Commentary

Azinger pushed hard for job in '10

Originally Published: May 25, 2010
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

Paul Azinger owns a dozen PGA Tour victories, including the 1993 PGA Championship, but there's no doubt his legacy is an accomplishment that occurred without hitting a single shot.

He will forever be remembered as captain of the United States Ryder Cup team two years ago, guiding the red, white and blue to its first win in the biennial competition since 1999.

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Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesPaul Azinger bested European captain Nick Faldo with a plan that relied on a Navy SEALs concept to create team building.

The man known simply as "Zinger" has also been known for speaking his mind throughout his career. He recently sat down on the ESPN.com Hot Seat to discuss whether he wanted the role again, why current captain Corey Pavin hasn't contacted him and how his unconventional approach to the position spurred the U.S. to victory at Valhalla.

Q: You're a published author now. Maybe I should just have you write something about yourself to save me the effort.
A: [Laughs] Well, I'm about a third-grade speller, so it may take you a while to get through it. This book, "Cracking the Code," was really a collaborative effort and I'm proud of it. I think I micromanaged every word in this book, so if there is bad spelling or anything that is controversial, I guess it was meant to be there.

We tried to make this book one that tells the story of how this whole thing unfolded at the Ryder Cup. It just kind of carries you along. It's not an instruction manual or anything like that, but it does have crossover appeal, because these are business principles that were applied to this event. We watched it all unfold on this big stage in front of 600 million people and I guess I'm responsible for orchestrating it. It just tells how I surrounded myself with people who could help me do everything to create what we thought was the best environment for the players.

All the while [I had] a plan in place, which was to use this militaristic approach, this Navy SEALs concept of taking the 12 guys and breaking them into small groups. Through observation, we personality profiled the players, understanding who they were, communicated with them according to their personality and then getting the heck out of their way and watching them do what they do.

We empowered them within their little four-man pods, gave them ownership of that and that's all told in the book. But in the end, it's up to the players to play great. We just tried to create the environment for them and just trust them in the end.

Q: How was the process of putting together the book? Did you enjoy it?
A: You know, I actually did enjoy it. It was frustrating at times. I think it's impossible for it not to be frustrating at times, if it's not going as quickly as you'd like or some of the things that you've edited come back and they're not as you would have liked them. It took a while.

I was with IMG at the time. They said they had this great literary division there at IMG and actually it didn't even exist; they had ferried it out to a guy who used to work there. And the advice we were getting from him was that it wasn't salacious enough and it needed more controversy. Somebody said it should be just a business book; others were saying it should just be a sports book. And finally we just kind of set all of that aside and [co-author] Ron [Braund] and I decided to publish the book ourselves.

All the while, we wanted it to have this great crossover appeal. It's a great sports story, but there were business applications -- just common sense business applications. We call the book "Cracking the Code," but it's not like we invented the code. It's just more of an understanding of what needs to be done to bring 12 guys together. You know, you only have three days; you don't have weeks and weeks to prepare.

How do you get 12 guys to bond in three days? What we decided was the best way to do that was to put them into small groups. That's what we went with and the book tells the story.

Q: You mention borrowing that strategy from the Navy SEALs. When did you first hear about the strategy and how difficult was it to implement?
A: I had watched this documentary years before I was asked to be the captain. I think the hardest part of this whole concept is that once I decided to do this and commit -- and I had talked to several people about it in total confidence and everybody loved the concept -- the trick was to sell the players on it.

So I literally became a salesman when the eight guys made the team after the PGA Championship, sold them on the idea that I was going to use the Navy SEALs technique, this militaristic approach to team-building by breaking them into small groups and letting them all know that there was no shortcut for success.

You couldn't hope for it or wish for it. It was going to be all about preparation, which I felt they understood. I guess I must have given a pretty decent sales pitch, because every single guy on the team embraced the concept. They were engaged and they were invested in it. And right toward the end, when it was time to make the picks, they were empowered and given ownership of their groups.

What we ended up doing was allowing these guys to pick who would fill out their four-man pod. At that point, these guys became a family and it was really fun to watch.

Q: There are those -- myself included -- who previously believed that the role of Ryder Cup captain was almost like that of a first-base coach. High-five the players when they win, give 'em a pat on the butt when they lose. Do you think you changed the definition of this job?
A: I'm not sure. Maybe a little bit. I think maybe the best thing that I ended up doing and where I really stuck my neck out was when I changed the way the team was picked and did a complete revamping of the selection process.

The rest of it seemed like common sense to me, with a little bit of prodding from my friend Ron Braund, who is a psychologist and a team-building coach who works with corporations. His whole deal was that relationships trump assets, meaning I want to put the guys together in their four-man groups based on like games; he asked me about like personalities, which I hadn't really considered.

