It’s a warm Monday morning in September and Paul Azinger in his happy place. He’s lonely, sitting in a 400-square-foot cottage under a TV and over salt water. He has a fishing rod in his hand and the only worry in his world, it seems, is catching a red fish before the sun gets too hot.
In other words, it’s the perfect time for Azinger to delve into the past.
“Barely anyone knows this,” he began. “but when First ever Presidents Cup It happened, and a lot of the captain’s business ended up falling into my lap.”
Azinger’s phone rang. It was early 1994, and he was in Englewood, California, where he had spent the previous months receiving treatment for lymphoma. Hill Irwin Azinger’s best friend and longtime play partner was on the line.
Later that year, Erwin told Azinger, he was to be captain of the U.S. team at a new Ryder Cup-style match-playing event called the Presidents Cup. Erwin needed to pick an assistant captain, and since he was in the race to be the first-ever team captain at the event, he needed to make sure the assistant was someone he could trust. Will Zinger be a game, Irwin wondered?
“I just got out of my cancer and that was the greatest gesture,” Azinger said. “I love Hill for that. For me to be able to be back in that team room and be able to get in there with all the guys, you know, it was amazing.”
A few months later, Azinger and Irwin were together at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, Virginia, and led the American team to a comfortable victory in the Presidents Cup inaugural.
“I felt like I was in charge that week,” he said. “Knowing the shots the players took in the match 3 times before the next sets so that they can know the club. I was playing with the mechanics of what was happening during the matches. Some encouraging words maybe here and there.”
Azinger was an addict, and at the time he was asked to lead a team of his own Ryder Cup 2008, was full of bold new ideas about how to improve the golf team for the better in the United States. Of course, you know the rest – the Americans hit the Europeans at Valhalla, ending an eight-year streak of European domination through the use of the innovative new Azinger system.
But as Azinger now looks back at his nearly three decades of experience competing under the American flag, he sees his successes as pointing to some broader truths about team golf. Ahead of this week’s Presidents Cup (which he’ll help broadcast for NBC Sports), he’s agreed to share some of his lessons from along the way.
Paul Azinger’s rules for leading an American team
1. Choose the Right Players (or Create a System that Works for You)
It seems simple, but it isn’t. There are countless factors that can influence the qualification process, not the least of which is the rules set by the individuals who select teams.
In 2008, Azinger transformed the Ryder Cup selection process into a points-based system, making strong performance even more important in larger, more lucrative golf events.
“Money and majors were double [points value], because I felt like the players were suffocated just because of those two things,” he says with a laugh. “I mean, there’s nothing else you can choke on other than money and prestige. I felt like the big companies took on more than both.”
Today, the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup teams rely on a combination of points earned and “Captain Choices” – allowing the leadership to have a greater say in who stays on each team.
“Now, the US gets the top 12 players at a time,” Azinger says.
2. Build a successful environment
Team environments Foreigner The environments of golfers, some of whom have never competed on a team in their lives. The captain’s job is to make sure the environment looks familiar. Happy players make confident players, and confident players play good golf.
“The captain has to take care of every detail, so the player doesn’t have to think about anything but the game and golf,” Azinger says. “The team room is a relaxing environment.”
Azinger says if you did it right, you’ll know pretty quickly.
“I was in a group of teams and in the room,” he said. “At the best of it, we laugh and get up and tell rain delay stories and play ping-pong. We have tantrum stories, we have bad stories, and we have worst bounce stories. They are just guys hanging out.”
3. Bleed over details
There is no factor to be overlooked. no one. When Azinger took over the Americans, he kept close tabs on everything from clothing designs to the dinner menu.
Azinger was so obsessed with detail in the months leading up to the tournament that by the time the tournament rolled, he didn’t have to.
“We asked each player, What are your three most favorite meals?” Azinger said. “And every night, it was one of a player’s three most favorite meals at the table. Some nights there was a bunch of stuff outside.”
“I never thought about food once during the week.”
4. Choose your words wisely
There was only one time that Azinger addressed the entire 2008 US Ryder Cup team, and that came before the competition even started.
“It was the first day,” he remembers. “I told them we were doing something different.”
Azinger told the team that he decided to try a new strategy: the team would be divided into “groups” of four, and these groups would be responsible for managing themselves and their performance.
Since then, Azinger has never spoken to the whole squad again – even as he took a risky 9-7 lead in Sunday’s singles matches.
“I lay on my bed on Saturday night and looked at my wife and said, ‘Oh my God, I forgot to say anything to them.'” She said: Don’t worry. They are ready. “
After all these years, Azinger says there is something to be learned from that story.
“A leader has to prepare his men, and bring the right players together,” he says. “Then I think inevitably you should get out of the way. It’s not about you, it’s really about the environment in the room.”
5. Do not be afraid of the bench
There are hard decisions about who plays and who doesn’t – and then there are easy decisions.
“You don’t have to play everyone,” he said. “If you are worried about someone, you can sit with them [in the early-week sessions]. “
6. You have a strong support team
This is golf team advice as much as it is life advice.
“My wife, she was amazing,” Azinger said. “I never mentioned her in anything about the Ryder Cup but she was great for me. She was great for the team and the team room and she made a huge difference.”
7. Be a master of communication
If you’ve ever watched a golf team, you’ve no doubt noticed the ear pieces worn by the captain’s crew. What’s on the radio on match days?
“The job of radio is to stay informed,” he says. “If I’m standing with the last group, and I’m watching them and there are four matches I’ll get an update from the third match, or I’ll get an update from the first.”
But radio work isn’t always the same reality from the radio.
As soon as there’s a cheer, you’ll hear someone scream. In the Ryder or the Presidents Cup, that’s what it’s about. ‘He made this!! Byrdie!!! or ‘Oh, no!’ We messed up! “
8. Be the master of people
Popular Azinger pod system Rely on personality tests To help divide the players. It was a key part of the US team formula in 2008, but it wasn’t the only way Azinger tried to simplify the human element in the competition.
In one particularly controversial move, he removed Saturday night’s gift ceremony from the US team’s schedule, insisting that players would get a better competitive favor if they took the trophy. after, after Finish playing.
“On Saturday night, there was none of that ‘how much we love each other now’ and all that rubbish. This is the worst – Saturday Night Kumbaya. It was probably the worst way ever to prepare for a Sunday final. [The Europeans] They call ghost sword [Ballesteros]. And here we are distributing crystal and watches.”
Some members of Team USA were upset by the decision, which toppled an old team tradition. Azinger was ready for the heat.
“I remember my wife approached him and said, ‘Hey, we haven’t made a present yet,’” Azinger said. “I said, ‘Yeah, we won’t do that this year. We’ll do that tomorrow night, Sunday night.’”
9. Embrace uncertainty
In the end, finallyPlay will begin, and the outcome will be entirely out of the captain’s hands. Good captains will understand this reality, but amazing He will learn from her to thrive within her.
“Once the bell rings, the captain has to stay out of the way,” Azinger said. “Yes, I think you can overdo it. You can overdo everything.”