September 23, 2008

Azinger: The Man And The Plan

An inside look at Azinger's blueprint, and how Tiger would have been a strategic part of the design

A well thought-out and perfectly executed plan was one of the keys to the U.S. victory.

A well thought-out and perfectly executed plan was one of the keys to the U.S. victory.

From his back porch overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, Paul Azinger was on his cell phone Tuesday morning, enjoying the feeling of being a victorious Ryder Cup captain. He didn't want to appear on TV with Jay Leno or Ellen DeGeneres; his end of the promotion was completed Sunday with that champagne celebration on the balcony rail overlooking the putting green at Valhalla GC in Louisville.

What started with a text message ended with a breakdown of how the United States, under his guidance, orchestrated a 16½-11½ victory to break Europe's hopes of four-peating in Kentucky. We started with a question that, as astounding as it may seem, is being asked around water coolers and card tables all over America:

Would the U.S. have won the Ryder Cup with Tiger Woods?

Absolutely. In Azinger's system of empowering those around him, the captain let Woods in on his plan to split personalities into three groups of four players. Those text-messages Azinger and Michael Jordan kept receiving last weekend were from Tiger, who wanted to be a part of the Euro whipping. "He was pumped," Azinger said, explaining that the system is similar to what the Navy Seals and Special Operations forces use to create a stronger unit. "Tiger would have been into it."

What foursome would Tiger been a part of? Past history shows it wouldn't have worked to slot Woods with Mickelson, so it would have been T-Dub and the country bumpkins. "Tiger would have been with Kenny Perry, J.B. Holmes and Boo Weekley," Azinger said. "It would have been unbelievable. Tiger and Holmes? Tiger and Boo?"

What were the groupings and how did they work?

Group One was Phil Mickelson, Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan and Justin Leonard. Their leader was Raymond Floyd, a guy who could mix with Mickelson's strong personality, while keeping an eye on rookies Kim and Mahan. Leonard didn't need much support; his job was to help encourage the quiet Mahan.

Group Two was the Kentucky Boys or Team Southern Comfort—not that the groups were named. This included Boo Weekley, J.B. Holmes and Kenny Perry. For a fourth, Azinger went to Jim Furyk. As Furyk, who hails from Western Pennsylvania, said Sunday night, "Panhandle, Alabama, Kentucky, it's all the same thing." Azinger put Olin Browne with them, presumably as an interpreter.

Group Three was the mild-mannered "grinders," Ben Curtis, Steve Stricker, Stewart Cink and Chad Campbell. Had Woods not injured his knee, Campbell wouldn't have made the team, and Azinger would have slid Furyk into this group. For this foursome, Azinger assigned Dave Stockton, an emotional guy who's game was very much like that of his troop.

"To me it's like a magic trick," Azinger said. "If you watched it 10 times, you're amazed each time. But the guy shows you how he did it and you say, "How the heck did I not see that? Then, Oh my gosh, it's so easy to figure out. It should be so easy to see exactly what's happening."

How did Azinger complete his Sunday pairings?

The conception was that he front-loaded the session. In reality, all he did was send the team out in units. The first four were restructured into Kim, Mahan, Leonard and Mickelson, so Floyd could follow along. The second four of Weekley, Holmes, Perry and Furyk were followed by Cink, Stricker, Curtis and Campbell.

"I told the guys it's going down to 8, 9, 10 and 11," Azinger said. "I told Furyk, 'It's coming down to you, buddy. Watch and see. I'm telling you.' And it did."

Does this make it right for Zinger after the 1987 British Open?

The 1987 British, where Faldo beat Azinger at Muirfield, was then, this is now. But did anybody notice Nick Faldo come off the team plane with the Ryder Cup last Monday, and in this little, yet symbolic gesture, pull it back from Zinger? It was intended as one of those humorous little asides that Faldo is famous for, but it resonated as hollow.

Azinger didn't lower himself or take the bait all week. Journalists were fishing but it wasn't about him and Nick. It was always about the team.

As the captain said Tuesday morning, from the back of his porch overlooking the gulf, "This is bigger for me than winning the PGA Championship. This was about our entire country really enjoying this. It goes way beyond, 'We're happy for Paul, he won the PGA.' This is something that made whole country happy. To me, it's 10 times bigger than winning the PGA Championship or any major championship, whatever it is."

What role did the golf course play in the U.S. win?

Everybody talked about the way Azinger tweaked Valhalla, but it didn't really favor either side. What it did was create the most exciting shootout of the year, with holes being halved with birdies and flagsticks peppered with shots. It's too bad major golf associations such as the USGA don't take more of a page from this, letting the guys play with an open collar instead of a straightjacket. With the ball bounding on those Kentucky fairways and balls releasing off those contours toward the hole, it was similar to Augusta National when it was exciting, not the year's first U.S. Open.

The ultimate takeaway is that Valhalla is Jack Nicklaus' best tournament golf course. It's not Muirfield Village, or Shoal Creek or Castle Pines or…let's just stop the list here. This little plot of farmland outside Louisville beats them all. What started inauspiciously with Mark Brooks over Kenny Perry at the 1996 PGA has built a legacy around the spine-tingling Tiger Woods-Bob May showdown in the 2000 PGA and now this spectacle of wonderful golf executed by both sides at the Ryder Cup.