The 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts would prove to be a classic, as the Americans came from behind and ran the Europeans down by the slimmest margin of victory possible. This tournament would get the Americans back on track after a six year hiatus from hoisting the coveted Cup, representing international golfing supremacy. It would be short lived. The Americans have enjoyed a dominant, storied tradition in this tournament, but the Europeans have gained substantial ground in recent history. The Euro’s Ryder Cup success would continue after the ‘99 U.S. victory until 2008 where the Americans won at Valhalla Golf Club near Louisville, Kentucky.
A huge part of that success and return to glory is owed to the 2008 U.S. Team Captain, Paul Azinger. Azinger redefined the American approach to the Ryder Cup as revealed in his book Cracking the Code – The Winning Ryder Cup Strategy. Azinger details a team building concept referred to as a pod system. This strategy was designed to match up four like-minded U.S. team members in different pods leading up to the tournament. These groups of four practiced and hung out together, building a strong sense of camaraderie that he felt the Americans lacked in comparison to the Europeans.
The formula would prove to be successful. The Americans defeated Europe by a score of 16 ½ to 11 ½, their largest margin of victory since 1981.
I had the honor of chatting with Zinger to get his thoughts on this week’s Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club, his Florida State Seminoles, and the upcoming presidential election.
Will you be at Medinah for the tournament?
Yeah, I’m going. I’ll be working for ESPN. We go on live at 7am, and we go off air whenever the last group leaves the golf course. I’ll be there with the ESPN crew. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s the first Ryder Cup on American soil since we won it in ‘08. It’s funny; I realize now that every year the Ryder Cup is on American soil, it’s a presidential election year. So, I’m pretty much at risk at getting in trouble every four years before the Ryder Cup. I’m trying to quote other people now and lay low the next week.
Tell me about Medinah.
I played a couple majors there. Great golf course. It’s really difficult. The captain will set up the course for the length he wants it to play. And although it could be 7,600 or 7,700 yards long, it won’t play that long. Davis wants to keep the rough short, so the long hitters who aren’t accurate won’t be penalized as much.
Does this track set up better for either team?
I look at both teams, and I don’t see any weaknesses really. The U.S. could take advantage of the course, but only a slight advantage. The difficult thing with the Ryder Cups in the States is we often play courses the Americans are unfamiliar with. While over in Europe, the Europeans play courses that their players are very familiar with. Our players are never going to be as familiar with the golf course, however Davis has gotten a lot of input from his players about the setup of Medinah. Because of that, I think we’ll have a little bit of an edge, although no players will have an overwhelming advantage.
I read that you and Davis Love III (2012 U.S. Ryder Cup Captain) have spoken extensively about the Americans’ approach at the Ryder. Can you share anything about those conversations?
First of all, I’m really glad that Davis would want some of my input. Corey Pavin (2010 Ryder Cup Captain) didn’t really ask me anything at all, so I was happy that Davis wanted to know what I was thinking about the tournament. My advice to Davis was just to make sure you surround yourself with people that you like and you trust. Create the environment that you feel is best for them to be successful. They’re all big boys. You’re not there to hold their hands. You need to know their personalities, and set your personality aside and try to communicate with them according to who they are. In ‘08, some of our players needed to be challenged, and some needed encouragement.
Will Love be implementing the famous Azinger pod system that proved to be successful at Valhalla?
I’m not sure exactly how he’ll approach that and set up the environment. I do know that he’s going to be thorough, and I think he’ll be a terrific captain.
Your Noles are off to a great start this football season. Have you caught any games?
I watched the Wake Forest game, and they’re a small school. We beat ‘em like we’re supposed to. I’d love to see Florida State turn it around, but I know that they’re extremely fast and well-coached. And I like their quarterback. I think Florida State is on the mend.
Greg Norman’s comments about Tiger being intimidated by Rory – have any thoughts on that?
Greg’s comments are more a reflection of Greg’s personality. I think he had it completely dead opposite. I think Tiger likes Rory because he treats him like he wants to be treated, just like one of the guys. And because Rory’s not intimidated by Tiger, it allows them to have a great relationship.
I saw your tweet regarding the matter.
Yeah, I took a shot at Greg, because I don’t really care what he thinks of me (laughs). I’m a little bit contentious in that way. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t. I wish I shared that take on it, but I didn’t
Does this story have a chance to boil over next week at Medinah?
No way that will boil over. It will be one of the first things Tiger gets asked, hoping he’ll say something about Norman. But Tiger won’t go there.
It seems every time I have turned on a tournament lately, Jason Dufner is on the front page of the leaderboard. Is he the USA’s secret weapon?
I think Dufner will like the course a lot, because there will be a premium on ball striking. He’s unusual in that every player on the team wants to play with him. Everybody wants to play with Jason Dufner. That’s going to make him a great partner.
He’ll bet you on anything, too. Some of his greatest friends are some of the best poker players in the world. Dufner has that gambler’s mentality.
Tell me about the European team.
For the first time since Seve Ballesteros, the Americans really have a player that they need to look for, and that’s Rory McIlroy. If you can beat McIlroy, it will change the entire environment of that team. If the Americans can beat him the first day, I think they win the Ryder.
Best swing on tour?
Which American, if any, do you expect to throw the team on his back?
Phil Mickelson. I think he’s worth a point every day. He’s a great locker room guy.
If you were born in Europe, you think you’d dress like Ian Poulter?
(Laughing) Only if I could fight.
Have you ever considered slapping one of those effeminate little Euro hats off of a fellow tour member mid-tourney?
(Laughing) Yeah. I lobbied for full contact golf because of those hats.
Is that right?
No really, I wanted full contact golf.
A buddy and I are playing Patriots Point in Charleston this Friday. You ever play it? Do I, and my embarrassing short game, have a chance to break 90?
I’ve never played it, but Kiawah is a great course.
What message do you have for the undecided collegiate voter?
Go see 2016 the movie. You should convince people on your site to go see that movie. I swear it will make a difference. It’s really an educational film, not propaganda. It’s just intended for you to get to know Barack Obama. It’s not intended for you to like Obama; it’s intended for you to know him. Get a group together, and go see it. My goal is to get 600 people to go see it, and I’m going to pay for it. See, I’m in Florida, and if you can swing votes in Florida it makes a big difference.
I think it’s that impactful. You really will know Obama and his thinking. You’ll understand his idea of “hope and change” and what it means to him.
Call your shot. Is the U.S. going to take the Ryder?
It’s too close to call, and I know that’s a pussy answer.