September 1, 2008

The Best Of The Bunch

Azinger would have preferred it if his captain's picks had been no-brainers, but that's not the way it turned out

Azinger would have preferred it if his captain's picks had been no-brainers, but that's not the way it turned out

Azinger would have preferred it if his captain's picks had been no-brainers, but that's not the way it turned out

NEW YORK -- Paul Azinger was waiting for somebody to jump off the page. In the end, nobody did. It was the Lucas Glover Syndrome, American players trying too hard to make a Ryder Cup team.

So when Captain Azinger sat before a microphone at a hotel in Manhattan Tuesday, the wild-card pickings were pretty slim. He went with Steve Stricker, J.B. Holmes, Hunter Mahan and, the only quasi-surprise, Chad Campbell.

"I like what we have here," Azinger said.

Then he proclaimed the Americans, coming off back-to-back record nine-point losses, and without Tiger Woods for the first time in a Ryder Cup since 1995, as decided underdogs in the matches that begin Sept. 19 at Valhalla GC in Louisville.

While Nick Faldo had five obvious contenders for his two picks, the general consensus coming in over the weekend was that Zinger had no players for four picks, with even rookie Kevin Streelman jumping into the late mix. But the U.S. captain went into the final tournament of the year, the Deutsche Bank Championship, with Stricker and Holmes set in his mind.

Stricker, the Comeback Player of the Year for a second time in 2007, looked like he was working on another run at the award -- but in 2009, based on his play this summer. His only top-10 was at the British Open, and Azinger had to console him after a 79 in the third round of the PGA Championship. But "Strick" won the Accenture Match Play in 2001, was decent on last year's Presidents Cup team, and had a good showing at the TPC-Boston, finishing with a 69 for a T-12 finish.

Azinger knew the Wisconsin native was "sweating bullets," but didn't think it was appropriate to give him an early call. When his cell phone rang Monday night, Stricker -- feeling like the man left out before -- asked the captain, "Is this a good call or a bad call?"

"It's a good call, buddy," Azinger told him.

Holmes, 26, was given a pass for his final-round 81 in the PGA Championship -- as though his poor finish was balanced out by the fact that he held the 54-holelead. The severity of the course, the need to make up for an opening triple bogey, put the bomber in a bad spot. Since then, he's finished T-24 at The Barclays and missed the cut at the Deutsche Bank.

But his Kentucky roots and fullback mentality -- along with his mammoth power game -- is what made him a pick. Zinger hopes to get the crowd behind the team and Holmes has both a good Walker Cup reputation and closer on the PGA Tour, taking out Phil Mickelson with a puffed-out chest at the FBR Open in February.

That left a Labor Day Weekend for the final two spots. As Azinger said, "For a lot of guys it would have taken a win, for others a strong finish. It's not that a season should be whittled down to a day, but in some respects it was."

The winners in this were Mahan, a controversial figure for most of the summer for his criticism of the Ryder Cup in a magazine interview, and Campbell, the quiet Texan.

Mahan opened with a 62 at The Barclays but couldn't back it up and finished T-31. In Boston, he played the last 10 holes Saturday in eight under to shoot 64, and came back Monday with a 69. He was Jack Nicklaus' leadoff man for all the team matches last October in his Presidents Cup debut, and fulfills another goal Azinger had in mind -- and that was building the next generation of Ryder Cupper.

After talking to Azinger about his comments, and getting the once over by the PGA of America, Mahan has become repentant. "I think we've all moved on from that," Mahan said. "I'm looking forward to the Ryder Cup and I'm so grateful to captain Azinger for giving me the opportunity. He knew what I said was not my true feelings."

Campbell received the news in a voice mail late Monday and was at a doctor's office during Tuesday morning's news conference, hooked up to a conference call while awaiting news of his wife's impending delivery of their first child, a boy. She's due Thursday, and Campbell denied his son will be named "Samuel Ryder."

Statistically, Campbell is strong, ranking 15th in greens in regulation, 21st in putting average, 11th in scoring average and third in the all-around category. Making his debut in the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills and returning for the 2006 team that traveled to The K Club, Campbell has a 1-3-2 record, going 1-1 in the singles. "When I narrowed down the list to 3-4, his name came up a lot," Azinger said after consulting with his assistant captains and several key members of the team.

If Mahan and Campbell were the winners in the playoff for the final two spots, the losers were D.J. Trahan, who had a four-putt and shot 80 in the final round of the Deutsche Bank while in contention, and Woody Austin, the co-star of the 2007 Presidents Cup, who had a pair of 66s in the middle of the Deutsche Bank but closed with a 75. Azinger said he made one call to a player who didn’t make it, and it was probably to Austin, who would have made the team had Azinger not changed the selection system from two to four picks. Streelman, with back-to-back top-10s, and in contention after opening the Deutsche Bank 66-65, shot 150 over the final 36 holes at the TPC-Boston, plummeting to a T-50.

Azinger wouldn't get into breaking down why players didn't make the team, focusing on those who did. He created a system designed to identify winners and for the first eight players off the point list, it did, with only Ben Curtis and Jim Furyk not winning. But the last American-born winner on the PGA Tour was Chez Reavie at the Canadian Open the last week of July. Since then, Vijay Singh, Padraig Harrington and Carl Pettersson have divvied up the victories.

"What I was searching for and what we need were players who were playing well … guys with confidence," Azinger concluded.

He may not have gotten that, but in his mind, Azinger got the chemistry -- the balance of veterans (Mickelson, Furyk, Stewart Cink, Justin Leonard, Kenny Perry) with youth (Anthony Kim, Holmes, Mahan, Curtis) -- and he definitely has the 13th man covered in Kentucky natives Perry and Holmes, plus the loveable Southerner, Boo Weekley.

"I would have loved somebody to come out of the pack [after the first eight spots were locked down after the PGA] and win, but it didn't happen," Azinger said. "Am I disappointed? No. I'm just taking what I've got."