Whatever other qualities Paul Azinger has exhibited as a past — and future? — United States Ryder Cup captain, no one can say he doesn’t have a consistent message.
When I saw his quotes in stories by Steve DiMeglio of USA Today and Alan Shipnuck of golf.com in the wake of Europe’s resounding defeat of the U.S. Sunday in the 40th Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, Scotland, his comments sounded familiar.
USA Today: “There is a razor-thin line between winning and losing these matches,” Azinger said. “Europe has the intangible right now. They give themselves the extra 1% chance to win through its business model and cohesiveness. Even if you play blackjack perfectly in a casino, the casino still has a very slight edge against you. Right now Europe is the casino and the U.S. is the guy walking to the blackjack table with a fistful of $50s”
Golf.com: “It’s a razor-thin difference between winning and losing,” he says. “We’re not miles away.” But with a rueful chuckle, he added this coda: “If you play perfect blackjack, the house has only a 1% advantage. But in Vegas they build great big casinos on that 1%. Right now Europe is the casino and America is the guy sliding up to the table with a fistful of 50s.”
Azinger clearly likes the casino analogy. Four years ago, prior to the Ryder Cup in Wales, in an interview for a Golf World story I did about the role of captains in the biennial event, he said: “It’s not up to me how they play. It’s up to me to recognize the winning edge at that level is razor-thin. If I can do anything, it’s create the environment to get the proper side of that edge. Vegas has a 1- or 1½-percent edge in blackjack, and they kick [butt] in blackjack. I just wanted to get that 1-percent edge. I didn’t feel the burden to motivate anybody. I knew it was up to the players. All I could do was control the controllables.”
Well, the Americans have lost three consecutive — and eight of the last 10 — Ryder Cups and the “controllables” are on a lot of folks’ minds as the latest U.S. loss gets dissected with the eagerness of a high school biology class with a new shipment of frogs and tweezers.
No doubt captains can and do count in the Ryder Cup. Maybe it’s the 1 percent that Azinger — whose winning “pod” and “like personalities” approach at Valhalla in 2008 that was part of the first U.S. win since 1999 wasn’t utilized by the three successive U.S. captains — talks about. Maybe it’s even more than that.
Certainly many of the Gleneagles post-mortems are centering on U.S. captain Tom Watson and what he did or didn’t do two decades after guiding America to a Ryder Cup win in 1993. The man whose golf game has been so uniquely full of life so often in his 50s and 60s didn’t have the same verve as a 65-year-old skipper of a team missing several top American players. PGA of America president Ted Bishop went old-school in selecting Watson, and the pencils and chalk broke. A country, once again, was no match for a continent.
I don’t think the Ryder Cup means more to Europe than the U.S., but it means something slightly different. That was evident again at Gleneagles, as it had been at Medinah, Celtic Manor, the K Club, Oakland Hills, The Belfry, Valderrama and Oak Hill — all the places there have been happy day-after headaches for the “Ode to Joy” gang starting in 1995. There may be an X factor that has no explanation. That was never more true than on the second day of the matches last week when Ian Poulter, clearly struggling in contrast to his superhuman last several Ryder Cups, had a pivotal and unlikely pitch-in that meant so much for his side.
So what should the Americans do so that their clothes, not those of the their European counterparts, might be stinking of champagne on a Sunday night in September?
Consider what has worked.
Tony Jacklin, who led Europe’s resurgence as its captain in the 1980s, told me in 2010 that Azinger was the only subsequent captain who had picked his brain about the Ryder Cup success. Jacklin had no deep secrets — he made sure everything was first class, oozed confidence and tried to be a true friend to his charges during the matches — but that Azinger sought his wisdom says a lot. Azinger’s team-building methods, broadly if not specifically, should be considered in 2016 and beyond.
It would be a radical change, but give the captain the opportunity to select his entire team, not just a couple of players. Azinger had increased the number of U.S. picks to four so that the squad might suit his ideal, but Watson — somewhat surprisingly, given his forthright approach to playing the game — reduced it to three.
Regardless of the specific evolution of the American captaincy or team between now and Hazeltine National in 2016, the status quo doesn’t seem to be an option. What happened in Scotland did not stay there. The man (or, why not, woman?) calling the shots and the men hitting them need to do different, and better. With rare exception, for a long time now, the percentages, whatever they are, aren’t adding up to a hundred for the U.S.