pick outside the names that I give you, I'll explain to you why you're wrong. The choices I'm giving you are all playing well, and would all be green lights in your groups."
No one outside the team knew that I let the players pick their own teammates. We kept it a secret until now. The world thought Steve Stricker, Hunter Mahan, Chad Campbell, and J.B. Holmes were my picks, and yes, I was the guy who picked up the phone and asked them to join the team, but Hunter was the choice of Phil Mickelson, Anthony Kim, and Justin Leonard. Chad Campbell was the consensus pick of Stewart Cink, Ben Curtis, and Steve Stricker. Furyk said, "Give me bombers," and I said, "How 'bout J.B. Holmes?" He loved it. Kenny also loved the idea, since he and J.B. were close friends and fellow Kentuckians. J.B. had been an All-American at the University of Kentucky. When I called J.B. and asked him to join us, I heard a quiver in his voice, and I knew he would lay it all on the line in Louisville.
The moment I made the calls, I knew the picks were right.