Azinger shares team building in Ryder Cup book
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’S LAMENT: 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.”
DIVOTS: Phil Mickelson has announced he will play the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond in July, a week before the British Open. He missed both events last year as his wife coped with breast cancer. … Fred Couples will be playing the pro-am at Quail Hollow with Michael Jordan … Nancy Scranton shot a 68 for a three-shot victory in the Women’s Senior National Invitational, an 18-hole event that paid her $15,000. That would be the equivalent of 62nd on the LPGA money list.
STAT OF THE WEEK: The Ballantines Championship in South Korea had the strongest field in golf last week. It was the first time since the last week in January that the PGA Tour did not have the highest-rated field.
FINAL WORD: “The Wimbledon figures … well, they’re very generous, aren’t they? But I guess they have to play for two weeks to get it there, and just four days here.” – R&A chief executive Peter Dawson, when asked if the British Open champion will ever get 1 million pounds as if offered at Wimbledon.
Kerr blows big lead, heads into Kia Sunday one back
CARLSBAD, Calif. - Cristie Kerr blew a five-stroke lead Saturday in the Kia Classic to set up a final-round showdown at Aviara Golf Club.
A day after shooting an 8-under 64 to open the big lead, Kerr had a 75 to drop a stroke behind playing partner Lizette Salas, Eun-Hee Ji and In-Kyung Kim. Kerr was tied with Caroline Hedwall, Wei-Ling Hsu and Cindy LaCrosse, and four players were another shot back.
The 40-year-old Kerr had a double bogey on the par-4 15th after snap-hooking a drive into the trees. The 2015 winner at Aviara, she also had two bogeys and two birdies.
Ji had a 67 to match Salas (69) and Kim (69) at 11-under 205. Salas had a chance to pull away, but missed birdie putts of 1 1/2 feet on the short par-4 16th and 2 1/2 feet on the par-5 17th.
Anna Nordqvist had a 66 to top the group at 9 under.
Match Play Final Four set to bring the excitement
AUSTIN, Texas – Sunday’s Final Four at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play will include a pair of Georgia Bulldogs, a two-and-done phenom from Alabama and a Swede from Stockholm via Stillwater, that would be Oklahoma.
Just like that other tournament, right?
Actually, for all the volatility in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, it’s not even in the same league as this year’s Match Play, where just a single player who began the week seeded inside the top 10 is still playing.
But what the event may lack in star power it’s certainly made up for with stellar performances, starting with Justin Thomas who is the PGA Tour’s most avid Alabama fan and the tournament’s second-seeded player.
After not losing a match in three days of pool play, Thomas again cruised through his morning Round-of-16 bout with Si Woo Kim, 6 and 5; but found himself in an unfamiliar position early in his quarterfinal match against Kyle Stanley.
Having not trailed during any point in his matches this week, Thomas bogeyed the second hole to fall behind.
“I was hoping to never trail this whole week. I thought that was unbelievable that [2017 champion Dustin Johnson] did it last year,” Thomas said. “I'm going out there this afternoon, and I was like, ‘Man, I have got a chance of doing this, too.’ Then I missed a 3-footer on 2 and shot that out the window.”
The world’s second-ranked player was nearly perfect the rest of the way, regaining the lead with three birdies in four holes starting at No. 5 and closing Stanley out with a bogey-free finish.
It’s all part of an impressive turnaround for Thomas, who had been slowed in recent weeks by dental surgery followed by a bout with the flu, which nearly prompted him to miss the Match Play.
“I had a pretty serious conversation with my dad on Monday if I was going to play,” said Thomas, who can unseat Johnson atop the Official World Golf Ranking if he advances to the championship match. “I never want to play in a tournament, first off if it's going to hurt my health. If I was sick or really sick, me trying to play this week wasn't going to do me any good.”
His improved health has dovetailed with his increasingly better play at Austin Country Club and he’s now two matches away from winning his first World Golf Championship.
Like the NCAA tournament, however, being one of the last four standing only means more work, and Thomas will have plenty to keep him busy when he sets out early Sunday in a semifinal match against Bubba Watson.
