Paul Azinger was highly praised for his unique stewardship of the 2008 U.S. team, while his European counterpart Nick Faldo was roundly criticized. (Getty Images)

Captains display the art of leadership

Leadership has never been more important, or more complicated, than it is at the modern Ryder Cup. Several former captains outline the priorities and techniques they see as essential for success.

By John Steinbreder, Special to

Paul Azinger did a lot more than just lead the American Team to victory in the Ryder Cup at Valhalla Golf Club two years ago. He demonstrated how important and sophisticated the Captain’s role in these biennial matches can be.

This was exemplified by the successful way in which he broke down his overall team into mini-teams -- or pods. And in the process, he provided an interesting talking point for those who like to analyze the methods involved in getting the most out of a team of world-class golfers.

Make no mistake about it, a lot goes into the job, as any Ryder Cup Captain will attest. He has to deal with picking teams and massaging egos. Most importantly, he must figure out pairings and promote a culture of togetherness among highly individualistic sportsmen who spend the rest of the year trying their darnedest to beat each other. It has long been a difficult and complicated task, but the position has never been as demanding as it is now that the two squads are so evenly matched and the event so closely covered by the news media.

In a different era, any attention or media criticism was directed almost exclusively at the players, but increasingly in recent times Captains’ decisions have been debated and scrutinized as much any player’s clutch putt or pressure drive. The role is not yet on the level of an NFL coach, but it’s getting there, fast. So while Azinger was rightly praised across America for his preparation and decision making, over in Europe many pointed the finger of blame, not at poor performances from any individual team member, but at the Captain -- Sir, as he is now, Nick Faldo.

Likewise at home, in the eyes of some commentators, Hal Sutton’s decision to pair Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at Oakland Hills Country Club in 2004 was ‘little short of a disaster’ and sent Team USA hurtling headlong toward a humiliating defeat. In both instances, the critics tended to forget to mention the excellence of the opposition’s play, rather they attributed it to the excellence of Azinger and Bernhard Langer’s captaincy, and, by implication, a failing on the part of Faldo and Sutton.

To his credit, Sutton robustly defended his controversial decision only a week after the 2004 matches. “Here’s the truth,” he said. “Do you think Tiger and Phil were going to get through their whole career on the same team and somebody wasn’t going to put them together? You think the world wanted to see it? Absolutely! I wanted to see it. You wanted to see it. You had your opinion whether it would work, whether I was right or I was not. And it’s easy to talk about it now. Listen, I didn’t hit a single drive or hit a single putt all week. At the end of the day, failure is about whether the ball goes in the hole.”

Worthy of blame or not, it is fair to say that captaining a Ryder Cup Team is now a highly pressurized role. It is also very much an art. And that art starts with selecting the team. Of course, much of that work is already done for the Captains through the rankings and points systems that determine the top players for each squad. But team leaders still have their own picks to make. To be sure, playing ability is a huge consideration.

Having to balance current form and past achievement is never an easy equation to solve. In 2002, for example, Lee Westwood’s game was in the doldrums and he had only qualified for the European Team due to his fine form of 2000-01. Due to the 9-11 tragedy shortly beforehand, though, that match at The Belfry was put back 12 months. By then Westwood was in free fall down the world rankings and wouldn’t have qualified (nor merited a Captain’s pick). But Sam Torrance, the Captain of that European team, was saddled with him. Even then, there was no questioning Westwood’s class, but Torrance, who could have stood him down until the singles, took a bold gamble by pairing him with, arguably, his best player -- Sergio Garcia.

The young Spaniard was a lock for points in the four-ball and foursome matches, so why jeopardize that by saddling him with Westwood, asked the critics. The answer is that it got points out of Westwood he might not otherwise have yielded, and ultimately the decision tipped the balance toward a European victory.

So, not only does a Captain have to get the mathematics right, he also has to consider the science of personality by assessing the psychological make-up of his picks and fitting them in with the other professionals on the squad. And it is generally believed that the Captains who know the players best make the best selections.

“You have got to do your homework,” says Bernard Gallacher, the Scottish golfer who competed on eight Ryder Cup Teams before serving three times as Captain -- in 1991, 1993 and 1995. “Which is why it is important to have a Captain who is still active on Tour.” Like Azinger was in 2008, or Colin Montgomerie and Corey Pavin are now.

Sam Torrance (Getty Images)
Torrance agrees. “I was still on Tour when I was Captain, and it helped a great deal. I was around the players all the time, and I knew them intimately by the time it came to pick my team. And a successful Captain has to know his players.”

