December 10, 2008

The Right Man, Or A Man In The Right Place?

Given the PGA of America's reluctance to go with Zinger again Corey Pavin was the only choice, despite their contention that there were other candidates

2010 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin played on the 1991 and 1993 teams.

2010 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin played on the 1991 and 1993 teams.

It's hard to believe now when you watch Corey Pavin bunt the ball little more than 250 yards down the fairway, 100 yards behind new-age tour favorites such as J.B. Holmes or Dustin Johnson, that the newly named captain of the 2010 U.S. Ryder Cup team was such a force in his prime. But look beyond the current numbers -- the 197th rank in driving distance, the 196th rank in greens in regulation or the 249th place on the World Ranking -- and consider Pavin's career. The 49-year-old who graduated from UCLA in 1982 has won 15 times in a PGA Tour career that has spanned parts of 29 years. He has played 619 events and earned more than $14 million. He spent more than 150 weeks in the top 10 on the World Ranking from 1986 to 1997, and led the tour in earnings in 1991 (his $979,430 was the last time the tour leader earned less than $1 million).

Those were the numbers that brought Pavin to the Tavern on the Green in New York City's Central Park Thursday, where, amid the pomp and circumstance of one of America's landmark restaurant's replete with a photo op with four Radio City Rockettes, PGA of America president Jim Remy announced Pavin would replace Paul Azinger as the U.S. captain. The Gritty Little Bruin played on the victorious 1991 and 1993 teams, and while he may not be as well thought of as Azinger or as popular with the players, no one can question Pavin's spunk or spirit. And besides, Azinger leaves behind a stellar blueprint on how to build a winning team. He's giving Pavin the keys to the family Mercedes with instruction not to total it.

Pavin says he was offered the job Nov. 24 and hasn't spoken with Azinger, although he plans to talk with him soon. Pavin says he will look at Zinger's body of work, but ultimately will make his own determinations on what will work and what won't, primarily because the next Ryder Cup will be held at Celtic Manor in Wales. He won't enjoy the home crowd the way the U.S. did in 2008.

"The challenges are different," said Pavin, who played on the last U.S. team to win on foreign soil in 1993. "The crowds are the most obvious difference. In 1993 [Captain Tom] Watson gave us good advice. He said 'listen for the silence. That means nothing good is happening to the European side.' We have to listen for that and use it [to our advantage.]"

Remy said Azinger was considered to retain his role, but the PGA of America decided to continue with the tradition of limiting captains to one term. "Paul did an incredible job, and certainly after the victory, you had to consider the possibility of Paul coming back," Remy said. "But when we look at those who have earned the right to be Ryder Cup captains, as we look down the road, and look at the ripple effect that repeating a captain may have on history. Should you have a repeat of a captain, chances are that somewhere down the road, one of those great players may miss that opportunity."

It remains to be seen whether Pavin is the right man for the job, but he may be -- given the PGA of America's stubborn reluctance to return to Azinger -- the only man for the job. The organization's strict criteria for awarding the captaincy is to give it to a former major champion (preferably a PGA champ) not yet 50, but on the high side of 40. The captain should still active on the PGA Tour, but not active enough to be a serious contender in many events. Despite Remy's contention, within those strict parameters there are only six other contenders, and the three legitimate candidates disqualified themselves for various reasons.

Mark O'Meara took himself out of the mix in 1999, when he forcefully questioned whether players should be paid to play the Ryder Cup. Fred Couples was eliminated as an option when he accepted the PGA Tour's offer to captain the 2009 U.S. Presidents Cup team. It's a Cup too early for Davis Love III, who still fancies a starring on-course role in another biennial competition -- whether it is Couples team next year or Pavin's in Wales. The other American-born major champions who will be between 45 and 49 in 2010 are afterthoughts. If Lee Janzen didn't have a good enough career you certainly cannot consider Todd Hamilton. John Daly? Please.

The ironic thing about the PGA of America's refusal to double-dip with Azinger is that 2010 should have been his rightful place in the rotation. The death of Payne Stewart in 1999 left a void in the captaincy selection process. Stewart would have been on target to command the 2004 team at the age of 47, bumping Hal Sutton to 2006 when he would have been 48. Tom Lehman would have played on Sutton's '06 team instead of captaining the squad, and would have been the U.S. field general in 2008 at age 49.

Lehman, in turn, would have bumped Azinger to 2010, but instead he was at the helm for the highly improbable but wholly memorable victory at Valhalla in September. After the tournament there was a groundswell of support for Zinger to return as U.S. captain in two years.

Remy gave his reasons for not bringing Azinger back, but there are those with another theory. Pavin, Lehman's assistant in 2006, had recently won a tournament in Milwaukee that year, and was on Cap'n Tom's short list of candidates to be added to the team. "You want guys on the team with a huge heart, who love to fight, who never give up on a shot, ever," Lehman said at the time. "Would I consider Corey? There isn't a hole been built that he can't par."

Some think that when he was snubbed as a player in 2006, the organization promised Pavin the captaincy in 2010. If that was the case it's admirable that the PGA didn't break its promise, but for the betterment of the tournament -- if not because its what the players wanted -- Pavin should have been given the Heisman's open hand. The victory in Kentucky after two lopsided losses changed things and Azinger should have been asked to return. Pavin should have been bumped to 2012, when he rightly would have had the job had Stewart been alive to captain the team in '04.