We spent a few months talking about that before we decided to go in that direction, because I believed in it. So that part of being the captain just sort of seemed to make sense. Your tendency a lot of times is to put guys who bomb it with great wedge players, great putters with great iron players, but I just felt like we could go deeper than that. Ron convinced me that in pressure situations, if things go poorly, players' personalities need to mesh. When I say personalities, we didn't have them fill anything out; we just looked at these guys through observation.

What we ended up doing was just determining what their tendencies were and how they processed information. We found that guys who thought the same way and processed information the same way would come closer together in pressure situations rather than go in the opposite directions, like Tiger [Woods] and Phil [Mickelson], where they were on opposite sides of the fairway on things like that.

Why wouldn't I do all that? To me, that was just common sense. I don't know, maybe captains have done that in the past. I'm not sure. But I did not want to leave any stone unturned.

Q: Since the Sunday at Valhalla when your team won two years ago, has a single day passed when nobody has said a word about it to you?
A: Anytime I'm on the golf course or around a golf course, somebody says something. But what was really cool was that there were a lot of congratulations, but more thank yous. Hearing thank you, to me that really resonated and registered that America needed this. I mean, gas was four bucks a gallon, we were fighting two wars in the middle of a pretty heated political campaign with differing philosophies on how we want our government to work. It was just one of those things that for three full days, golf fans and even those who aren't golf fans were able to set all that aside and just embrace and enjoy what was going on out there.

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Timothy A. Clary/Getty ImagesThe U.S. team celebrated at Valhalla in 2008 after reclaiming the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1999.

Q: It's interesting that you say America needed this. Do you think the Ryder Cup needed it, too, after so many years of European dominance?
A: Well, we had only won three times in 25 years going in, we lost five of the last six, we lost three in a row and the previous two by record margins. I don't know that the Ryder Cup needed it as much as the American players needed it, because I really believe that the Ryder Cup was becoming a burden to the players. It was like the Presidents Cup was a safer place to be.

I mean, the Presidents Cup is more like an exhibition. I'm not trying to slight that match, but it's just not the same. The difference in the feelings toward the Ryder Cup is that America wants to win, but Europe -- it's in their blood, it's in their heart. You know what I mean? There's a big difference in the way they think.

The fact that it's in Europe's blood, that changes the whole dynamic of the event. When you're getting slaughtered every time, it's not a safe place for American players to be. They're getting scrutinized and second-guessed; the captains are getting pounded. And so the danger was that the players weren't going to be embracing the Ryder Cup anymore and they would maybe gravitate more toward the Presidents Cup, because they were winning more and it was more enjoyable and relaxed.

So I think this win was big for the American players. They've rethought what this Ryder Cup is all about. They've been able to compare the differences between the two events and that difference is night and day. The gap between the two events is as wide as the Grand Canyon.

Q: Did you want to stick around for another tour of duty this year?
A: You know, at first I didn't. And then after some reflection, I considered that there were two ways I could go: I could be happy and content and satisfied and just move on to the senior tour or I could be a risk-taker and take a chance and try again.

I decided that I wanted to do it again. I called the PGA of America and I lobbied, kind of at the 11th hour -- maybe even 11:30 -- and I lobbied hard to do it again. I told them I wanted to carry the flag to Europe, but I believe they had already talked to Corey [Pavin]. I think I was about a week too late, to be honest with you, and I think they had already made a commitment. They heard me out. I imagine they considered it, but I was too late.

Now I don't think I would ever do it again. I've written the book and I'm happy to tell the story, but everything would have been kept a secret if I had done it again. Maybe would have done it slightly differently; I had a plan in place that I laid out for the PGA of America. But it didn't happen and now I've decided that I'm satisfied and I'm going to sit back and start drinking out of a bamboo cup with a pink umbrella in it.

Q: I've read reports that current captain Pavin has yet to seek you out for any guidance or information. Is this true?
A: Yes.

Q: Are you surprised by that?
A: A little bit. I mean, all you need to do is just say, "If you have any ideas or suggestions whatsoever, just throw them my way. I'll be all ears." But I haven't heard anything like that. I know Corey was the assistant captain in 2006 and I think he was pretty close to getting the job in '08. I think he thought he was going to get it, but I stepped in and I lobbied pretty hard. I sold the whole Navy SEALs concept to Roger Warren, the president of the PGA at the time and the guy who was going to make the decision along with Brian Whitcomb, the incoming president. They loved it. And as a result, they asked me to be the guy. I don't know, I think it might have ticked him off a little bit, but that's just speculation.

Q: If he does come to you, what will you say to him?
A: I think at this point, it's getting a little late. We spent 18 months looking at 30 or so players minimum. At this point, there's no way that it could ever be done exactly the same. All I would say to Corey is that in the end, what can a captain do besides everything he can to create what he feels is the best environment for the players to be successful?

