Management Lessons from Golf’s Ryder Cup: The Future of High-Performance Teams

Posted by Ron Kfoury on Oct 9, 2014 11:27:00 AM

Ryder Cup at the 2008 PGA Golf Show

Ryder Cup History

The Ryder Cup has had a bizarre history. Started by Englishman Samuel Ryder in 1927, it was at first a gloried golf exhibition between a team of the best U.S. golfers and a team of English players that competed every two years for custody of a small gold trophy. For the first 50 years, the Americans dominated the contest with a mind-numbing string of U.S. victories (22 of 25 from 1927 to 1983). By 1979, the golf powers-that-be agreed to use golf-legend Jack Nicklaus’s suggestion to expand the down-trodden English team (which by then had marginally expanded to include the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland) to now include all of Europe. “Team Europe” was often depicted by the American press as a rag-tag band of hard-drinking, lower-ranked journeymen golfers, who were impossibly supposed to come together and form a winning team from eight or nine different countries with no common language or culture. It took a few years, but somehow the Europeans started to beat the Americans. Again and again and again. Now, in a remarkable turn, since 1995 (the last 20 years), the Americans have lost eight of ten times! Even more confounding was that in most all of these years, the individual world rankings of the American team members far outpaced those of the Europeans. Many of the European players, who were past their prime, or had mediocre individual records the previous 24 months, would somehow always rise to the occasion, making a crazy amount of otherworldly putts under extreme pressure. The American players always seemed to fall short, to not play their best. They especially fell short in competitions like four ball/”better ball” and the even more challenging “foursome” competition where a team of two players take turns to play one ball.  Not only did they play poorly, but the American captain player pairings, at times, seemed like social experiments gone bad. One of the most famous of these was when American Captain Hal Sutton paired Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson “because he always had a dream of seeing them play together.” At the time, anyone with a TV knew Tiger and Phil had a natural antipathy toward each other. The dream was more of a nightmare. They had no chemistry as partners, and disastrous results. Sutton had managed to cast his two best players in an early momentum-killing match loss that led to an 18½–9½ thumping of the U.S. team.

American Players Blamed

At first, American journalists explained that the American players did not really take the Ryder Cup seriously. For the “Euros,” as one of my golf buddies calls them, it was a way to prove their worth against the Americans – to show that the European Tour was not second-rate. As the losses mounted year after year, the writers starting saying that the Euros were more “communitarian” - coming from more socialist countries meant you could play better together in team events. The Euros were more empathetic people, and they liked each other more. They drank and ate together. The Americans, they wrote, were “independent contractors.” They were selfish. More egotistical. They don’t play well together. We were lucky they showed up at all to these events where they were paid no fees.

What’s amazing is how long this type of critique went on. The failure of the American team was always blamed on its individual members. No one thought to take a hard look at the selection, organization and management of the team itself. That is, until Paul Azinger came along.

Paul Azinger's Podspaul azinger

In 2008, Paul Azinger was the breath of fresh air the Americans needed. Azinger was a late bloomer in golf. Unlike Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, all great junior and amateur champions, he said he “couldn’t break 80 two days in a row in high school.” He came up through the back woods of golf. A second-rate junior college player, his slow ascent as a professional golfer began with help from instructors at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill summer golf camps in Florida where he worked as a teaching assistant. Later, his breakthrough as a professional golfer came with help from an unlikely teacher, Mac McKee, a retired boxing trainer who taught Azinger techniques in visualization and how to manage the psychological and emotional side of his golf game. Fast forward six years, and Azinger became one of the hottest golfers on the planet. He won eleven PGA tournaments between 1987 to 1993, including the 1993 PGA Championship (one of four major golf championships in the world). Soon after, tragedy struck. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Although he survived his cancer, his game never returned to its previous form. In the years since, Azinger developed a reputation as a TV golf analyst and thoughtful observer of the game. By 2006, when he was selected as Ryder Cup captain for the matches in 2008, he was ready to help the team break its losing streak using unconventional (by American Ryder Cup team golf standards) team-building methods. In 2008 it worked. The U.S. team trounced the Europeans 16-11. However, oddly in 2010, 2012 and 2014, it was back to business as usual for the Americans, as if Azinger’s process was a fluke not worthy of repeating.