Although Watson hasn’t been as dominant as Thomas, his ability to overpower any course, any time, has been evident this week following victories over Brian Harman, 2 and 1, and Kiradech Aphibarnrat, 5 and 3, on his way to the Final Four.
“When you're hitting an 8-iron and another guy is hitting a 7- or another guy is hitting a 6-iron, obviously that's going to change everything,” said Watson, who played his college golf at Georgia. “It's like LeBron James, when he jumps, he jumps higher than I do, so it's an advantage. When you're hitting the driver good and those guys you're naming, they're known for hitting the driver pretty well, just like Thomas is doing right now, he's been hammering it. Anytime that you're hitting the driver somewhat straight, it's an advantage.”
But if Bubba is a familiar foe for Thomas, he may want to do a quick Google search to fill in the blanks on one of his potential final opponents.
While Alex Noren is still a relatively unknown player to many American fans (and that’s certain to change in September at the Ryder Cup), it’s only because they haven’t been paying attention. The Swede, who attended Oklahoma State, has been dominant this week, sweeping the group stage followed by a 5-and-3 victory over Patrick Reed in the Sweet 16 and a 4-and-2 triumph over Cameron Smith in the quarterfinals.
“I've always liked match play because the outcome is quite direct,” said Noren, who will face Kevin Kisner in the semifinals. “In match play, you've just got to be really focused all the time and anything can happen. And then you have to play good each round. You can't just give up a round and then think you've got three more.”
But if a JT vs. Noren final would be the perfect Ryder Cup primer, the dream match up for Thomas in the championship tilt might be Kisner.
Kisner lost a friendly wager to Thomas earlier this year at the Sony Open when Alabama defeated Georgia in the NCAA National Championship football game and he had to wear an Alabama jersey while he played the 17th hole on Thursday.
Kisner would certainly appreciate the chance at a mulligan. And the way the duo have been rolling in birdie putts this week, it has the potential to be just as entertaining as that other tournament.
Up one, Stricker hunting second Champions title
BILOXI, Miss. - Steve Stricker moved into position for his second straight PGA Tour Champions victory, shooting a 3-under 69 on Saturday to take a one-stroke lead in the Rapiscan Systems Classic.
Stricker won the Cologuard Classic three weeks ago in Tucson, Arizona, for his first victory on the 50-and-over tour. He tied for 12th the following week in the PGA Tour's Valspar Championship.
Stricker had a 7-under 137 total at Fallen Oak, the Tom Fazio-designed layout with big, speedy greens.
The 51-year-old Wisconsin player bogeyed Nos. 2-3, rebounded with birdies on Nos. 6-7, birdied the par-4 12th and eagled the par-5 13th. He has six top-three finishes in eight career senior starts.
First-round leader Joe Durant followed his opening 66 with a 72 to drop into a tie for second with Jeff Sluman (67).
Thomas can take world No. 1 with win over Watson
AUSTIN, Texas – On March 7, Justin Thomas had his wisdom teeth removed, and just when he was recovering from that, he was slowed by a bout with the flu.
In total, he estimates he lost about seven pounds, and he admitted on Saturday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to play the event.
“I had a pretty serious conversation with my dad on Monday if I was going to play,” Thomas said. “I never want to play in a tournament, first off, if it's going to hurt my health. If I was sick or really sick, me trying to play this week wasn't going to do me any good.”
Thomas went on to explain he was “50/50” whether he’d play the World Golf Championship, but decided to make the start and it’s turned out well for the world’s second-ranked player.
After going undefeated in pool play, Thomas cruised past Si Woo Kim, 6 and 5, in the round of 16 and secured himself a spot in the semifinals with a 2-and-1 victory over Kyle Stanley in the quarterfinals. If Thomas wins his semifinal match against Bubba Watson on Sunday, he’s assured enough points to overtake Dustin Johnson atop the Official World Golf Ranking.
“I don't care when it happens; I just hope it happens and it happens for a while,” Thomas said when asked about the possibility of becoming world No. 1. “I don't know what to say because I've never experienced it. I don't know what's going to come with it. But I just hope it happens tomorrow.”