“When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” - GK Chesterton
“Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance” – British Army
In golf, the Ryder Cup is the ultimate form of the sport. I have written here before about the effect that swashbuckling Seve Ballesteros had on revitalizing the contest between Europe and the USA in the 80s. Today, I’d like to also give a nod to his arch-nemesis, the equally combative American Paul Azinger.
Azinger is today one of the world’s best-known golf commentators. His fans will also remember him for a few significant career moments. They include his courageous comeback from his early battle with cancer, his fiery Ryder Cup rivalry with Seve Ballesteros or his lone Major win at the USPGA in 1993. He covers all the PGA tournaments with contemporary and rival, the Englishman Nick Faldo. Their collaboration took an interesting turn in 2008 when they were both non-playing captains for the US and European Ryder Cup teams, respectively.
Faldo inherited a team that was on fire. The European team had been unstoppable, winning the Ryder Cup in 1995, 1997, 2002, 2004, and 2006. The lone blip was the US tournament in 1999, and the momentum was with the Europeans. Azinger, on the other hand, inherited a bunch of individual stars who never quite gelled as a team. He had the world’s best players in Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, but somehow the chemistry had never quite worked.
The 2008 tournament was to be held at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky. Azinger, who had lobbied hard for the role of captain, had fresh ideas about how to change the script, and secure a victory for the Americans. He had, in fact, been thinking and plotting for years about how he could deploy some new thinking, techniques, and tactics to defeat the enemy. And the military speak is not overblown, for Azinger was to take inspiration from none other than the US Navy Seals.
Azinger built his victory on three core principles:
1. Statistical analysis and data-driven selection
2. The use of experts and senior team members to help drive and manage the team
3. Embracing home ground advantage (and culture)
His use of statistical analysis is nothing new in the sport. But what he did was take it to the next level. He knew exactly how his team did on average in terms of driving accuracy, length, putting, hitting shots out of the rough, what kind of rough, whether they on average liked to fade or draw the ball, and what kind of people they were. He delved not only into the data provided by the PGA, but leaned on personality profilers, psychologists, and, tellingly, recent form to shape his strategy and tactics.
Azinger lobbied for a wider selection of captain’s picks, i.e. players that did not automatically qualify for selection based on two-year form. He also asked for more time, he wanted to pick his four players just before the tournament. That way, he could ensure he would pick players that were in white-hot form. Golfers have good and bad patches, and Azinger wanted to make sure he found his players in good form, no matter their historical reputation.
It spoke to a maniacal focus on preparation and planning, and it was the foundation to his success as captain, a lone highlight for the USA in an otherwise persistent period of mediocrity. Other captains have also put a monster amount of effort into preparing, but it can be argued that Azinger’s approach of INCLUSIVE preparation was the key ingredient. He brought in senior players like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson into his planning early on in his process and leaned on them heavily when putting together his “Pod” strategy.
I will talk about the “Pod” system he modeled on the Navy Seals next week, as well as his use of Strengthfinders Team profiling tools to assemble his optimal combinations.