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Ryder Cup Captain Azinger’s Group Dynamic Strategy

Last weekend, against heavy odds, the United States won the Ryder Cup back from the Europeans for the first time since their 1999 home victory at The Country Club in Brookline, MA. Last week’s win was even more remarkable in that it was with a team heavy on rookies and Tigerless.

John Paul Newport wrote an interesting article for the Golf Journal column in the weekend Wall Street Journal about the US Team Captain Paul Azinger’s preparation for and strategy during the match.  (Team USA’s Management Victory – Sept. 27, 2008) Newport writes:

The most radical element of the plan was dividing the 12-man squad into three, four-man subgroups, or pods. Mr. Azinger apparently got this idea several years ago from a documentary about the military’s Special Forces and their Ryder Cup-size platoons. The Navy Seals, for instance, typically operate in 13-man units led by two officers and a chief, and frequently break down into subgroups, depending on the mission.

“Each pod was a force unto itself,” Mr. Browne said of last week’s team. Pod members played all their practice rounds together and were paired only with other pod members in the competition. Even in the Sunday singles matches, the pods went off sequentially, four by four. Each pod was assigned an assistant captain to tend to players’ needs and to keep them relaxed and “on message” — a key concept in the strategy

‘Working together for the common good is not normally a function for us out on the PGA Tour. We play as individuals,” Mr. Browne said. “But the pods allowed the players, without any formal training, to feed off each other and help each other and to manage all the different things that come up in a pressure-cooker situation like the Ryder Cup. In the larger 12-man group, some guys with quieter personalities might have been lost in the shuffle. Some of the rookies might have been too intimidated to speak out.”.

Newport then goes on to analyze how Azinger matched players together in pods in attempt to bring out their best and how he tailored his communication strategy for each.

“Sometimes, the message was no message,” Dr. Braund said. “Paul would just drive by, show a smiling face and ask if everything was OK. But that was based on what we’d worked out beforehand.” Other times, the words were more specific.

In the opening match, after Mr. Azinger heard that Messrs. Cink and Campbell had royally botched the seventh hole to go three behind, he rushed to their side to assure them that now all the pressure was on the other side to keep the lead. (The pair came back to win.) If, hypothetically, Mr. Kim had been in that position, the message would been less one of support than of challenge, something along the lines of “kick them right back,” because Mr. Kim focuses more in his matches on playing “against” his opponent, Dr. Braund said.

It’s a very interesting article not only about golf and the Ryder Cup but also for the potential implications for managers and leaders of all kinds. Certainly organizing task forces and work groups in the workplace is nothing new. But often teams are created around the task at hand with less emphasis going into the group’s dynamics.

Finally, this Citi commerical captures a sense of the pressure and the need for preparation on both Team Captains leading up to a Ryder Cup. The European Captain Nick Faldo has been broadly criticized in the media for the way he lead his team. This commercial which was made before the Ryder Cup but in it’s own subtle way, it foreshadowed the ultimate outcome.

Creative Commons License photo credit: mag3737

About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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