On Monday of Ryder Cup week I went out to the airport to greet Nick [Faldo, the European captain] and his squad. There were cameras, of course. The Virgin Atlantic charter taxied onto the tarmac, and I was standing on the concrete wearing a white crewneck shirt and blue jacket, feeling like I was cooling my heels as we waited for them to come down the stairs. When the door to the plane opened, Nick stood in the doorway holding up the Ryder Cup as if triumphant. My competitive juices pushed me to something approaching anger, so much so that [PGA of America director of communications] Julius Mason, standing beside me, said, "You okay? Smile. This is the greatest moment of your life." I was also anxious as the European team got off the plane because I realized how strong they were. A few minutes later photographers asked Nick and me to pose for a picture with the Cup, and Nick teasingly held it away from me.
I left the airport more determined than ever to give our guys the best possible chance at success.
During the negotiations of the captains' agreement, which details rules of the competition, I suggested that Europe would have the course to themselves the Monday and Tuesday in the week prior to the matches, but they would be gone by Wednesday.
Nick agreed. Then I said to Mark [Wilson, the Valhalla superintendent], "Hey, Mark, wouldn't it be something if it was so hot that you couldn't mow the greens the Monday and Tuesday that Europe is here playing their practice rounds?"
Mark could read between the lines. The greens rolled about a six on the Stimpmeter on those days. As it turned out, it wouldn't matter.
What shocked me was that no European showed up to play a practice round on those early days. Faldo didn't gather his team and have them there, nor did anyone show up on their own, which made me wonder, for the first time, if we were going to face the kind of cohesive European squad we had seen in the past.
We were still making adjustments days before the matches began. Once our guys showed up and started practicing, Mark stood ready to do whatever it took to prep the field for us. During one practice round, I got a call on the radio from Olin Browne who said, "Zinger, you're not going to believe this."
"What is it?" I asked.
"There's a limb out here on 16 about 30 feet up in a tree that's 300 yards off the tee. J.B. thinks it might be in his line."
I laughed and said, "Are you kidding? You and I would never see that limb, and he thinks it's in his way?"
"He thinks it is, and the way he's hitting it, he's probably right," Olin said.
So about 15 minutes later, I got on the phone and called Mark Wilson. "Mark, it's Zinger."
"Hey, what's up, Zinger?"
"Well, there's a limb 300 yards off the tee 30 feet up that J.B. thinks might be in his way."
"Olin's already called me about it," he replied. "I've got a man up in that tree taking care of that limb right now."
During their Friday foursomes match against Robert Karlsson and Padraig Harrington, Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim were two holes down with five to play. The situation looked bleaker still when AK's tee shot at the 215-yard par-3 14th ran through the green, leaving Mickelson an ungodly pitch shot off a trampled lie and Azinger with knots in his stomach.
I sat down heavily in the captain's cart. I had to say something. I couldn't just sit and watch. My guys needed a word of encouragement, especially AK, who had barely two years on the PGA Tour.
"What do I say?" I thought out loud.
"Challenge him," Ron said. Ron Braund, sitting beside me in the cart, was a corporate team-building consultant who had worked with me to shape this team, showing me the principles of personality profiling and how matching personalities between partners could make an even greater impact on our team than matching golf skills.
"What?" I asked Ron, wondering how he knew what I was thinking.
"AK," Ron said. "You've got to challenge him. Get his attention. You challenge him and he'll respond."
Two years earlier I would have told you Ron's advice was a bunch of psycho-babble nonsense. But as captain I had only a few variables I could control. The message was one of those. And the way I delivered that message had to change, depending on who I was addressing.
I stepped over the rope, and AK, who hadn't seen me since he teed off, didn't say anything initially. I stood about four feet away from him with my arms folded. I looked at him and then looked away. When I looked back, AK said, "What's wrong, Cap'n?"
The place was almost completely silent as the gallery watched Phil size up the mess he was in. I didn't want the crowd to hear what I had to say, or to distract Phil from his nearly impossible task, so in the firmest whisper I could manage, I responded, "Buddy, I thought you were going to show me something today. You're not showing me squat!"
The trademark grin came back, and he said, "Relax, Cap'n. They're not gonna beat us."
Then Phil, who hadn't heard any of our conversation, hit one of the greatest flop shots of his life. From a place where most of the guys out there that weekend couldn't have gotten the ball within 10 feet of the hole, he dropped it on the perfect spot to catch the ride down and stop three feet from the cup. In the meantime, the Europeans had their own struggles, bogeying the hole. AK made the par putt, and suddenly instead of being 3-down, he and Phil were just one hole behind with all the momentum.
One hole later AK hit a wedge to within 12 feet on exactly the right line to give Phil a straight uphill putt. When that putt fell, they had squared the match.
AK saw me again on 18, smiled even bigger than before, and said, "I told you, Cap'n."
Excerpted from Cracking the Code: The Winning Ryder Cup Strategy: Make It Work For You by Paul Azinger and Dr. Ron Braund, Copyright 2010 Looking Glass Books.