September 21, 2008

Red, White and Beautiful

Reveling in the role of consummate underdogs, a U.S. team sparked by six rookies and one gritty captain takes the 37th Ryder Cup with a flourish

After scoring a 16½-11½ win over Europe, Azinger's team let off a little steam.

After scoring a 16½-11½ win over Europe, Azinger's team let off a little steam.

Some things never change. Other things change and only get worse. Last week in the heart of working man's America, change arrived in overalls and left in a stretch limousine, pulling away from the recent past as if it were a distant memory. In a rear-view mirror with no signs of fear, hindsight and failure soon disappear.

Even before a final score brought closure to the 37th Ryder Cup, the competitive element and emotional exuberance once commonly associated with the best three days in golf had been fully restored. For a United States squad with a half-dozen rookies and full-fledged underdog status, the amount of fight in that dog is what mattered most. You win as a team and lose as a team, but you don't roll over and play dead the minute Europe goes ahead. So something had to change, owing nothing to the premise that everything would.

America's 16½-11½ triumph at Valhalla GC seemed to mark a fresh chapter in Ryder Cup history, a series that began with 50-plus years of U.S. dominance, then crossed the Atlantic in less than half that time. If the official margin of victory in northern Kentucky was misleading, the identity of the better side wasn't. For the first time since 1991 the Yanks held a lead (3-1) after the opening session. By Friday evening that cushion had grown to three points, their largest since 1975.

It was an advantage the U.S. wouldn't relinquish, although the anxiety level rose considerably midway into the Sunday singles matches. Europe had trimmed the deficit to one before Kenny Perry finished off Henrik Stenson and Jim Furyk made his fifth birdie of the afternoon to go 3 up on Miguel Angel Jiménez. J.B. Holmes secured Old Glory's momentum with a birdie at the par-3 14th, and in a 10-minute span, what looked like a down-to-the-wire finish reverted to America's first win over Europe since 1999.

"I knew I had 12 gamers," captain Paul Azinger crowed. "To a man, everyone contributed. I've said it all week -- I didn't come here and try to teach one player how to play this game. I didn't need to hold anyone's hand. All I tried to do is play up the team concept here, and the concept worked."

J.B. Holmes

Like any skipper with Sam Ryder's chalice in his hands, Azinger could not have been more right, but no examination of this improbable U.S. success is complete unless it ventures well below the surface. From the loser's perspective, the inability of Europe's top three players -- Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood -- to claim even a single victory amounted to a giant case of cause and defect.

The trio came to Valhalla with a career record of 35-20-7, then went 0-7-5 for Euro chief Nick Faldo. Let the crucifixion of St. Nick begin, but when your horses never leave the gate, blame becomes a trickier game. "We hold the clubs, we hit the shots," Westwood said in his captain's defense. "If you want to talk about me and Sergio [sitting out the Saturday foursomes], that's the [only] session we won, so Nick was right to do that. You tell me if he was right or wrong."

While the jury of public opinion ponders a verdict, it's fair to say Faldo's reign turned into one bumpy ride. As a strategist, he wasn't exactly Tony Jacklin, although the British press wasn't about to revise its opinion on his tactical decisions unless the week ended with a victory. Faldo won six major titles as a player, which is six more than the number of popularity contests he will ever win, and though his players never hung him out in front of a live microphone, it's no secret several prominent team members would have preferred someone else at the helm.

Jim Furyk

But enough on all that. This Ryder Cup was about the team that never trailed, an overachieving bunch of Yanks deprived of perhaps the greatest golfer ever, then forced to cope with a glaring abundance of inexperience. "He text [messaged] me at least 10 times yesterday," Azinger said Saturday evening of his communication with Tiger Woods. "He likes to heckle. I told him he needed to step up his heckling skills a little bit, and he brought it today. I didn't know he could take it to such a high level, so I give him credit."

Sounds like Tiger missed the Ryder Cup more than the Ryder Cup missed him, so let's give credit where credit is due. If captains receive too much love in victory and are dealt too much blame in defeat, no American skipper ever worked harder, left fewer stones unturned or got better results than Azinger. His selection of three Ryder Cup rookies was a considerable gamble, but two of those guys (Holmes and Hunter Mahan) went undefeated, and the third, Steve Stricker, made perhaps the biggest putt of the week at the 18th to halve his Saturday four-ball match with Ben Curtis against Garcia and Paul Casey.

