Medinah, IL -- He couldnt hide the nervous worry.
No matter how far removed they are from their duties, the 16 living men who have captained the U.S. Ryder Cup team continue to live and die with every shot of the matches.
Paul Azinger is more than just one of them: he is the only U.S. Ryder Cup captain to win the thing this century. And as much as he tried to downplay the anxiety, he was clearly feeling it.
At a dinner with friends in Chicago, he kept going back to the upcoming matches.
Weve got bombers, he said, referring to American players like Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson who pound tee shots past most of their opponents. Thats a huge advantage psychologically. I dont care who you are, if somebody hits it 40 or 50 yards by you every time, its intimidating.
But he is also concerned. Id hoped they would grow the rough a little higher around the greens, he said. I understand not having any rough where they land their tee shots. You want guys ripping drivers out here, but I think it would be to the Americans advantage if (the grass) was thicker and longer around the greens.
Most Americans look at a pitch shot and see maybe two ways to play it. European players see four or five ways to play it. By keeping the grass low, we play into their strengths.
These are the kinds of details Zinger obsessed over before the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla. That was the reason he won. The 08 team was the underdog without Tiger Woods who was rehabbing from knee surgery. But they won the cup handily after consecutive record-setting U.S. losses.
Youre talking about 24 of the greatest golfers in the world, he said as his steak arrived. The margin between winning and losing is razor thin. The captains job is to create an environment where players can perform at their best.
For Zinger that job included taking a page from military training. Every general will tell you that the key to victory is not the central commanders or how many battalions you have. Its the small squad: the tight-knit group that eats, sleeps, and trains together, men who know each others every move and who have each others backs no matter what. Those are the people who win wars.
Zinger applied that same concept to the Ryder Cup, breaking his 12-man team into three groups of four players each. And he paired them, not based on how they played golf, but on personality profiles.
This is something the Europeans do naturally, he said. They have built-in pods based on nationality. The English usually play together; the Irish play together; the Spanish were always paired up. They had those groups in place because of shared language and culture and history. When they deviated from that it was usually to pair best friends like Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke.
An American from Florida is no different than an American from California. But 12 is too big a group to bond over the course of one week. Zinger had to break them into pods and hope that they bonded the way the Europeans had for years.
The system worked perfectly.
And if Captain Davis Love IIIs early moves are any indication, it might work again.
Based on the practice-round pairings and the subtle hints hes given throughout the week, it would not be a surprise if Love already had Zingers pod system in place.
Ive talked to Paul a lot and hes had some great advice, Love said.
With the matches about to begin, Azinger hopes it helped.
I hope he talked to Brandt (Snedeker), Zinger said of Captain Love. I hope he pulled him aside and said Look, Bud, you had a great week last week (at the Tour Championship) and you made a lot of money. But dont let down. This is the week that people will remember.
They will, indeed, remember it, just as they remember that week four years ago when Azinger stood on the balcony at Valhalla and hoisted the Ryder Cup for Team USA.