I mean, really, it's opportunity, challenge and responsibility. For me, the opportunity was to be the guy to get it right; the challenge was to figure out what was wrong; and the responsibility, first and foremost, was to the players. I wanted to do everything I could for the players.

If you put yourself first and it's about you, then you're pretty much screwed. It was all about the players for me. It was about representing the country. And I say that knowing all along that I'm going to contradict myself, because in the end it was all about me. In the end, I couldn't look at myself in the mirror if I didn't do everything I could for them. And I swear to God, that's exactly how I thought. I prioritized those guys, because I've been there. I've been scrutinized, second-guessed, ridiculed, and I knew that if it wasn't about them, it was going to fail.

And so what I would tell Corey is, create the best environment for them. I would tell [Presidents Cup captain] Fred Couples the same thing. In the end, though, trust them and get the hell out of the way, because it's all up to them.

Q: How's your game shaping up?
A: It's OK. I'm hitting it OK. I'm putting OK. It's just kind of mental. I'm not sure that I have the determination and desire to be hopping on a plane after 30 years. Maybe that will turn around.

Q: No, I've seen your golf game. I'm talking about foosball.
A: Buddy! I love it! Are you a fooser?

Q: No, but I know that's your game.
A: Dude, I love foosball. I became a pretty ferocious fooser. There's this underground cult thing going with guys my age who played foosball before "Pac-Man" put 'em out of business. I just love it. I still love it, but I don't go to bars very much anymore and play. I used to go out to bars until 2:00 in the morning and play foosball tournaments all the time for years, but I've kind of laid down a little bit on that.

Q: I remember hearing stories that you were even taking part in some local foosball tournaments during Ryder Cup week in Kentucky.
A: Oh, it's totally confirmed. I told that story at one press conference that on Saturday before the players arrived, I got a text message from a friend and he told me about this place right outside of town where they were playing foosball.

It was like walking into the house in that movie "The Silence of the Lambs." I was scared out of my wits. I walked in there and nobody knew me. It looked like dry ice all over the house, but it was smoke -- and I'm not sure it was all cigarettes. Kegs of beer and guys playing foosball. It was like a crackhouse for foosers. It was awesome. I stayed there for two hours, sweated my ass off, played foosball and nobody knew me. Awesome.

Q: Complete this sentence: If a few years ago, I had said to you, "I like your tweets," your response would have been __________.
A: I don't tweet.

Q: And now?
A: I like tweeting, actually. I threw out some killer tweets today. I got in a little bit of, I wouldn't say hot water, but I had 450 responses to my tweet [after Tiger Woods' withdrawal from the Players Championship due to a neck injury], saying, "Could this have been prevented with a good Swedish massage?"

This is a whole new social medium. I've been in it six weeks, maybe longer, I don't know. I look at tweeting like this: There are four ways you can tweet. You can tweet clichés like, "Hey, how you doing? I'm fine," which is terrible. You can tweet facts and information, which is occasionally necessary, but for the most part just awful. You can tweet questions, ideas and opinions, which is what I like to do, for the most part. Or you can tweet emotional responses, which is just a disaster that's always going to get you in trouble.

So I think ideas and opinions are a little more fun and a little more compelling. I wasn't trying to offend Tiger or mock him in any way; I'm a huge Tiger fan. I've been ridiculed in the broadcast booth ... because I'm such a huge fan. And I like Elin. I hate to see what's happened to those two and I wish the best for both of them. But I just thought that was funny.

Q: Speaking of Tiger -- and since I know you haven't been asked about him in at least the last 10 minutes or so -- give me the CliffsNotes version of what you think is wrong with his game right now and what his next move should entail.
A: Well, he's already made his next move. I think he needed to change coaches. Fundamentally, I think there's more forearm rotation than a guy with that much clubhead speed needs. I really believe that when he was playing his best, he didn't have all that forearm rotation. The best players in the world, the best ball strikers, always have their right arm above their left on the backswing and their right arm above their left on the follow-through. Tiger had his left arm above his right on the backswing. That's asking for trouble. You're asking to get stuck.

I knew when he was getting stuck on wedges, it was going to be frustrating. Then of course, he had the forced hiatus. So I think what Tiger needs to do is figure out the direction his life is going to go and who the real Tiger Woods is -- rewrite his constitution, so to speak.

It's likely that we'll see a few more months of trouble and struggles, maybe just five wins instead of 10. I still think he's going to break all of Jack's [Nicklaus] records. Vijay Singh's best years were in his 40s; Tiger is 34 years old. I just can't see where Tiger Woods isn't going to win 10 more major tournaments. Maybe eight more. We'll see. But there's no stopping him. He's just too good.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.