Ryder Cup 2023: For Zach Johnson, 'less is more' isn't just a cliche—it's a potentially winning philosophy
U.S. captain Zach Johnson (left) talks to vice captain Jim Furyk and Xander Schauiffele during the Americans' practice session on Tuesday.
ROME — Like a lot of successful innovations for the institution known as the United States Ryder Cup team, this one can be traced back to Paul Azinger. In 2008 at Valhalla, Azinger came introduced the now-famous "pod" system, and if you're at all conversant in Ryder Cup history, you know exactly what this entails—groups of four players eating, practicing, and mind-melding together for the purpose of on-course familiarity and comfort.
What's less known is how it came about. Azinger, lounging on his couch one day, happened to see a documentary on the Navy SEALs and was particularly intrigued by their practice of training in small groups. He had experienced plenty of Ryder Cups as a player and always found it ridiculous that the American golfers, who were thoroughly self-centered as professional golfers, were expected to come together as 12 like-minded teammates for one week every two years. What if, he wondered, you could reduce that number to four?
Hence, the pod system was born. Less is more.
Today, a version of the pod system is still in use, though not quite as rigorous as Azinger's first application. And far beyond the pods, the concept of "less is more" has become a kind of private mantra for the U.S. The concept of minimizing what players have to do, think, and say on Ryder Cup week is now a governing philosophy for U.S. captain Zach Johnson and his predecessors in the captain's seat. Declutter and un-complicate everything, the thinking goes, and the players will be able function as they do at any normal week and be ready to perform at a high level in the extraordinary circumstances of a Ryder Cup. In other words, golfers are creatures of habit, and the worst mistake a captain can make is to disrupt that habit.
At Whistling Straits in 2021, the pandemic meant that captain Steve Stricker was able to reduce the obligations further, including the elimination of the traditional gala dinner. (This year, the dinner is back—the players and captains will gather on Wednesday night at La Lanterna in Rome with a group of VIPs after a photo op on the Spanish steps, but even this gathering is reduced in scope from prior Cups.)
In his two press conferences thus far in Marco Simone, Johnson has reiterated this philosophy multiple times. When asked on Monday whether he would adhere to Stricker's belief that big speeches and hype videos and a busy social calendar were counterproductive for his team, he didn't mince words.
"100 percent yes," he answered.
"My role is to give them access to anything and everything they need," he continued, "whether it's personnel, or specifically a gym or recovery, their bed, whatever it may be. That's my role to kind of remove the clutter so they can go be who they are. That's what Steve did. That's kind of what we kind of tried to do within Team USA to kind of lay everything out so that they can go be who they are ... I can remove only so much clutter. I want to take the burden off them when it comes to the periphery so they can just go work. It really is a simple approach."
U.S. captain Paul Azinger celebrates winning the 2008 Ryder Cup.
On Tuesday, when asked if he had consulted any other coaches from team sports for advice or inspiration, Johnson admitted that there were plenty he admired and learned from at a distance, but that he hadn't sought any specifically this year. The reason? It could introduce clutter.
"Part of my rationale for not really pursuing that is we've got a pretty good foundation, I think, laid within Team USA and how we go about things,” he said. “There's a responsibility there, but more than that, I think less is more. These guys know what they are doing, and so if I were to introduce something from some other expertise, it could be cloudy or it could fog something up and it just doesn't need to happen."
As to the mechanisms of what "less is more" means, it comes down to that same critical principle of allowing the players to pursue a routine that is as close as possible to what they might do on a "normal" week on the PGA Tour. That includes everything from practice to training to meals to sleep. It goes beyond the practical to elements like pump-up speeches. As far back as Azinger—a far more talkative personality than Johnson or Stricker—the U.S. began to realize that a rah-rah mentality didn't serve anyone.
"During the week itself, I was a man of few words," Azinger said. "I didn't say jack. There were no motivational speeches, none of that."
At Whistling Straits, the American team had a special room with a large, beautiful wooden table for meetings, but Stricker's planning was so regimented that they only used it as a group once. Even the group text messages were broken into smaller player units. When Stricker held meetings when the day was over, he did them quickly in the clubhouse, which gave the players the freedom of their evenings. Europe, meanwhile, needed a police escort to get back to its hotel, then reconvened for nightly meetings—a fact Padraig Harrington lamented later.
To an outsider, the obvious question might be, "That's all well and good, but how do you get the players to the high competitive level needed for an event of this magnitude?"
The answer is that if you let them go through their ordinary routines, they'll arrive there on their own.
"With that [structure] comes a natural or almost an organic team building, if you will," Johnson said. "These guys want to be around each other. They are getting their tissue work done and they are all—they have got music going with each other. They are in the ice plunge, not together, but they are doing all that they need to do so that they can be ready come Friday. That's all I ask."