Despite having many of the world's top golfers, match after match the Americans Ryder Cup record did not match their talent. This difference was exactly where Phil Michelson focused his attention in a press conference after the Americans lost badly in 2014. He referenced Azinger’s collaborative approach used in 2008 that produced a winning result:

“He got everybody invested in the process,” Mickelson recalled. “He got everybody invested in who they were going to play with,  who the picks were going to be, who was going to be in their pod, when they would play … we hung out together and we were all invested in each other’s play.”(

Tom Watson's Top-Down Styletom_watson

In 2014, the team captain was golf legend Tom Watson, who did not use a collaborative approach with his players. In fact, Mickelson, already a golf hall-of-famer, said none of the players on this year's team were involved in any decision-making.

Watson's approach, in a business context, would probably be called top-down management, a style that doesn't have a whole lot of dialogue between managers and employees. His style also had little of the so-called 'softer' side of management, such as trust building or team building based on personal bonding. In top-down management, communication flows from management down to employees for the sole purpose of defining goals and executing a strategy. Top-down management can be very effective in some contexts. But in the context of high-performance teams, it does little to increase important flows of information between team members, and between team members and their leaders. In top-down, team members are there to do the work, not to make any decisions or provide feedback.

Why Golf is so Different

If team golf were a business, the sole factors of production would be the quality of a golfer’s shot selections and golf shots. Players have differing strengths and weaknesses, physically, emotionally, experientially and psychologically. In order to pair players together for “best ball” and “foursome” competitions, you need a lot of honest and accurate information about their capabilities that week, or even on a particular day. Even in the highest levels of professional golf, many players don’t know whether they’ll feel more comfortable hitting their golf ball with a fade (where the ball spins left to right for a right hander) or a draw (right to left) until they get on the practice range the morning of a match. The tremendous torque of the modern golf swing, which generates average club head speeds of 113 MPH and ball speeds of 165 MPH, requires a great deal of flexibility in the shoulders, back and legs. Slight changes in flexibility and swing “feels” can dramatically change golf ball flight trajectories. Depending on the day, a 300 yard tee shot might land in the center of the fairway, or in a spectator’s lap. As good as they are, professional golfers are not well-oiled machines. They are strong-minded athletes trying to repeat a golf swing, considered one of the most finicky and unnatural  motions in sports. The ones who know themselves best and most often, consistently are able to adjust to the changing conditions of their mind, body, golf course conditions, wind and temperature. This self-knowledge and how to adjust to changing conditions is a major part the "talent" of a professional golfer.

Given these facts, free-flowing honest communication between players and leaders is critical. It should guide everything: the selection of a captain, his assistants, captain’s picks, team-building exercises, player living arrangements, meals, practice methods, playing rosters, pairing configurations, strategy, and finally, match post-mortems to institute improvements for the next Ryder Cup. Without honest good information, the leaders and the team will not be able to optimize their performance. In the case of the Ryder Cup, it can be the difference between winning big or losing badly. In high-performance military teams like Navy Seals teams, it can mean successful missions or failing and suffering unwanted casualties.

Navy Seals

Navy SEALs

In fact, after his 2008 victory, Azinger wrote a book with a therapist about the Ryder Cup strategy he used to enhance teamwork. Inspired by Navy Seal team-building methods, Azinger divided the team team into small groups, or pods. Using advice from a team-building specialist and therapist Ron Braund, he grouped team members together based on their personality types. Stronger relationships were formed between the teammates allowing them perform at higher levels. (

We might tend to think of rigid, hierarchical organizations as being designed for effectiveness - one with a central authority. Corporations and the military are thought of as the best examples. However, the recent trend in Special Forces teams is very flexible, non-hierarchical or flat work groups. A Navy SEAL explained:

“One of the most interesting differentiators about the special operations community, and specifically the SEAL teams, is they are rather flat organizations. The traditional military is more like corporate America, whereas special ops is similar to the fast-paced world of entrepreneurship. Team guys, as SEALs often refer to themselves as, are generally very well educated (most enlisted SEALs have college degrees), freethinking professionals who have an unstoppable will to succeed. We, as leaders, must learn how to inspire our team members within our organizations to have the same drive and enthusiasm that we do. As Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because they want to do it.” 