Azinger took that approach a step further by giving the eight players who had already made his 2008 team the final say with his four Captain’s picks. Well, actually, three of them, because Azinger had already determined he was selecting Steve Stricker, no matter what. But he let his men select the rest. He was, in essence, going even more ‘insider’ than a Captain still playing on Tour could. He was going to the players themselves, the peers of those potential picks and the ones who would not only know them better but would also have to play with them.

But assembling the team only gets the Captain partway there. He then has to do his best to manage those players, and there are several matters he must take into consideration while doing that.

John Jacobs says that confidence among his players was foremost in his mind when he headed up the European team in 1979 and 1981. “We hadn’t won a Ryder Cup in nearly 25 years, and I was not sure my players felt as strongly as they should have about their abilities to win,” says the still sprightly 85-year-old Englishman, who was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame a decade ago.

“Especially in 1979, when we were playing in the States, at The Greenbrier, and when we had players from outside Great Britain and Ireland for the first time. So I tried to instill as much confidence as I possibly could, drawing on my times playing in the U.S. I told them that if I could do well in America, which I did by winning two Ryder Cup matches in 1955, then they could too.”

With the talent on the two squads much more evenly spread these days, and the players involved far more familiar with each other, confidence is no longer a major issue. But keeping players happy remains a critical concern.

“As I saw it, my main job was making sure my players got what they needed and wanted,” Gallacher says. “I wanted to support them and keep them from being surprised. For example, I told all my players that they would each play before the singles matches, so there was no question about that. It kept everyone on their toes, and they knew that if they didn’t play the first day, they would be out there the second day.

“I also wanted to make practice fun. Golf is a lonely sport, and there are not many times in a year when players are able to play a lot of practice rounds together, with the pro-ams and all. So I saw our practice rounds as a time for them to have fun together and to get to know each other better.”

Because the U.S. traditionally does better in the Sunday singles matches, European Captains are always under pressure to build up camaraderie in order to ensure a healthy lead over the first two days of ‘team’ competition. But this spectacularly backfired on Europe in one recent match.

Trying to win in two days prompted Mark James to leave out Jean Van de Velde, Jarmo Sandelin and Andrew Coltart at Brookline in 1999 until the singles. James’s best players were denied a break and the luckless trio was thrown into the singles without having hit a ball in anger. Predictably, all three were comfortably beaten. As a direct result of that experience, the conventional wisdom nowadays is that everyone must have a crack in at least one of the matches before Sunday.

The European Team room in 1999 was, unsurprisingly, not the happiest place to be, riddled with resentment and division, and this, surely, is the nub of the issue. The players, all 12 of them, have to be happy, and united.

Moving on, the order in which the players are sent out in the singles on Sunday is crucial. Torrance is generally credited with outsmarting Curtis Strange at The Belfry in 2002 by putting his best players out early while Strange held back his two strongest men -- Mickelson and Woods, again -- until the end. Strange was no doubt trusting that it would all come down to the last two matches. Unfortunately for him, it was all over long before then.

‘Front-end loading,’ as it has become known, is now considered the smart way to play as momentum and morale are boosted by the sight of so much success at the top of the board. The crowds respond accordingly and turning the tide suddenly becomes, if not an impossible, certainly a formidable task.

Interestingly, Torrance plays down his tactical coup. “I was there simply if the players needed me, if they had a problem or a question about the rules. Once they’d teed off they were gone. A Captain brings stability. He keeps the players in order; he makes sure they don’t go off the rails and want for nothing; and keeps everything on an even keel.

“One thing you don’t ever have to do in the Ryder Cup is gee players up. That’s the last thing you need. In fact, there are probably three or four players you need to bring down a bit.”

Ben Crenshaw (Getty Images)
Former Ryder Cup Captain Billy Casper, who led the winning 1979 U.S. Team, shares this sentiment. “You want to make it as easy as possible for your players,” he explains. “Their main commitment that week is to win their matches, which entails a very different kind of golf than what they do on Tour. So you do what you can to make sure they don’t have to worry about anything else.”

It’s very much the same way for Torrance. “Keeping your players happy may be the most important thing a Captain does. Making sure they are happy with their rooms. Making sure they are happy with their golf. And making sure they are happy with their pairings.”

Pairings, of course, present their own sets of issues. “You have to look at different partnerships for fourballs as well as foursomes,” says Torrance. “In foursomes, you want guys who have similar games, so they are not putting each other in strange situations on the golf course. In fourballs, you just want birdie machines.”

