Azinger’s master plan pays off

IT is a good thing for American golf that Paul Azinger likes to settle in for an evening in front of his flat panel television and watch documentaries on military strategy.

If it were not for such an evening’s entertainment back in 2003, the United States might not be celebrating its biggest Ryder Cup victory since 1981.

Long before he was appointed to the role by the PGA of America, Azinger, like a good general in the making, was already planning for the day when he would lead his team into a Ryder Cup to take on the Europeans.

A four-time player under captains Raymond Floyd, Dave Stockton, Tom Watson and Curtis Strange, Azinger came up with his masterplan for a victory by picking up a tip off the telly.

Floyd and Stockton, two of golf’s more belligerent characters, were along for the ride at Valhalla as two of Azinger’s three assistants but as the Americans won back the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1999, thus ending a three-match run of European dominance, there was no mistaking that this was the captain’s show.

The 1993 US PGA champion revealed the secrets of his success after steering the United States to a 16½-11½ win over Europe, their largest margin of victory for 27 years dating back to America’s 18½-11½ annihilation of the home side at Walton Heath in 1981.

After years of underachievement by the world’s best golfers, Azinger quite deservedly earned the plaudits as the captain who introduced a new team-building strategy that got previously under-performing individuals and eager rookies to act like a cohesive unit and play for their country with as much grit and enthusiasm as they do for themselves.

“I’ve had this idea for about five years, if I was ever the captain, how I would try to approach the team,” Azinger said.

“You know, we just decided to come together in small groups. That was it. We put four guys together in practice and they played together every day, and they were the four guys that stayed together the whole week and they were never going to come out of their little group. That’s the way I did it.

“It was about how to take small groups and just to break them up.”

Azinger even extended the concept through to the singles line-up, sending his four-man practice groups together in three waves led by Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan, Justin Leonard and Phil Mickelson; followed by Kenny Perry, Boo Weekley, JB Holmes and Jim Furyk and brought home by Stewart Cink, Steve Stricker, Ben Curtis and Chad Campbell.

“I wanted my four aggressive personalities and players to go out first, which they did. I wanted Kentucky (local boys Holmes and Perry) and Jim Furyk to go out, and Boo, in the middle, which they did.

“And I wanted my steady, supportive kind of personality guys that are just rock-solid, unflappable personalities to anchor this team.

“So I just went four, four and four in my mind, and that’s how I did it.”

Azinger was also keen to embrace the concept of understanding in the individuals he was dealing with and tailoring his message to them accordingly. Hardly revolutionary but apparently untried in previous American Ryder Cup team rooms.

“The guys embraced anything I told them for the most part and when they told me stuff I embraced or I explained to them why they were wrong.

“It was like a military concept, no big deal, it’s just a team-building concept.

“I had Ron Braun with me, he’s a team builder and a life-coach guy, strategic thinking type stuff and whenever I got in a situation or had to respond to something that was negative I ran stuff through him a lot. All week he rode with me in the cart, just to make sure my messaging was correct.

“You can’t message every player the same. You can tell one player one thing and he responds but if you tell the wrong personality that they don’t perform. So I just felt like it was important to get the right message to the right player.

Azinger will wait to decide if he will return for another term as US captain in 2010. The PGA of America has a one-captain, one-time policy with no-one having led the USA into consecutive Ryder Cups since Ben Hogan in 1947 and 1949.

Corey Pavin is generally regarded to be the front-runner to captain his country at Celtic Manor in Wales in two years.

“I’m not going to think about it,” Azinger said.

Aside from Pavin, Davis Love III has been mentioned in the US media as another possible candidate to succeed Azinger, while bookmakers SkyBet installed Rocco Mediate as its 3/1 favourite for the 2010 captaincy despite Mediate never having won a major or even played in a Ryder Cup, the traditional starting points for consideration.

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