How you form teams has a lot to do with their success. In a sense, the team structure should be recognizable and make sense to all members. Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson calls this process "scaffolding:"

"The second step is to offer some structure—figurative scaffolding—to help the team function effectively. In building, a scaffold is a light, temporary structure that supports the process of construction. For improvisational, interdependent work carried out by a shifting mix of participants, some structuring can help the group by establishing boundaries and targets. Scaffolding in a teaming situation could include a list of team members that contains pertinent biographical and professional information; a shared radio frequency, chat room, or intranet; visits to teammates’ facilities; or temporary shared office space. The use of “shirts” and “skins” to designate sides in a pickup basketball game is a kind of scaffold, as is a quick briefing at the launch of a rescue mission that assigns, say, groups of four people, each with a different role, to head in three different directions. The objective of structuring is to make it easier for teaming partners to coordinate and communicate—face-to-face or virtually." (

The Euros: Teambuilding at All Levels

It turns out that the Euros have been using these types of team-building methods for some time. In fact, they have been using collaborative structures and decision making at all levels of their Ryder Cup process. First, they have detailed succession plans. The European Tour selects captains well in advance. All future captains work as Vice and Assistant Captains for as many as three Ryder Cups before they take the helm. Their leaders become a rolling team of managers working together at the entry-, mid- and highest-levels, and even after captaining, emeritus roles for up eight to ten years. Vice and assistant Captains and full Captains are selected through a consensus of all previous and future captains and assistants, as well as European Tour player council representatives such as Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn (also a Ryder Cup team member in 2014). Like the Americans, a majority of the European players qualify for the team by earning so-called “Ryder Cup Points” from their tournament performance over the previous two years. But they handle the crucial so-called “Captain’s Picks” differently. European Captain's picks are not made by the European captain alone. Instead, they are selected by consensus using an extended group of managers, past and present Ryder Cup players, and player council representatives.

McGinley's Emotional Intelligencepaul_mcginley

The European captain Paul McGinley lived and breathed the Ryder Cup leading up to the 2014 matches. His methods were meticulous and went well beyond how to structure the practices, match pairings, and other decisions. They exemplified a captain in touch with every aspect of his diverse team of players. Here is McGinley talking about how he handled meals for his players in the 2012 Ryder Cup when he was an assistant captain:

“In the last Ryder Cup, Europe’s 12 players were drawn from eight different countries – with six different languages. So bringing these cultures together to form a cohesive unit is a real challenge. For example, one of the players, Sweden’s Peter Hanson, likes to eat dinner at 6:30 p.m. Then we had Miguel Ángel Jiménez, one of the vice-captains, who’s quite the opposite. He likes to eat at 11:00 p.m., because that’s the Spanish culture. So, to bridge this gap, the European team always has a running buffet from 6:00 p.m. till midnight. That’s one way we have of incorporating everybody, whatever their culture or personal preference. That element of individuality must remain, even though we are in a team environment for the week. You bring the players together with the common pursuit of winning The Ryder Cup, but the players must be left to feel comfortable as individuals too.”

In modern business, McGinley is demonstrating a keen emotional intelligence, and perhaps for the European team, emotional intelligence is a major key to their effective leadership demonstrated by their leaders year after year. Creating a social space where the players can come for food and social interaction is also part of the light structuring or scaffolding Edmundson described in her HBR article.

Also, emotional intelligence is exactly what author Daniel Goleman says is essential for effective leadership. A good portion of his book. “Primal Leadership,” is about the importance of this kind of ‘soft’ leadership. There is strong evidence that a company’s return-on-investment in certain industries can be increased by this leadership style. “Consider the results of a study of sixty-two CEOs and their top management teams. The CEOs represented some of the Fortune 500, as well as leading U.S. service companies (such as consulting and accounting firms), not-for-profit organizations, and government agencies. The CEOs and their management team members were assessed on how upbeat–energetic, enthusiastic, determined–they were.”

The study found that the more positive the overall moods of people in the top management team, the more cooperatively they worked together, and the better the company’s business results. Put differently, the longer a company was run by a management team that did not get along, the poorer that company’s market return.”

Source:  Primal Leadership, With a New Preface by the Authors: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, p.14-15 Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Annie McKee 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc

What's amazing about the European team is how often they selected, with rare exceptions (perhaps Nick Faldo in 2008), a Captain who demonstrated a strong degree of emotional intelligence and formed managers and teams that did the same.

