- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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ATLANTA -- A captain's influence on the outcome of the Ryder Cup can often be overstated, typically the winning team's chief hailed while the loser's is scorned.
It is never quite that simple, especially in a team competition comprised of individual players who mostly control the outcome. It comes down to those players performing, and no manner of coaching, cajoling or maneuvering is ever going to change that.
Still, Paul Azinger came upon something four years ago at Valhalla in guiding the Americans to their only victory in the competition going back to 1999. He devised a pod concept in which he grouped what he called four "like-minded" personalities into three groups.
Those four players practiced together and hung out together in the days leading up to the competition, perhaps bonding but more importantly figuring out how best to play golf with one another given that Azinger's pairings would come only from those groups.
"I had decided on that small group concept long before I was even the captain," said Azinger, who later wrote a book on the subject called "Cracking the Code."
Did that help the U.S. win the Ryder Cup in 2008? Well, the players seemingly bought into it, so it could not have hurt. Azinger surmised that getting 12 players together as a team wasn't really necessary -- nobody could have more than four partners during the week. And when you've won just two Ryder Cups going back to 1993, doesn't the concept merit more study?
All 12 U.S. team members are at East Lake Golf Club this week for the 30-player Tour Championship, where the FedEx Cup will be decided. It is a testament to how well the Americans are playing that all 12 qualified for the limited field event. (Three others also considered for the team are in the field in Bo Van Pelt, Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan.)
Their minds are on this week's tournament, the $8 million purse and the potential to win a $10 million bonus.
But a week from now, they'll be practicing together outside of Chicago at Medinah, site of this month's Ryder Cup. And it will be interesting to see if U.S. captain Davis Love III takes anything from Azinger's success four years ago.
For some unknown reason, U.S. captain Corey Pavin never consulted with Azinger before the 2010 Ryder Cup. Perhaps he and his wife, Lisa, were too busy designing the ill-fated rain gear that failed miserably in a Welsh monsoon.
That's a cheap shot, and it's what happens when you're on the losing end of a Ryder Cup. Of course it's unfair. It is not Pavin's fault the Americans performed so poorly in the Saturday session in which they won just a half point out of six matches. And Pavin had nothing to do with Graeme McDowell dropping that birdie putt on Mahan at Celtic Manor in what turned out to be the deciding point in a 14½-13½ U.S. defeat.
That's how close it was to Pavin's rain gear snafu being forgotten and Colin Montgomerie going from hero to goat in Europe.
Again, the captain's role can be overstated. Unlike other team sports, he has little say over the makeup of his team. Love was able to pick just four of the 12 players on his squad.
He has to make the pairings and sit four players during each of the first four sessions, which certainly won't be easy decisions.
But once the players are on the course, there is little he can do. Yes, he can offer advice here and there, but the captain cannot be everywhere to do so. (And per the captains' agreement, only the captain or one of his assistants so designated is allowed to give counsel on the course.) It's really up to the players, and when you break it down, 20 of the 28 points available in the Ryder Cup can be decided by individual play, without regard to a teammate.
Think about it: In four-ball (best ball), each competitor plays his own ball. So if Tiger Woods shoots 63 on his own ball, it doesn't much matter what his partner does. They are probably going to win that match. Sure, it helps to have a good partner, but one guy can carry the team.
So yes, it's more about the players and how they perform.
And yet, if you are Love, aren't you putting in a phone call to Azinger?
Well, yes. Azinger said they've talked extensively. He didn't divulge the conversations, but you can bet some of his ideas were passed along. So why not the pod concept?
At most, a player can have just four partners during the Ryder Cup, and even that is highly unlikely. It first requires that you play all four team matches. A more likely scenario is a player will have just one or two partners. Azinger used three combos three of the four times at Valhalla.
In 2006, when four Americans played all four team matches, only Stewart Cink was paired with three different players. Woods had Jim Furyk as his partner for all four matches, and Phil Mickelson was with Chris DiMarco three times and David Toms once. (Due to weather problems in Wales, there were just four sessions total in 2010, not the usual five.)
The point is, it is best to decide who the likely candidates are for pairings and let those guys practice and hang around each other during the days leading up to the competition, which begins Sept. 28.
Clearly there are numerous ways Love could go. But it's best to figure it out now, tell the players on Monday (if he hasn't done so already) and let them practice their games together.
It worked for Azinger. In fact, it is one of the only things that has worked for the Americans over the better part of 20 years.
1dZach Jones, ESPN Stats & Information