The US golf team won the Ryder Cup in 2008. The unlikely victory was based on next-level planning, leadership that fostered an inclusive team culture, and understanding what priorities to focus on to ensure a victory.
Paul Azinger, team captain, had three priorities that he executed to perfection:
Pick the best possible team
Get the team pairings right for the Saturday and Sunday partner matches
Exploit home ground advantage to its maximum benefit
This might seem obvious in team sports, but if we drill down one level deeper, we can unearth some of the key ingredients to success.
Pick the best possible team
There is a lot to be learned in business from the way Azinger went about this. He insisted that the selection rules were changed, fighting legacy protocols to ensure he got to pick 4 out of 12 players, as well as the 8 that were picked on merit selection were picked on their recent form (shortening the selection process to a one year cycle where before it was two years). He fought hard for greater selection powers, and when he got it, he immediately made it an inclusive power, his vice-captains and Pod leaders (and initial pod members) privy to the process and had the final say on the last 3 picks. This ensured his team was selected on merit of recent form, and the individual pods were aligned on not just their ability but their personalities. He influenced this process of inclusion with unrelenting data and statistics that supported his views. When we hire people, form teams, and try to establish a winning culture, do we do the requisite homework and slow down to make sure senior members are also on board?
Get the team pairings right for the Saturday/Sunday pairings
Azinger learned a lot from the European pairing successes, particularly the Spanish legendary pairing of Ballesteros and Olazabal, and Englishmen Faldo and Woosnam. His theory was that these guys were sub-pockets culturally in the European team, and that shared history and culture ensured greater chemistry. He created his own sub-pockets through the four-man pod system, and all pairings would happen inside of those pods. Emulating the Navy Seals system of smaller tighter teams worked, and the Pod members were ready to go to war with each other. It also eliminated any further guesswork down the line, as your permutations decreased significantly. The European captain Faldo did not do as well in pair selection, and the results were telling. What was a tool for the Americans became a distraction for the Europeans, and they were well behind come the Sunday and the singles.
Exploit Home Ground Advantage to its Maximum Benefit
Boo Weekley got into the team because Tiger Woods was injured. This unlikely hero was chosen to be in the “Hillbilly” Pod of Jim Furyk and Kenny Perry. They proceeded, for their Captain’s Pick, to select big hitter and homeboy JB Holmes. This southern States-based trio made headlines and won hearts all week on the Kentucky Valhalla course, turning it into a celebration of the American South. From emulating Happy Gilmore and riding his club (Weekley) to the antics and “Good ol boyness” of the other players, Azinger successfully got the best out of this fun bunch by playing to the galleries and the location. They were favourite sons to an adoring patriotic crowd, a fanbase within a fanbase, and it worked very very well. On an aside, Azinger also set up the course to cater to Holmes’s prodigious length, giving the American an even bigger advantage. Much has also been written about the “Azinger cut” – the one-inch long extra bit of rough that was added to widen the landing zone for the bigger hitters. Azinger knew his players could hit it slightly further than the Americans, and he capitalized on that knowledge by making sure the course favoured his team. Genius stuff.
There are always a lot of sideshows. With the Ryder Cup. With business. With life. It’s easy to get distracted. But with a laserlike focus on a clear plan, good communication with team members, and leaving no stone unturned to create a winning environment…that’s how you win golf’s biggest team prize.