Is golf the ultimate team sport?

I think I have just about recovered from the fantastic finale to the 39th Ryder cup contested by Europe and the USA at the Medinah Country Club, Chicago over the weekend. In recent years the Ryder cup has served up some fantastic close contests between Europe and the USA. It is slightly easier to appreciate this sitting on the European side of the ‘pond’, but even so both teams should be proud. Two years ago at the K club in Ireland the competition was amazing, but I think that this years competition at the Medinah Country Club has surpassed that.

What I find so amazing is that these two groups of professional golfers who compete against each other week-in week-out on the European and American PGA circuits were so effectively able to gel as teams.

 

Admittedly the management behind each of the two teams use all of the ‘classic’ approaches to teambuilding to try and engender a common cause and identity but this in itself is no guarantee of success. You can get all the players to wear the same clothes and create some shared experiences but this in itself is not really going to determine how well the individuals perform as a team. Maybe part of the answer in golf is the fact that for much of the time the golfers are not really playing as a team. In all the contests that take place in the Ryder cup the actual team element is quite small. In the 4-balls and ??? the two golfers playing for each country are technically in a team of two – a pair. When it comes to the singles on the final day while the players are playing for the team, they are not dependent on other members of the team for their performance. So, you could maybe argue that Europe won because their golfers were better able to perform as individuals than the Americans.

 

It is also easier to come together as a ‘team’ for a short period of time. I am sure that if these golfers were required to conform to team norms for a sustained period of time the cracks would start to show, but then that is to be expected as these individuals compete in an individual sport, and as such have control of their own destinies both on and off the golf course. However, while the players are responsible for their own performance there is the added responsibility of the impact that performance can have on their professional peers. So, playing as an individual for a team could well be more nerve-racking and pressure inducing than playing in a ‘conventional’ team where it is shared performance and shared responsibility.

So what lessons can be learnt from golf in developing the most effective teams in sport? Well, the fact that so much planning goes into building the Ryder cup teams is a definite story that should be shared. The captains of the two teams have both time and resources to invest in getting the team right. The common ‘uniforms’ help with the identity, but the teams need to have effective leaders to make the individuals care for each other for those few days as a golf team. The role of vice-captain is also important in this context to getting it right and having effective lines of communication with all the members of the team. The team captain need to be strong, and decisive, but most of all as a non-player inspirational. Indeed, if the captain can unite the team around a common cause and idea the battle is already half won. In the case of the `European team, Olazabal. By all accounts was inspirational as a captain, able to reduce the team to tears by his oratory skills and passion, and alongside this highlighted a common unifying idea, honouring Seve Ballesteros. We will never know, but this could have been the thing that helped the European team to overcome such steep odds on the final day. The European players were playing for themselves and the team, but were also playing for Seve, and as Olazabal said “Seve will always be present with this team, . . .

he was a big factor for this event, for the European side. Last night, when we were having a meeting, I think the boys understood that believing was the most important thing. And I think they did.”

 

So, while golf is not a team sport, and never truly will be other ‘real’ team sports can learn by the planning and attention to detail that both the USA and European Ryder cup teams put into developing their teams. Recognising that for a team to be effective it needs to be about more than just the people in the team. Often team sports forget about the importance of building the team and the effort required. Indeed it is often taken for granted that the ‘team’ will just happen. So well done Europe and thank you for reminding us of the crucial role that effective planning and deliberate team building have in the formation and evolution of any effective sports team.

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