ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – The groundswell for change began long before Phil Mickelson aired the U.S. Ryder Cup team’s red, white and bruised laundry at Gleneagles.
The return of Paul Azinger, or more specifically the enigmatic captain’s systematic plan for victory, had been on the hearts and minds of players and fans since he led the last U.S. team to victory in 2008 at Valhalla.
Mickelson’s take – which, depending on whom you ask, was either an ill-timed coup d’etat or a much-needed fork in the road for the PGA of America – simply wrapped up the concept in Twitter form.
“We have strayed from a winning formula in 2008 for the last three Ryder Cups, and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula that helped us play our best,” Mickelson said in a post-mortem press conference that turned into a movement.
In this politically charged season, ’Zinger is a double-digit frontrunner to captain the next U.S. team in 2016, gaining support almost daily from players and fans alike, and as the PGA’s blue-ribbon task force gets to paving a new path, it seems apropos to revisit everything Captain America did well at Valhalla.
Detractors, a group that seems to include Tom Watson, have focused on Azinger’s use of a vaunted “pods” system. “You know it takes 12 players to win. It's not pods. It's 12 players,” this year’s captain said.
But in ’08, there were no motivational speeches, no confusion, no guessing; just a detailed plan, with myriad contingencies, and a belief that given the right environment, the American side had more than enough fire power to defeat the European juggernaut.
“Everyone knew what there job was,” said Hunter Mahan, who played his first Ryder Cup in 2008.
For the majority of Azinger’s dozen, the plan began well before they arrived in Kentucky when the captain contacted those who had already qualified to explain his “pods” system and the concept that each pod, not the captain, would make the captain’s picks.
There are those who contend a captain’s only meaningful job is his picks, and most captains will say it’s the most difficult part of the gig. But Azinger flipped the script and put it on the players.
“When the picks were made, I already knew the system was going to happen like it did,” said Stewart Cink, who played his fourth of five Ryder Cups in Louisville. “He let us have a say so in the picks. He gave us ownership.”
What Azinger didn’t allow was any second-guessing. Unlike with Watson last month, when some players were still unaware of when or with whom they might play, Azinger arrived at Valhalla with the most valuable of assets – knowledge.
“He had a clearly defined game plan,” Cink said. “Just like if you went to play a golf tournament. He had different scenarios mapped out and he knew how he was going to react. By definition it became not a reaction but an implementation.”
Azinger’s pods made possible pairings a simple question of mathematics. If you played your practice rounds with a player there was a chance you’d be paired with that player.
It was particularly effective, considering that Azinger arrived in Kentucky with six Ryder Cup rookies; for a first-timer, there is no greater confidence killer then uncertainty.
“He had a good scheme,” said Boo Weekley, one of Azinger’s rookies. “He was a great captain. The way he set things up for us with the pods he put us in, the rookies took it [as], 'OK he’s talking to us.'”
Azinger’s persona, and with it his current status as captain-in-waiting, has grown with time. Much like hindsight is always 20/20, those who played for Azinger in ’08 have grown to appreciate his meticulous approach to the job even more.
“Few captains, if any, have had as big an impact on the team and the result as he did,” Mahan said. “He did so much work beforehand that when the week started, he did less than other captains. He set the teams and said this is what we’re going to roll with.”
But perhaps the greatest compliment paid to Azinger by those who played for him in ’08 is the almost unanimous agreement that his actions six years ago were worth at least a point to the American effort.
For all those who have rushed to Watson’s defense in the post-Ryder Cup fallout, claiming that a captain never hits a shot and often receives a disproportionate amount of blame in defeat and credit in victory, consider the take of Azinger’s own players.
“He was worth at least a point the way he set things up for us and the way he talked to us behind the scenes,” Weekley said.
While Cink added, “His system was [worth a point]. Any captain who came with the same plan would have as well. It’s not a ’Zinger thing, it’s a system thing.”
Which cuts to the heart of what Mickelson was trying to do in the Scottish gloom last month. Lefty’s take was neither mean-spirited nor personal, just an honest reaction to the U.S. team’s eighth loss in the last 10 matches and an apparent loss of direction.
Azinger didn’t make his 12 players better, he just gave them the best opportunity to perform.
“It’s not like he went out and coached us to greatness,” Cink said. “We played the way we played. But that’s what he did; he unlocked us to be who we are every week. We hold up great 51 weeks out of the year against the Europeans and then Europe seems to outshine us at the Ryder Cup.”
Whatever the PGA’s task force comes up with, it should begin and end with that simple concept.