Pairings Critical To Ryder Cup Success

Pairings in team golf events are absolutely critical—and making them is by far the most important role of a coach or captain. As a high school coach, my team played in several Ryder Cup-style events, and I was able to discern several strategies.

Grouping players with dissimilar, yet complementary skills is one obvious approach. The obvious pairing is a long hitter and a short game wizard. In this scenario in foursomes, the idea is to take a look at the course layout, identify the hole that confers the biggest advantage to the long hitter and assign him to tee off on that hole. Then you work back to the first tee to determine who takes the initial swing (since tee shots are alternated between partners). Because distance holes are not usually back-to-back, with any luck this means that long hitter will tee off on several advantageous holes. Other complementary pairings also are possible and the coach must take a look at the course to see how advantage can be gained.

Teaming players with different skills also can help to minimize the damage on any one hole. If a short hitter tees off, then the longer hitter can hit a higher numbered iron into the green, where, presumably, the short game player can make a good putt. The problem with this, however, is that it takes a player out of his usual game. If the bomber is used to taking wedges into a green, he will be uncomfortable hitting a longer iron after a wedge-and-putter player’s tee shot. So, the other approach to foursomes is to combine players with similar styles. This ensures that players generally are hitting shots that are familiar.

The ability to play as a team in foursomes is critical.  Team mates must be constantly aware of the other’s abilities and sensitive to their emotional well-being. Each must ensure that his shot puts the other in a position that plays to their strengths. It’s not simply a matter of each player hitting the best shot that he can. For example, Phil Mickelson might be able to reach a par 5 in two. In doing so, however, the risk is that the ball ends up in a greenside bunker. If his partner is a sand wizard, that might be an acceptable risk; if not, he should lay up to his partner’s best distance.

Four Ball is a somewhat easier game on the coach. There, I usually combined players with different skill sets, on the theory that each hole would play to at least one of their strengths or weaknesses. Another way of pairing players is by style. It’s often advantageous to pair a gambler with a cautious player. One can go for birdies, while the other plays for par.

There are down sides to both of these, though. Players with different skill sets often are not aware of the trouble that another might be facing. The same is true of players with dissimilar styles. Lack of awareness weakens the team, turning a pairs event into a couple of guys playing golf. The team aspect of the four ball match means that players must keep an eye on how their partner is doing and adjust their game accordingly. For example, if player A has hit his ball to a safe spot, his partner might be able to attempt a riskier shot. If the risk fails to produce reward, the other player at least has a good chance. I like this format a lot.

In both foursomes and four ball, another strategy is to build teams around personalities. This is the approach taken by Paul Azinger in the 2008 Ryder Cup, and about which he described so well in Cracking The Code. Azinger built his team around “pods”—groups of players with similar personalities. He then allowed each pod to make one of his Captain’s picks so that they had ownership in the composition of the team. The results—a solid US win—were a validation of his ideas.

Among the worst pairings on the personality side (and perhaps in the skills mix, too) were made by Hal Sutton at Oakland Hills when he twice sent out Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson as a team. If you believe the press, these two don’t get along in the best of times. Putting them together as a team was disastrous.

An article at PGATour.Com says that Pavin has hinted he will make the pairings based on skill sets, not friendships.

U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Corey Pavin hinted that form, not friendship, will be the key to his pairings this week at Celtic Manor.

It has been traditional for close friends to make winning partnerships in the biennial contest, with the likes of Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke, Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal and Fred Couples and Davis Love proving highly successful.

European players also have often been paired on the basis of a common nationality or languages spoken, but Pavin appeared to favor a more pragmatic approach as his players enjoyed their first practice round on the Twenty Ten Course on Tuesday.

Asked why Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker had been so successful in last year’s Presidents Cup—they won all four of their matches together—Pavin said: “They are both great players.

“Tiger has been No. 1 in the world for a long time and Steve was playing great last year at the time,” he explained. “Those were probably the top two, maybe two of the top three (at the time). It’s a pretty healthy combination.

“Steve is a great putter, gets the ball in the hole and makes important putts, and Tiger is pretty good at it too,” he added. “When any two players are playing well, they are going to be tough to beat, it doesn’t matter who they are.

“When you partner up with somebody and you win your matches, there’s some good chemistry there. But you do have to play. You have to perform,” he stressed. “Just because there is good chemistry doesn’t mean you’re going to win your match. You have to perform and make your putts and you have to hit good shots.”

The final key to the pairings is the order in which the groups are sent out. I think that there’s only one way to do this: send your best teams (or players, in the case of singles) out first. You want to get up on your opponents early and let that momentum carry the rest of your team. I think Hal Sutton made a strategic blunder on this at Oakland Hills by reversing the order of his players. By the time his best singles were out on Sunday, it already was over.

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