Paul Azinger captained the U.S. Ryder Cup team to a victory against the Europeans in 2008 at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky. He will do television work for ESPN during the Ryder Cup this weekend at Medinah near Chicago.
He talked recently with staff writer Ron Green Jr. about this Ryder Cup and what worked for him.
Q. How do you see this Ryder Cup setting up?
I see two pretty evenly matched teams for sure. But what I see as the challenge is for America to become a team in four days against a group of Europeans who have been invested in each other since the day they were born.
The challenge for the Americans in all Ryder Cups past, present and future is how in four days you can create an environment as good or better than they have.
Q. Why was your approach successful?
Seve (Ballesteros) did everything he could to make Jose (Maria Olazabal) a better player. What if the Americans had that?
My goal was to get these guys in small groups invested in each other. Twelve people can’t bond in four days. Four can. That’s how I did it.
We often show up with the best players but not the best team.
It’s not so much that we play poorly but it’s remarkable how well they play. Chip Beck and I invested in each other and we played better than we knew how. We played (Nick) Faldo and (Ian) Woosnam. They were 9 under par. We were 11 under.
Q. Four rookies are on this team. How did you handle Ryder Cup rookies?
We had six new guys. I treated them like they were the greatest players on earth. I built them up through my dialogue in the team room.
My message was all about preparation. They are seasoned veterans. There’s no stage Keegan Bradley can’t play on. Webb Simpson is the U.S. Open champion.
I told them I’m not here to hold your hands. You’re men.
Q. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have been criticized for not being better in the Ryder Cup. What’s your thought?
Phil Mickelson has always been worth at least a point a day in the team room. He’s phenomenal.
Tiger is more reserved. Tiger’s Ryder Cup record (13-14-1) is far better than people think.
I didn’t have Tiger on my team. I would have loved to have had Tiger in a small group. I’d have put him with Boo (Weekley), J.B. (Holmes) and Kenny Perry. He’d have been in the redneck pod.
What’s important is to get Tiger with guys he not only gets along with but he can be an encourager, too.
Q. Speaking of Tiger, what’s your impression of his friendly rivalry with Rory McIlroy?
It’s a surprising turn of events. McIlroy said some things Tiger could have gotten mad about. I think Tiger has made a career out of wanting players to be uncomfortable with him.
Tiger shows up in character. He’s playing a part. When he gets out of the car in the parking lot, he’s a pro golfer in part. He’s wearing a shirt the color of blood for a reason. He lets people know those are his power colors. He played the role hard. It affected people around him.
He made a comment (at the PGA Championship) that he tried to be happy-go-lucky out there. What happened? That’s a big change in his personality. Maybe he’s looking at his life differently. If ever a guy was a threat to Tiger’s legacy and could rob him of a championship, it’s Rory. It surprises me.
Q. Is Rory the next great player?
We were wondering what the heck was wrong with (Rory) when he was missing cuts. I kept saying he’s 23. He’s not Tiger Woods. There will never be another Tiger Woods.
I don’t know how good (McIlroy) is going to be. I look at him as maybe slightly better than Ernie Els at the end of his career. Maybe more popular because of the look and the way he lopes around.
Will he have Phil Mickelson’s career? I doubt it. I like Rory and I love watching him play. Let’s enjoy him as he goes. But he’s not Tiger. Tiger missed eight cuts in 15 years. Rory missed eight one year. That’s a mind-boggling stat.