"The last thing I want to do is [compare captains] because they all did a great job," said Furyk, whose victory over Jiménez proved the decisive point. "Zinger did a lot of things very well. He has an infectious personality that really affects you, makes you feel comfortable. He's a guy's guy. He likes to hang out and talk smack, he can talk fishing, and when the women come around, he's the perfect gentleman."

Even before the U.S. had applied the finishing touches at Valhalla, there was talk around the 17th green that Azinger should be retained as the captain of the 2010 squad. That hasn't happened since Ben Hogan piloted the Yanks in 1947 and 1949, which makes it very unlikely to happen now. Corey Pavin would seem the most logical candidate to succeed Azinger (see page 40), but if the PGA of America enjoys winning as much as it can't stand losing, it would be wise to think long and hard about deviating from the norm.

Azinger's commitment to the '08 matches was unparalleled. He flew to and from Louisville so often in the last year that he might have saved money if he'd bought the airline. By pushing the event locally with the passion of a guy running for mayor, he generated a level of grass-roots interest that clearly had an effect on the atmosphere. Valhalla's galleries were intense but not over the top, better behaved than the rambunctious crowds that marred the experience at Brookline in 1999.

What most separated Azinger from his predecessors, however, was his systematic approach to the captaincy. Far beyond avoiding the mental clichés or thinking outside the box, he divided his 12-man roster into three groups of four, using personality traits as his guide, and assigned an assistant captain to govern each unit. It may not sound like much, but when you win by five after losing back-to-back Ryder Cups by nine points apiece, it amounts to a touch of genius.

Not only did his players take to the idea, they embraced it. "If you look at my matches in 1997 and 1999, I played six times with six different partners, some of whom I hadn't played a practice round with," said Justin Leonard, who teamed with Mahan to win two matches and halve a third. "When you can be certain of some things going in, that's a huge advantage, especially if you've never done this before."

Boo Weekley

Group one consisted of Furyk, Kenny Perry, Holmes and Boo Weekley. The second unit was the so-called quiet bunch: Cink, Stricker, Ben Curtis and Chad Campbell, which takes us to the alpha males -- Phil Mickelson, Anthony Kim, Leonard and Mahan. As you might have noticed, the foursomes were fairly balanced in terms of experience and talent levels. It's hard to think that pairing Holmes and Weekley together all week didn't have a bearing on their combining to go 4-0-2. "Having six new players and a system was huge," Cink affirmed. "It put everybody at ease."

Other than a couple of gaffes Friday on the 18th hole, this unified band of Yanks could not have done much more. The most obvious mistake came in the final four-ball match that first day -- Weekley drove it into the creek, but instead of playing smart or safe, Holmes tried to be the hero and followed his partner into the water. Europe birdied the par-5 closing hole to steal a half-point, leaving Holmes to try and rationalize the blunder. "Three-wood? Nah," he reckoned. "I don't hit my 3-wood straighter than my driver."

In a television interview the following day, Holmes acknowledged his error, and over the final two days, he and Weekley were as dangerous as anyone wearing a uniform. From start to finish, Azinger's six first-timers would combine for an unlikely, unforgettable 9-4-8 performance.

Who knew? Certainly not Boo. "I never thought golf could be this much fun," he cooed, although that quote couldn't come close to cracking Weekley's top 10 quips at Valhalla. Any man who gallops off the first tee with his driver between his legs, carrying on like a cowboy riding a horse toward the fairway, is an instant Ryder Cup icon, regardless of how many Euros objected to Weekley's aggressive interaction with the galleries.

Too bad both presidential candidates have chosen running mates. "That quote about the greyhound and the bunny -- I mean, how does he think of that stuff?" Mickelson marveled. "He's brilliant." Apparently, one line you don't hear every day deserves another.

