The Odd Couple
They've played as opponents. They've worked as partners. When captains Nick Faldo and Paul Azinger mix it up at the Ryder Cup, almost anything could happen.
As Nick Faldo and Paul Azinger vamp for the camera on a makeshift set in a cold cart barn at Muirfield Village--very different men somehow in sync--there's a definite feeling that this Ryder Cup will be the movie we haven't seen. It doesn't shape up as an over-produced, big-budget extravaganza with a cast of many. Instead, with two complex captains as the leading actors, this one just might be character-driven.
The camera loves each in a different way. Faldo, just off the set of his Thursday gig with the Golf Channel, jump-starts the photo shoot by immediately--as they say in showbiz--playing it big. He shapes his 6-feet-3 frame into variations of the stylized schtick that has become a staple of his latter playing career: the balanced-on-one-leg celebration with arm extended, the feigned stumble, the exaggerated expression. The repertoire of moves is a reminder that Faldo is an only child whose mother enrolled him in ballet and remarked publicly on his "smashing legs." As the shutter snaps, Faldo has the same assured expression that he displayed on those ABC segments when the camera would follow him on an improvised trip to the spa or a merchandise tent.
Azinger, who is less than an hour removed from an opening-round 80 in the Memorial Tournament, arrives in no mood to mug, the staccato click of his steel spikes on the cement floor announcing his heat and hurry. Although it produces a chuckle, Azinger at first resists Faldo's intentionally fey flitting. Scanning the props the photographer had ready--boxing gloves, swords, dueling guns--he wonders how such images will play among the multiple prisms through which the Ryder Cup is viewed.
"You guys want us to be fighting so badly," he says with a smirk. "Ain't gonna happen."
But after about a minute of cool-down, Azinger can't help but engage. Even at 48, he's irrepressibly boyish. Soon he's matching Faldo's playful poses, squaring off in opposing boxing stances, pulling up clothing to match biceps and even their abs. They each supply sound effects as they furiously work the controls of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. After a particularly solid plastic punch from Faldo, Azinger blurts in a cockney accent, "Ya knocked me block off!"
Their byplay at Valhalla figures to be more dignified, though it could get contentious. The chemistry of this odd couple is contagious and will make onlookers remember and miss their work together in the 18th-hole tower. Truth be told, they miss each other.
"We really had something going on at ABC," says Azinger. "We had a great team and a new way of presenting things, and Nick and I were getting better and better. I wish it had never ended."
Even though ABC's presence in golf has faded, the duo's dynamic has been prolonged through the Ryder Cup, and it's no less interesting.
Faldo hungrily assumes the starring role. Certainly his six major championships give him the goods. But what seems to spark his ambition is the ongoing realization that he's free from the psychological prison he imposed on himself to become--in the late '80s and early '90s--the best player in the game. After so much time in a cocoon, Faldo, 51, is a butterfly seeking exposure. His vehicles include gigs at the Golf Channel and CBS, golf-course design and now the Ryder Cup captaincy.
"Talking about myself as a brand comes naturally now," Faldo told the British newspaper The Observer last year. Accepting that he will never regain the meticulous mastery that was the hallmark of his golf, Faldo's main occupation has become, in the words of his sometime-broadcast partner at the Golf Channel, Rich Lerner, "the biggest public personality transformation in sports since George Foreman's."
But Faldo's television work with his two new employers has not reached the level he achieved at ABC. There are too many incomplete thoughts, an often-mumbling delivery filled with by-now annoying verbal tics like "crumbs," "chalk and cheese" and "break the duck," surprisingly unsatisfying swing analysis, and a persistently awkward chemistry with his regular tower mates, Kelly Tilghman and Jim Nantz. It has become clear that Faldo benefited immensely from Azinger's partnership. It was Azinger who brought the energy, challenging Faldo to match his insight.
By contrast, Azinger doesn't do stardom. Through his remarkable journey from skinny late bloomer to major-championship winner to cancer survivor to Ryder Cup captain, he has remained a spontaneous combination of wit and grit, an astute observer of people and his game, and, among his peers, a natural communicator and connector. Glitz has never stuck to Azinger, nor has he pursued it. It's why he refrained from trying to raise his image to land another television job (choosing to return to what has become for him the toil of the PGA Tour), and why he concedes Faldo the higher profile in their public relationship.