But long-planned and thought-out strategies do not always yield their just rewards. Prior to the matches at The K Club in 2006, Tom Lehman was widely regarded as having played his captaincy role to perfection. He had been meticulous in his preparations and on top of the job, yet his team still lost, badly. In contrast, before a ball was struck Ian Woosnam came in for considerable criticism and was accused of mishandling the Thomas Bjorn non-selection affair rather clumsily.

Wild-card picks are clearly an area of critical importance and Woosnam’s selections -- Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood -- performed rather better for him than Scott Verplank and Stewart Cink did for his opposite number. Does that mean they were inspired choices and Lehman’s weren’t?

Bjorn might have won all his matches as might have two unselected Americans. What does that prove? As Napoleon said when asked which quality he valued most amongst his generals, he wanted them to be lucky.

Lucky or not, Azinger took things to a whole new level with his pods, which were modeled on the Navy Seals concept of building small, tightly bonded bunches of soldiers in an effort to increase performance. He used that to create very compatible mini-groups from the dozen, fiercely competitive professionals on his team who were used to thinking only of themselves when it came time to play. There was the so-called “calm” pod, with Stricker, Chad Campbell, Stewart Cink and Ben Curtis, for example, and the “redneck” pod, with Boo Weekley, J.B. Holmes, Kenny Perry and Jim Furyk. And the set-up was so effective that the U.S. squad played as well as it had in years -- and played its way to an overpowering 16 1/2-11 1/2 win.

Casper chuckles when he thinks of the pairing issues he had in 1979. “I was all set to put Lanny Wadkins and Tom Watson together,” he says. “But Tom had to leave the week of the matches because his wife went into labor. So I had to re-think things. I put Larry Nelson with Lanny on the final practice round Thursday, and they shot 59.

“So I paired them in the actual competition and they were exceptionally good. They won twice the first day, and then twice the following day.”

Casper is quick to admit there was a certain amount of luck in that pairing. “And there was a certain amount of bad luck in another I did, which was putting Lee Trevino and Fuzzy Zoeller together a second time after they had won the day before,” he says. “I figured they could talk themselves into winning another match. But all they ended up doing was relaxing their opponents so much that the Europeans won.”

As well as the wild cards, the Captain has to choose his vice-captains. With the Captains’ responsibilities and duties seemingly everexpanding, the vice-captains are evidently doing more in the way of offering advice to players and discussing tactics. Recent Ryder Cup Captains have come to rely very heavily upon their assistants, and some former team heads believe those fellows have become essential components in any winning team.

“A Captain cannot be everywhere all the time,” says Dave Stockton, who acted as one of Azinger’s four vice-captains in 2008 after serving as Ryder Cup Captain of the victorious 1991 U.S. team at Kiawah Island. “He needs guys who can follow other players in their matches, see them practice, see how they are doing. And these days, he needs more guys to do that than ever before. I had only two assistants at Kiawah, but Paul had four at Valhalla, and he needed them all. The more eyes you have, the more you know what is going on, because there is so much going on.”

Torrance concurs. “A Captain can be something of a daunting figure, like the headmaster of a boarding school. So a player with a problem may not want to go to him. He might prefer to go to a vice-Captain instead, and ask him to sort it out.”

It is interesting to note that, like Azinger, Montgomerie, with the late addition of Garcia, has also opted for four vice-captains -- in stark contrast to his predecessor Faldo, who ended up with just one: Jose Maria Olazabal.

Of course, there is one wild card every Ryder Cup Captain must face, and that is the way his team plays. “What can a Captain do apart from the speeches?” asked victorious 1993 U.S. skipper Tom Watson. “Sure, the pairings and all that, but it’s still all about the golf they play. All he can do [when talking to the team] is use the immortal words of Jim Colbert: ‘Play better!’ Bottom line, they just have to play better.”

“That really is your bottom line,” agrees Ben Crenshaw, who led the U.S. squad to victory at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. in 1999. “You can do all the captaining in the world, but you also just have to hope that your players play well, and get hot at the right time.”

This story appears courtesy of the 2010 Official Ryder Cup Guide. Click here to view the online version or click here to purchase your own copy for $5.95. The 2010 Official Ryder Cup Guide is also available at all Barnes and Noble bookstores.

©2003-2012 The PGA of America / Ryder Cup limited / Turner Sports Interactive. All rights reserved.
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