There are hundreds of examples of great leadership in golf, but one that I will long remember occurred leading up to the 2018 Ryder Cup, despite an American loss. It involved not a golfer, but the legendary Duke basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski. “Coach K” was still coaching at the time and didn’t retire until 2022. He was invited to address the American team by its captain, Jim Furyk. With another Ryder Cup on the horizon at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club in Rome, Italy, the message he delivered is still pertinent and contains many takeaways that apply today.
My favorite bit of minutiae about Coach K is that he was an Army captain who served as a field-artillery liaison in Korea in the early 1970s. More well-known is that Coach K later revived a rudderless USA Basketball program and coached the U.S. Olympic team to three gold medals. Beyond the obvious achievements—five NCAA championships at Duke and 1,202 career victories, a Division I record—Krzyzewski is a patriot who has a history of handing out assists to his country.
In August 2018, Coach K phoned me after the finish of a PGA Tour playoff event and explained that Furyk had asked if he would address the team early in the week of the BMW Championship at Aronimink near Philadelphia. Coach K had enthusiastically agreed, but he wanted to know if we could review the content he had prepared to ensure that it sounded golf-smart.
It was a 45-minute call with Coach K seeking some background on the captain and players. I told him Furyk had played point guard at Mannheim Township High School in Pennsylvania and that he was a deep thinker with a dry, cutting wit. I told him how Dustin Johnson’s grandfather, Art Whisnant, had starred at South Carolina in the early 1960s, how Tony Finau had led the state of Utah in rebounding while at West High School, and that Jabari Parker is Tony’s cousin, how Justin Thomas, though an Alabama alum, grew up in Kentucky and was a big Louisville basketball fan. Even with this insight I was impressed by how much Coach K already knew.
The talk, which he delivered during a team dinner on Sept. 6, didn’t need much fine-tuning from me. I couldn’t help but jot down a few of the high points of the talk he delivered:
Expect a hostile environment. Coach K warned the players that most of the crowd was not going to be pulling for them. He advised them to not overreact to anything they might hear or see. He said regardless of how intense it might get, just keep going along, lost in your own world, ignoring the noise.
Don’t check your egos at the door. When Krzyzewski coached the U.S. Olympic teams, he dealt not with amateur college players but with professionals who have their own brands and have considerable egos. Coach K encouraged the Ryder Cup players not to scale back on that, to be who they are. He saw all the pride and ego as a positive, especially if channeled in a team-oriented way.
Feel the importance of the uniform. Coach K relayed the story of what he did with one of his Olympic teams. He told his players that when they got back to their rooms, they would find on their beds a game uniform. He told them to put it on, to experience what it felt like, to feel the symbolism and to let it sink in and get used to it.
You’re not just playing for the USA. Krzyzewski asked the players to win the Ryder Cup for themselves and each other. He said if they did that, the rest—be it an Olympic gold medal or the Ryder Cup—would take care of itself. In his mind, it was all about the team and taking care of one another.
A harsh truth about golf is that you can’t play defense as in basketball. The United States performed well, but the Europeans were unstoppable and won that Ryder Cup. His advice remains timeless, much like Coach K himself.