Eubanks: Love Hints at Ryder Cup Strategy

By Steve Eubanks
Published on

The most telling line from Davis Love III's press conference announcing his Ryder Cup picks was almost a throw-away, an answer to a question that came late in the morning.

When asked if he had been thinking about pairings, Davis said, "Oh, yeah, we made our picks based on pairings."

He moved on quickly, but that line hung heavy in the New York air. Captain Love didn't claim to make his picks based on statistics, and he said he didn't watch much golf over the last couple of weeks. Instead, he looked at chemistry and how the men on his short list would mesh with the eight qualifiers.

He also didn’t mention former captain Paul Azinger directly. But Davis' answer was an indirect shout-out to the system Zinger created as well as a tacit endorsement of the rationale behind it.

I had the good fortune of helping Zinger write his book "Cracking the Code," which detailed his Ryder Cup captaincy, and I've known Davis since we played junior golf together in our teens. And while I don’t want to read too much into one line, Davis' comments struck me as very Zingeresque.

I got a sense of déjà vu, a feeling that we might be seeing a repeat of the process that ended with a U.S. victory in 2008.

During one of Zinger's first conversations with PGA officers back then, he made a pitch for the process we have today, a process where the majors carry more weight and finishes in a Ryder Cup year are more important than those the year prior.

He also pitched the idea of pushing the wildcard picks back three weeks so that any captain could analyze how men were playing a little closer to the matches rather than choosing players a month out. And he lobbied for four captain's picks instead of the traditional two.

There was some pushback, but Zinger fought hard. And for good reason: Not only did he want to restructure the way the U.S. team was selected, he wanted to redefine how it was built.

Captain Azinger implemented his now-famous four-man pod system, an idea that was not new, but was one that had never been applied in golf.

He built the team by breaking it apart.

Military leaders have understood for centuries that the key to cohesion and effectiveness in a regiment, a battalion, a company or a platoon is the small group: the squad, a tight-knit unit of a few men who live together, train together, and struggle together; men who can anticipate each other's every move and who will sacrifice everything for the buddy fighting next to them. Any general will tell you, that small fighting unit is what wins wars.

A 12-man team is too large and unwieldy for that kind of unit cohesion, especially since they are only together for one week. Even a six-man team would be tough to craft and jell in that short a period of time.

But four is a perfect number. Four is a bridge game, a double date, a mother, father, and two kids, or the occupants in a four-seater car. It is also four possible pairings for foursomes and four ball matches.

When it came time to make his captain’s picks, Zinger broke his eight qualifiers into two three-man teams and one two-man team. He then retained one pick for himself, and allowed the other men to fill out their pods.

"I gave them all a list of players that fit within their personality profiles and asked them to fill out their units," Zinger told me. "I told them if they wanted to choose from outside that list I would explain to them why they were wrong." 

The captain picked Steve Stricker, who would have qualified for the team under the old system and who was playing great going into the fall of 2008. But the others – Hunter Mahan, Chad Campbell and J.B. Holmes – were picked by their teammates.

"There was no better way to get everybody invested in the success of this team than to make them part of the process," Zinger said.

Once the matches started, there were no personality clashes, no teammate who treated another like he was contagious, and no guesses about who would be playing with whom throughout the week. Everyone understood that they would play within their pods. They even went out as groups during the singles matches on Sunday.

And it worked. Without the No.1 player in the world at the time, Tiger Woods, who missed the 2008 Ryder Cup matches because of his knee, Zinger crafted a mechanism that allowed an underdog team to thrive. The U.S. captured the Ryder Cup for only the second time in 13 years.

Because of that success, and because of what he said at his press conference, don’t be surprised if Captain Love employs a similar strategy.

Davis is a very smart guy. He knows what Paul knew: the Europeans, by their nature, have a built-in pod system based on nationalities. The Irishmen will likely play together, as will the English, the Scots, and the Continentals. Language and culture and friendships have created natural small groups among the Europeans, a system they stick with even if they don’t realize it.

"Chemistry is very important," Davis said in New York after announcing his picks. "This is about golf, first of all, but we’re going to be together for four days and we need guys who can pull together and help us in that team room." 

Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk were all on Azinger’s team. Not only did they buy into the pod system, they loved it. Tiger Woods loved it as well, even though he wasn’t there. Zinger kept him apprised, and with Tiger’s knowledge and admiration for the military, he bought into the idea right away.

No one asked Davis about the small group idea at his press conference – and he probably wouldn’t have commented on it even if they had. But don’t be surprised if you see the same guys hanging out and playing practice rounds together in Chicago.

Why wouldn’t they? It’s hard to argue with success.