The Pod Father

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Remember that awkward moment at Gleneagles a year ago? American Ryder Cup Captain Tom Watson rebuked Phil Mickelson:

“It’s not pods. It’s about 12 players playing well”.

Well what was that all about? Finally some light on the subject. I found a copy of Paul Azinger’s book Cracking The Code which details his philosophy behind captaining the winning 2008 Ryder Cup team, and fascinating reading it was too.

Apparently Azinger had been watching a Discovery Channel documentary on TV about how the US Navy train their new recruits to become SEALS, the elite special operations force. The Naval Commander explained that before going into combat they break the platoon into small groups. They eat, train and work together until they know what each other is thinking. Everyone knows what the other SEAL is going to do before he does it. This way they bond together better in smaller groups.

Azinger listened to this and thought it could be translated into golf. The American players are hard wired to beat each other. To expect them to come together as a team for one week of the year went against their very nature. He thought that trying to bring 12 players together as a team was too big a task. So, he decided “to bring the team together you have to break it apart”.

And so these “pods” were born. He had 8 players automatically qualified and he wanted to pick Steve Stricker. So he divided the players up into three groups of three according to personality and playing ability and left the picking of the three Captain’s picks up to the players. Each pod chose one player out of a short list for their group from 20 players. He didn’t pick their team mates, the players did. “We’re all in this together” he told them. You have ownership of your pod, I want to empower you.”.

So Mickelson, Kim and Leonard chose Hunter Mahan, Cink, Curtis and Stricker chose Chad Campbell and Jim Furyk wanted a “bomber” so he, Kenny Perry and Tiger Woods chose JB Holmes.

He took on board a corporate team building consultant who personality profiled the players and matched the playing partners accordingly. This consultant told Azinger to challenge the players when they were down. So when Anthony Kim was down and almost out in a fourballs match he was taken aside and and challenged “I thought you were going to show me something today”. The player responded by helping to bring in a half.

Seve Ballesteros once remarked of an American Ryder Cup team where Azinger was a player that they were “Eleven nice guys and Paul Azinger”. I remembered this when I read that he had said to the Valhalla Course Superintendent “wouldn’t it be something if it was so hot you couldn’t mow the greens when the Europeans were practicing”. So on those says the greens had a stimpmeter reading of just six. And the Americans went along playing under proper course conditions the following days, happily bonding in their little pods. However, we can only say the pod system was successful against the background of that year’s European side who were captained by Nick Faldo who even called himself hopeless.

It’s quite an insight into Azinger the captain. Clever, thoughtful and imaginative to have come up with this system but with a fiery personality who wants to win so badly it hurts. Interesting that Azinger has taken a back seat from this year’s American Task Force on the Ryder Cup and declined to repeat Captaincy saying it is not the right time.

His return to the Ryder Cup will be nigh, but I would imagine it could be as right hand man to Mickelson when he becomes Captain in the near future. What larks those two will get up to, particularly if it is at home. We’ve seen nothing yet, brace yourselves Europe…

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