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.
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.