Azinger shares team building in Ryder Cup book


CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Good thing Paul Azinger didn’t bother changing the channel years ago while lazily watching TV. Otherwise, words like “pods” and “compatibate” might never have become part of the 2008 Ryder Cup.

Azinger spent the last year writing a book called “Cracking the Code,” which is to be released in the next few weeks. The U.S. captain explains the successful system he used two years ago to finally get the Americans to feel and play like a team.

He came up with the idea of pods – three groups of four players – while watching a show about Gibson guitars on the Discovery Channel. Before he could change channels, Azinger got hooked watching a documentary on how the Navy turns recruits into SEALs. Part of the process was breaking them into small groups, and the idea stuck with him.

By now, everyone knows as much about the pods as the score – a 16 1/2 -11 1/2 victory that ended a decade of European dominance. Phil Mickelson, Anthony Kim, Justin Leonard and Hunter Mahan were in the “aggressive” pod; Kenny Perry, Boo Weekley, J.B. Holmes and Jim Furyk comprised the “redneck” pod; Stewart Cink, Steve Stricker, Ben Curtis and Chad Campbell made up the “steady” pod.

The book, written with corporate team-builder Ron Braund with help from author Steve Eubanks, stays away from shot-by-shot details from the matches. Instead, it reveals how Azinger sold the PGA of America on his concept and, more importantly, how he sold the players.

For the first time, Azinger explains how he let the three players in each pod who qualified for the team (Steve Stricker was included, even though he was a pick), choose who they wanted for a captain’s pick.

For example, Mickelson, Kim and Leonard were given a list of a half-dozen players they could have to fill out their pod. They chose Mahan, who went unbeaten for the week.

“That gave them full-blown ownership,” Azinger said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon.

Azinger said he wasn’t sure whether to have three or four pods, and that Mickelson persuaded him to have three. That way, no single player from a pod would be left during team matches. And while it was a team of 12, Azinger says Furyk starred in his own right. Not only did he fit into the “redneck” pod, he accepted the role of the group’s cheerleader.

“I’ve been on teams before, but this was the first time I looked and grasped the idea of how I can make the other person more feel more comfortable,” Furyk writes on the back of the jacket.

The highlight of the week came Monday night of the Ryder Cup, when Azinger brought the team together with their wives and caddies and explained for the first time how he had done personality profiles of each one, and how the eligible players were responsible for choosing the fourth player of their pods.

The pods did everything together all week, and even with his Sunday singles lineup, Azinger kept the pods stacked together.

“It didn’t dawn on me until later that what we created, they had naturally,” he said. “They were so bonded, it was a joke.”

The unity took on new meaning when Weekley described it as “compatibate.”

Is that why the Americans won? Not necessarily. They made more putts, which is the winning recipe for any Ryder Cup team. Azinger believes, however, that the small groups gave the Americans their best chance at performing at their highest level.

Would there have been a book if Europe had won?

“No. There would be no story to tell,” Azinger said. “I don’t know who wants to read a ‘We tried and it didn’t work’ book.”
Padraig Harrington says the European team that lost the Ryder Cup at Valhalla in 2008 did not have enough leadership inside the team room, and he blames himself and Lee Westwood for that.

“I will lay one criticism: There was no leader in the locker room,” Harrington said in the May edition of Golf magazine. “I blame myself and Lee Westwood. We were two of the senior guys. We were missing a Monty or a Darren Clarke, that sort of character.”

Colin Montgomerie was left off the team for the first time since 1989. Clarke, a member of every team since 1995, also was left off despite winning twice in 2008.

Harrington says European captain Nick Faldo emphasized players preparing as individuals, and the Irishman thought it was “valid hypothesis” until it didn’t work.

“We weren’t a team,” he said. “We just lost that element of being together. He tried to get 12 individuals to play their best. These are things I hope captains learn going forward. The team is more important. Don’t give people the freedom Nick gave us. He tried a strategy he thought would work and we didn’t know it wouldn’t work until we tried it.”
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