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.

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.


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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”


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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.


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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”


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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”