Speaking of brilliant, let us certainly not forget Anthony Kim, the 23-year-old blooming superstar whose rapid ascension to golf's highest level covered several rungs on the ladder at Valhalla. If fearlessness is measured by how hard a man rams a putt into the back of the hole, AK is golf's Evel Knievel. "To see someone that young become a leader in a group like this is extremely rare," Leonard assessed.

By no means was he perfect from tee to green, but in case anybody had forgotten, Kim provided dozens of reminders as to why he is the best young player in the world. Batting in the leadoff spot for the U.S. on Sunday, the kid demolished Garcia with a mix of precision and passion we haven't seen from an American player since, since, since … "He's the one guy nobody wants to play against [in singles]," Mickelson said with his trademark smirk. "A lot of enthusiasm, a ton of birdies."

There were six of them versus Sergio, and if the match had gone further than the 14th green, there might have been a few more. Kim rattled a seven-footer for par into the jar to close out his foe, 5 and 4, but instead of moving in for the handshake, AK commenced a breezy beeline for the 15th tee. It was European Tour rules official John Paramor who informed Kim that additional holes were unnecessary, and the two young men, who are good friends, had a nice exchange.

Ten days ago, you would have looked at this U.S. roster and wondered where the points would come from. That was before America's extreme Ryder Cup makeover, before our youth proved it could handle the truth. Mickelson played wonderfully in Friday's second session, carrying Kim to a 2-up triumph over Harrington and Graeme McDowell, but otherwise, he didn't do much. Cink didn't win a match after the first session. This victory came about in the most optimistic possible fashion: superb performances by lots of new faces in unfamiliar places.

Anthony Kim

"We've got a lot to build on, but we still have a lot to prove," Mickelson cautioned. "We still have to win in Europe, which we haven't done in a while."

That was last accomplished 15 years ago by a team full of veteran Yanks and Tom Watson in charge. Faldo aced the 14th hole in his singles bout against Azinger, who birdied the 18th to halve the match.

So things have definitely changed. Amid a chorus of "Azinger in '10" chants from his players, the U.S. captain now stands 1 up. "I'm not going to think about it," he said of a possible return. "I'm just going to stay up all night and party with my boys." Those boys are definitely men, and when they gathered on the balcony of the Valhalla clubhouse last Sunday evening for the traditional champagne celebration, all the corks seem to fly in unison. Now that's teamwork.



WHO'S AFTER AZINGER?

The PGA of America goes to work over the next two months to name a successor to Paul Azinger, and it's not going to be an easy choice. The rotation actually would have called for Payne Stewart this year and Azinger in 2010, but Stewart's death in 1999 juggled the chronology. With the resounding victory and cries of "Azinger in '10" coming from U.S. players Sunday night, it is clear Zinger's may be the toughest shoes to fill in U.S. Ryder Cup history. Suggestion: Since Azinger did such a good job, why not let him name the next captain?

THE CANDIDATES:

Paul Azinger

Corey Pavin: Gritty Little Bruin could become the Larry Nelson of his era and get passed over after being Tom Lehman's assistant at the K Club. Not as popular across the board as Azinger, but epitomized the spirit on the victorious 1991 and 1993 teams. Only problem: Pavin will turn 50 next November, and a captain's commitment would cost him valuable earning potential on the Champions Tour.

Davis Love III: Perhaps, although Love may still have one more appearance left as a player. Has been grooming for the role since 1993 and is a good communicator who was an aid to Ben Crenshaw in making out the lineup card for the Battle of Brookline comeback in 1999.

Fred Couples: Took himself out of contention for 2010 by taking the '09 Presidents Cup captaincy. The PGA needs a two-year commitment to promote the event and to get entrenched with the players and the culture; Freddie's got his hands full until next September at Harding Park in San Francisco. Couples could be a possible for 2012 at Medinah, but only if he downsizes his Champions Tour aspirations.

Mark O'Meara: O'Meara damaged his captain's prospects with his role in the pay-for-players controversy before the 1999 Ryder Cup. But there's a new regime at the PGA of America these days, so maybe it's time to move on. O'Meara is a double major-winner and, more importantly, one of Tiger Woods' best friends. John Cook would be an assistant, making Woods feel even more comfortable.

-- Tim Rosaforte