U.S. loosens pod strings in effort to win in Europe

U.S. loosens pod strings in effort to win in Europe

GUIDONIA MONTCELIO, Italy – For U.S. captain Zach Johnson, there’s no secret formula as he tries to end the Europeans’ run of Ryder Cup dominance on home soil.

Prepare as diligently as possible.

Use data, past history and competitive instincts to inform his pairings.

And then go see if it’s enough.

It’s been 15 years since Paul Azinger introduced the pod system that placed players in smaller groups that suited both their styles of play and personalities. Though not totally gone, it does feel like a concept from a bygone era; even U.S. Solheim Cup captain Stacy Lewis last week abandoned the pod system in Spain, hoping to create a more unified attitude in the entire team room instead of just in clusters.

It marks an interesting and distinct shift in how America’s best players are led and managed.

That’s why, in the early stages at least, Johnson has most closely mirrored not Azinger but Johnson’s direct predecessor, Steve Stricker, who two years ago captained the Americans to their most lopsided victory in history. Stricker’s laissez-faire approach put the onus on highly skilled and motivated players to best prepare themselves for the year’s biggest event. The thinking went that no two superstars were the same, either stylistically or interpersonally, and so there was little need to confine them, even in the smaller groups of four.

“They are professional golfers, and they are the best players in the world,” Johnson said. “My role is to give them access to anything and everything they need. That’s my role – to remove the clutter, so they can go be who they are.”

That means listening to their needs, everything from wanting deep-tissue work with their physiotherapist to more time on the putting green to ice-bath plunges to things as granular as the type of hotel bed they prefer.

“What we tried to do within Team USA is to lay everything out, so they can go be who they are,” Johnson said. “They are doing all that they need to do so they can be ready come Friday.

“It really is a simple approach. There are some systems in place that we have implemented, but it’s not overly elaborate. It’s a nice construct that we can live in. We think it’s pretty effective when it comes to how we go about the week and the weeks leading up to it.”

That, of course, is a stark departure to the original pod design, which was far stricter and regimented. Those groups of four were essentially mini-teams – the other players with which they’d practice, compete, eat and recover. There was little if any crossover among the pods.

All these years later, there remains at least some merit to that streamlined approach.

If the team of 12 isn’t particularly close, then it makes sense to implement the full pod experience to minimize the awkward getting-to-know-you phase. But this American team, generally, is in the same age range, with several team members either living near each other or frequent practice-round partners. They don’t all have to be friends – but familiarity isn’t an issue.

Tactically, drawing up four or five potential partners for every player creates a lack of clarity and confusion on the team, so Johnson and his assistants (in coordination with the number-crunching data analysts at Scouts Inc.) winnow down the possibilities for the two formats. It makes sense to have pods of four in foursomes practice, but the Americans also now have the flexibility to try out some unconventional pairings, such as the Max Homa/Brian Harman partnership that played together here Tuesday at Marco Simone.

“There’s more fluidity and versatility in our system now than there was then,” said Johnson, who played on six cup teams in the past 15 years. “We are taking a version of it and making it our own.”

The move allows players to stay in their usual routines, save for a few extra engagements. They’re more invested, because they’re being held accountable for their own preparation. And they’re comfortable – which is no small thing in such an emotional pressure-cooker.

“The team has been great about trying to make sure all the guys go through their normal routines this week, and this week being a team event, I would say every guy is a little more flexible to do things to have it all be cohesive with the team,” Patrick Cantlay said. “It’s just a nice blend and compromise.”

And if the Americans can end three decades of futility overseas, it might be the only system moving forward.