Why Mickelson’s Azinger v Watson Rant Overlooks One Vital Ingredient

When it comes to two U.S. golfers most well liked in Europe, you’ll be hard pushed to find two more popular than Tom Watson or Phil Mickelson. Renowned for their friendly nature and good humour, as well as outstanding success around the world, both enjoy a superb reputation both at home and across the globe.

Which is why Phil Mickelson’s thinly veiled attack on Tom Watson’s man-management technique following the United States Ryder Cup defeat was so surprising.

 

Phil-Mickelson-golf-equipment

At a press conference sat next to an, at times uncomfortable, Hunter Mahan, Mickelson’s attempt to explain away the United States defeat to Europe but in doing so, clearly made his feelings about Watson’s style of management clear.

By referring back to the last time the United States won the trophy in 2008, under the captaincy of Paul Azinger, Mickelson effectively lambasted Watson’s management techniques or lack of them, inferring that he was not the only player to feel that way and that there was a distinct feeling of a lack of leadership and team spirit within the US camp.

 

Mickelson may argue his words were twisted, but the meaning behind them was clear.

It was an out of character outburst from Mickelson who is one of the more congenial players on tour and the fact that Tom Watson, so popular across the world, was the target of his ire simply made it all the more shocking.

 

Mickelson’s rant included many references to how Paul Azinger had used some psychological principles, chiefly known as the POD system, to help bring together the American team in 2008. In that Ryder Cup at Valhalla, Kentucky, The American team defeated the European team 16.5 to 11.5.

 

Ryder CUp 2014

 

To help him, Azinger asked the USPGA to increase his number of picks from two to four, which they did. He also used his POD system to group players based on their personalities and spent a lot of time working with a psychologist to help nurture the feeling of togetherness and team spirit. Two elements that critics of previous (and subsequent) US Ryder Cup teams have mentioned repeatedly.

Of course, that the United States won so convincingly seemed to show Mickelson and his US team that this was the way forward. Mickelson argues that the team use similar set ups when competing in the President’s Cup to great success.

 

But to think that the US team’s defeat is down to the wrong kind of psychology or a lack of leadership, is a theory that is riddled with holes and which, on closer inspection, does not stand up to any rigorous analysis.

The first thing to note was that while Azinger’s tactics seemed to work well in 2008 (indeed, he published a book shortly after entitled “Cracking the Code – The Winning Ryder Cup Strategy” – a somewhat confident title given that it seems to imply Azinger’s way is the only way to achieve success), there were several other factors to take into account.

 

The first and most obvious one is the European team at that time. For 2008, Nick Faldo was appointed captain but the notoriously insular Faldo hardly prepared his team in the way that successful European teams had been built in the past. Indeed, it is fair to say that Faldo’s captaincy in 2008 was nothing short of a disaster, from both a team bonding viewpoint as well as a tactical one.

That, perhaps even more so than Azinger’s self-proclaimed genius as a tactician, played a key part in Europe’s downfall in that Ryder Cup.

 

Furthermore, 2008, was the first Ryder Cup for many years where Tiger Woods, often a distraction on the US team and a notoriously difficult player to integrate into the team ethos, was missing. His absence no doubt helped Azinger achieve the team-ethic he wanted, but Woods absence was not a captain’s masterstroke, but simply down to injury.

 

tiger-woods

 

Mickelson also states that the POD system works well in President’s Cup, that may be the case but the quality of golfers the US face in the Rest of the World team are in no way as strong in depth as on the European team. Sure, there are several strong Australian and South African golfers, but the Rest of the World team have no shared geographic identity or culture, they are simply there to give the US team a Ryder Cup-style run out.

Another telling issue is to compare 2008 with 2014 for Mickelson alone. Watson sat Mickelson out the entire Saturday after stating Friday that Mickelson and his partner Bradley looked tired, which clearly irked Mickelson, who countered that this wasn’t the case.  In 2014, Mickelson played three games, taking two points for the United States.

 

In 2008, therefore you’d expect Mickelson to have shown markedly better form. Well, no he didn’t. Mickelson won one, halved two and lost two of the five games he played. Scoring the exact same number of points in 2008, as he did in 2014, only in 2008, he played two more games.

That last point, may well be the reason behind Mickelson’s ire. Perhaps he felt he had more to offer on Saturday than simply following his team mates around the course offering support and guidance?

However, you don’t need a POD system to realise that this is the best way to go about things for the team, even if you don’t agree with them?

 

Unfortunately, Mickelson’s rant following the Ryder Cup seemed to hint at more than simply a discontent with Watson’s managerial style. In the absence of any real, tangible evidence that Azinger’s POD system is the great secret to Ryder Cup success, it seemed to me to be a petty response from someone angry that they had sat out all of Saturday’s action.

That’s not really what the Ryder Cup should be about and it left a sour taste in the mouth.

 

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