The American Anti-Team Process

In 2014, the management of the American Ryder Cup team could not be more different than the Europeans.

Let’s start with the Ryder Cup Captain selection process. The PGA of America (the Professional Golf Association of America), an organization of golf teaching professionals that has nothing to do with the PGA Tour, is responsible for managing two major events: the PGA Championship, and the American Ryder Cup team. The American captain is selected by PGA of America president Ted Bishop, who is thought to have consulted few outside of his immediate staff when he has selected Ryder Cup captains, including his choice of Tom Watson for the 2014 Ryder Cup. Watson, 65, and his hand-picked three assistant captains had collective ages that added up to 245. Of the four, only Steve Stricker, a popular PGA tour player still in his forties, had ongoing relationships with current PGA players.

It gets worse. Watson is old school. His saying, I might be wrong, “but never in doubt,” was indicative of a leader who not only didn’t listen to input, he never asked for it. After the 2014 Ryder Cup matches, stories leaked out of his autocratic and at times demeaning management style used during the matches. He berated his players. He motivated them by shaming and embarrassing them. In one incident, he allegedly dismissed a team gift the night before the final day of singles matches. According to ESPN, on the night of the team's losses in foursome matches, Watons chided them: "You stink at foursomes!" ESPN went on to described a team gift that was poorly received: "Watson was presented a gift by [Jim] Furyk, a replica of the Ryder Cup trophy that was signed by every member of the team. Instead of thanking them, the sources said Watson said the gift meant nothing to him if the players didn't get the real Ryder Cup on Sunday and that he wanted to be holding it aloft on the green in victory." During the 2014 post Ryder Cup press conference Watson’s answer for the terrible American loss: “The American players have to play better.”

Mickelson's Bombphil mickelson

Sitting on the press room stage with his fellow players on each side, Phil Mickelson, had heard enough. In a masterfully passive-aggressive fashion, he threw Watson way under the bus with the entire golf world watching on worldwide TV. Delivered with his trademark wry smile, with each follow up question from reporters drilling in deeper and deeper, Mickelson cataloged Watson’s lack of communication, his failure to include players in any decisions, how hard they all tried, and how he wished things would change. After an initial storm of criticism for dishonoring his captain, Mickelson had changed the conversation. Since then, no one was asking what was wrong with the American players. The focus shifted entirely to what was wrong with the PGA of America’s Ryder Cup management, how it selects its captains, its lack of succession and planning, and what they were going to do to fix things. Azinger’s name soon was discussed as a possible next captain, or assistant captain to assist future captains. A lot of what the Euros have been doing for years, and what Azinger brought to the American team in 2008, was now driving the discussion.

Ryder Cup as Teams Case Study

In a way, the American Ryder Cup team could become one of the most famous case studies of how and how not to manage high-performance teams. With the Ryder Cup, every two years a captain and his staff have to figure out how to turn the biggest lone wolfs in sports into cohesive high-performance teams. The challenge here is probably greater than we will ever find in business organizations. In the Ryder Cup the composition of the team is ever-changing, with a different leader at the top every two years, with team members who’ve spent the previous 101 weeks thinking only about their own individual performance, not rooting for former and future teammates, and not playing in pairs competitions with anyone. Somehow, after experiencing several tournament high finishes and/or wins, where they can snag up to $1.4 million for being the best individual performer in a single golf tournament, they are somehow supposed to come together as a team where they perform better than they ever did as individual players. Amazingly, this is what the Europeans have accomplished, year after year, for the past twenty years.

Golf is all about statistics, handicaps, percentage of fairways hit, greens hit in regulation, average putts per round and scoring averages. Statistically, it is not possible that the Europeans have succeeded for the past twenty years because their players, in Watson’s words, just “played better” golf. They had to have performed better in all the non-playing aspects of selecting their leaders, forming and managing their teams, and getting the best out of their leaders and players, not just in the paired and single competitions, but in their leadership succession, learning and continually improving the process they use to win the Ryder Cup year after year.

Tell us what you think? What has been your experience using high-performance teams in your organization?

Photo Credits:

Paul Azinger photo: @paulazinger

Tom Watson photo:

Navy Seals photo:,_Air_and_Land#mediaviewer/File:Navy_SEAL.JPEG

Paul McGinley photo:; 

Phil Mickelson photo:

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