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Paul Azinger Cracked the Ryder Cup Code

by G. Rennie

The growth of the Ryder Cup during the last two decades must have exceeded the expectations of even the most hard bitten power brokers at both the US and European PGA’s. It’s now billed as the biggest deal in Global Golf, is promoted non-stop on the TV outlets involved with golf, a decent part of the Amazon rain forest has been sacrificed to carry the print journalism focused on this biennial battle, and now Brandel Chamblee, respected resident sage at the Golf Channel , advises that “ the Ryder Cup is the most exciting event in golf”. If everybody says so, it must be true, no?

From a competitive standpoint, this is a bit curious since most of the contests over recent years have been something less than compelling if your measure of compelling is  closely fought matches with the ultimate outcome of the Cup not decided until very late in the match.  The ‘79 classic at Royal Birkdale went to the final conceded putt on 18 before the outcome was decided but that’s the unfortunate exception as most contests have been wildly lopsided affairs , especially in the past decade or so, and the European squad has taken the lions share, and have morphed into the detested bully, in the eyes of many American golf fans, sort of like a NY Yankee equivalent – a team reviled by many due to their location and astounding ability to win the big prize.

In 2006 Paul Azinger, the newly minted US Ryder Cup captain,  concluded that enough was enough, things were going to be different  and he was the guy to make it happen. CRACKING the CODE , a book by Azinger and colleague Dr. Ron Braund, is a chronicle of Zinger’s  journey of discovery on how to fashion a new approach to assembling the most competitive US team and preparing that team to kick those bully Euro’s back to the Old World bruised and bereft of the Mr. Ryder’s jewelry. Zinger takes us through the steps he took to get his squad picked and ready with a  straightforward, direct conversational style. He takes us into in TV where he received unlikely inspiration from a program on the Navy Seals which prompted him to adopt his very secretive but equally effective “ pod system”.

The sting of repeated Cup  defeats, especially the thumping delivered by the Euros to Uncle Sam’s boys  at the K Club in the 2006 installment is very much alive in Zinger’s tale, serving as an ever present engine for the story.  To win was everything for Zinger and he chronicles the many changes he thought necessary to get the best squad, approach and conditions to assure a US victory. He wanted  a revamped qualification process that would place greater emphasis on tour performance in the year of the cup while de-emphasizing the off year tour performance. The PGA agreed to his terms. He wanted four captain’s picks, not two. The PGA agreed to his terms. He wanted to put his players together in an innovative grouping method and assign a seasoned co-captain to each group or pod, and he demanded total secrecy on this point, and his guys went along with it. He wanted to use state of the art personality assessment tools to help model his pods to best effect and pulled that off on the QT.

The picture we get of Zinger is one of a somewhat obsessed, deep thinking cerebral guy, who on the surface seems a cut a dry PGA pro not too different from the  cookie cutter persona’s that populate the ranks of professional golf but who in reality is a revolutionary agent of change, committed to unconventional thinking and actions to get the needed result. To achieve his goals he enlists the help of many, especially the “ relationship specialist” Ron Braund, credited as a co-author. Braund’s influence is pretty clear and he makes select comments throughout the book, typically as captions of the numerous photographs included in the text.

CRACKING the CODE is less a recounting of the action of the actual golf played during the 2008 Ryder Cup matches than it is an exposition on leadership and innovation in human organizations . The authors’ focus a lot on non-golf activities and have packaged the book as a guide to businesspeople and folks in general as a model for changing the status quo. In that respect it’s a little bloodless, especially when compared to some other firsthand accounts of Ryder Cups past, such as INTO THE BEAR PIT by Mark James, the direct spoken Englishman who captained the European squad at the ’99 matches in Brookline. “Cheering when you miss putts or hit into bunkers is one thing. But personal abuse is something different.  We are going to get into a situation where fights will break out if we don’t stop this thing now” is a quote from James in his telling of the Country Club matches that saw his Euro side squander a significant lead going into the Sunday singles.  Controversy was the order of the day at that Cup with verbal turd tossing from all quarters before, during and after the conclusion of the match. You won’t find any comparable fireworks in this book  and that’s a bit of a disappointment. I find it hard to blame Zinger for taking the high road but my dark side had wished he’d engaged in some Voodoo doll exercises on Captain Sir Nick Faldo, former broadcast colleague and then  adversary as the goofballing leader of Team Europe. We barely get a glimpse into the rivalry and of Zinger’s distaste for Faldo’s antics.

All US golf fans, even those among us who believe that the Ryder Cup hype is excessive and the reality of the matches has lost sight of the original intent of these “goodwill games” owe Captain Azinger a debt, winning that 2008 cup was sweet. Though the book isn’t nearly as rewarding as that experience, it’s worth a read.

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