Azinger's Ryder Cuppers: Pods put up points

By Rex HoggardOctober 21, 2014, 10:43 pm

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.

Els honored with Heisman Humanitarian Award

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 10, 2017, 11:41 pm

The annual Heisman Trophy award ceremony is one of the biggest moments in any football season, but there was a touching non-football moment as well on Saturday night as Ernie Els received the Heisman Humanitarian Award.

The award, which had been announced in August, recognized Els' ongoing efforts on behalf of his Els for Autism foundation. Els received the award at Manhattan's PlayStation Theater, where Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy.

Els, 47, founded Els for Autism in 2009 with his wife after their son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism. Their efforts have since flourished into a 26-acre campus in Jupiter, Fla., and the creation of the Els Center for Excellence in 2015.

The Heisman Humanitarian Award has been given out since 2006. Past recipients include NBA center David Robinson, NFL running back Warrick Dunn, soccer star Mia Hamm and NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon.

A native of South Africa, Els won the U.S. Open in 1994 and 1997 and The Open in 2002 and 2012. He has won 19 times on the PGA Tour and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011.

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Monday finish for Joburg Open; Sharma leads by 4

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 10, 2017, 8:57 pm

Rain, lightning and hail pushed the Joburg Open to a Monday finish, with India’s Shubhankar Sharma holding a four-stroke lead with 11 holes to play in Johannesburg.

Play is scheduled to resume at 7:30 a.m. local time.

South Africa’s Erik van Rooyen will have a 3-foot putt for birdie to move within three shots of Sharma wen play resumes at the Randpark Golf Club. Sarma is at 22 under par.

Tapio Pulkkanen of Finland and James Morrison of England are tied for third at 14 under. Pulkkanen has 10 holes remaining, Morrison 11.

The top three finishers who are not already exempt, will get spots in next year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie.



Stricker, O'Hair team to win QBE Shootout

By Will GrayDecember 10, 2017, 8:55 pm

It may not count in the official tally, but Steve Stricker is once again in the winner's circle on the PGA Tour.

Stricker teamed with Sean O'Hair to win the two-person QBE Shootout, as the duo combined for a better-ball 64 in the final round to finish two shots clear of Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry. It's the second win in this event for both men; Stricker won with Jerry Kelly back in 2009 while O'Hair lifted the trophy with Kenny Perry in 2012.

Stricker and O'Hair led wire-to-wire in the 54-hole, unofficial event after posting a 15-under 57 during the opening-round scramble.

"We just really gelled well together," Stricker said. "With his length the first day, getting some clubs into the greens, some short irons for me, we just fed off that first day quite a bit. We felt comfortable with one another."

Full-field scores from the QBE Shootout

Stricker won 12 times during his PGA Tour career, most recently at the 2012 Tournament of Champions. More recently the 50-year-old has been splitting his time on the PGA Tour Champions and captained the U.S. to a victory at the Presidents Cup in October. O'Hair has four official Tour wins, most recently at the 2011 RBC Canadian Open.

Pat Perez and Brian Harman finished alone in third, four shots behind Stricker and O'Hair. Lexi Thompson and Tony Finau, the lone co-ed pairing in the 12-team event, finished among a tie for fourth.

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Wie takes shot at LPGA dress code in crop top

By Grill Room TeamDecember 10, 2017, 5:33 pm

The new LPGA dress code got mixed reviews when it was announced in July, and Michelle Wie is taking full advantage of her offseason with no restrictions.

The 28-year-old former U.S. Women's Open champion is keeping her game sharp while back in her home state of Hawaii, but couldn't help taking a shot at the rules while doing it, posting a photo to Instagram of her playing golf in a crop top with the caption, "Offseason = No dress code fine."

Offseason = No dress code fines #croptopdroptop

A post shared by Michelle Wie (@themichellewie) on

Wie isn't the first to voice her displeasure with the rules. Lexi Thompson posted a similar photo and caption to Instagram shortly after the policy was announced.