November 24, 2008

The American Dream

Inspired by captain Paul Azinger's new-age Cup theories, an underdog U.S. team rolled to victory

Azinger (second from right) exulted with his team after America's first victory since 1999.

Azinger (second from right) exulted with his team after America's first victory since 1999.

*Listen my children and you shall hear Of the biennial ride of Paul 'Zinger; Cap'n said to the PGA "If the Euros march Hang a lantern from yon Belfry's arch, One if by land and two if by sea And I on the opposite shore shall be; Then lo! he looks on the Belfry's light, The fate of the Cup was riding that night; Inside the ropes at ye olde Valhalla The Yanks won foursomes and the four-ball-alla. *

In the singles could their lead be blowed? Not if our 'Zinger doth front-end load; A Boo in the darkness, a Kim at the door A victory that shall echo for evermore!

—Longfellow Woods

The cumulative score by which Europe dominated America in the Ryder Cup Matches from 1995 to the gates of Valhalla was 95-73. Had it not been for the "Ghost of Ouimet" comeback at The Country Club in 1999, Europe would have—in fact, should have—won six straight. What was at stake down in the valley outside Louisville was nothing less than the future well-being of the competition. On the heels of back-to-back massive drubbings, the Ryder Cup had gone from Must See TV to Wake Me When It's Over. And America came limping in on a bum knee.

U.S. captain Paul Azinger had gotten everything he demanded from the desperate PGA of America, most notably a change in the point structure and extra captain's picks. While his opposite on the European side, Nick Faldo, was being vilified for selecting his protégé, Ian Poulter, and leaving past Ryder Cup hero Darren Clarke and Ryder Cup legend Colin Montgomerie off the side, Azinger couldn't seem to scrape together enough able bodies to fill 12 team uniforms. On paper Valhalla was shaping up to be another European blue bloodletting. Except Americans don't read papers anymore. What follows are a few reasons why the U.S. won:

Weekley

The Tiger Effect: When Tiger Woods put the Ralph Macchio Crane Kick on Rocco Mediate in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines and followed that by letting a surgeon tie a sheepshank in the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee, it didn't look good for Azinger or the U.S. side. After the Americans beat the Euros 16½-11½, however, the theory immediately surfaced that the U.S. actually was better off without the intimidating presence (to friend and foe alike) of Woods. And while Woods' Ryder Cup results aren't nearly as impressive as his major-championship record, if you ask any sane, rational person if he would rather have the best player who ever lived on his side or not, what kind of moron is going to say "Thanks, but no thanks?" Tiger Woods is not the Swilcan Bridge to nowhere; his leads to immortality. Now, sane and rational might not be the words Faldo would use to describe Azinger, his old TV tower buddy, but the U.S. captain is no dope. Was it a net plus that the most dominant force in the game was not in the U.S. team room? Doubtful. By and large, American captains have figured out how, and how not, to use Woods. What his absence unquestionably did, however, was irrevocably cede the role of underdog to the Americans—as if they needed any evidence beyond '04 and '06.

The Kentucky Effect: The most questionable of Azinger's four captain's picks was spent on Kentuckian J.B. Holmes. While the theory was postulated that it was Holmes' prodigious power, mightily useful in four-ball, that swayed Azinger, it was his hometown of Campbellsville that sealed the deal. With apologies to the Louisville Cardinals, the Americans did everything they could to generate the same kind of home-court advantage the Kentucky Wildcats have in Rupp Arena (sans Ashley Judd, of course). Anyone who has been to Ryder Cups on the other side of the pond has felt the fervor of the European fans. Azinger wanted, and got, the same for his players. Holmes and Kenny Perry, the other Kentucky homeboy, who to the frequent condemnation of the chattering class had dedicated his year, his career and his schedule to making the Ryder Cup team, each played a huge roll in making that happen.

Holmes

The Boo Weekley Effect: The good ol' boy network was broadcasting in high definition with the addition of the Man from Scratch Ankle, who rode his driver Happy Gilmore-style off the first tee of his Sunday singles match. Every team needs a personality who keeps it loose when the saliva runs dry. Next to Boo, the Marx Brothers seem stuffy. It had become something of a tradition Saturday night for the players, wives and pretty much everyone else to speak from the heart about what the week meant to them. It was a round robin of tears, a real Sam's Club gross-of-Kleenex night. The only tears shed at Valhalla were of laughter when Boo regaled his team with the story of how he once got coldcocked with one punch by an orangutan. The Americans, for once, were loose and freewheeling when it mattered.

Faldo

The Faldo Effect: The journalists of greater Europe simply couldn't have been in finer fettle. Naturally, the visiting writers and broadcasters would have been delighted to see yet another victory for the Olé Choir. On the other hand, a European loss presented the opportunity—nay, the gift—of drawing and quartering the much-despised Faldo. It was heads they win, tails they win. Going in, Faldo was cackhanded for picking Poulter (who played spectacularly) and daft for leaving home Darren and Monty (who seemingly hadn't broken 80 in, like, two months). Faldo then committed the original sin of insufficient vice-captains. And, as if that wasn't bad enough, in the singles Nicky saved his best—Lee Westwood and Padraig Harrington—for last while Azinger sent out his heavy hitters early. By holding off Westwood and Harrington—who, incidentally, both played like plonkers for three days—Faldo earned the title of World's Worst Captain, an inevitability for whoever happens to lose. As Lieutenant Kaffee would have put it in "A Few Good Men," "Nobody likes him very much."

Azinger

The Rookie Effect: Hunter Mahan? Unbeaten, 3½ points. Boo Weekley? Unbeaten, 2½ points. J.B. Holmes? Unbeaten, 2½ points. And Anthony Kim? World, meet Anthony. Anthony, here's the world. He just about shredded Phil Mickelson's rotator cuff with high-fives, claiming 2½ points, with one loss. And no point of the week was more important, more impressive or more entertaining than Kim's what-do-you-mean-it's-over, 5-and-4 thrashing of Sergio Garcia in Sunday's first singles match. As Boo explained, turned out them new dogs could hunt.

The Americans did what the Americans had been unable to do for a very long time—they played from in front. They got up 3-1 in the Friday morning foursomes and 5½-2½ after the Friday afternoon four-ball. The Euros rallied Saturday and closed the gap to a scant two points. The indelible images of the two days of team play were, first, Poulter, the only player to win two matches on Day Two, screaming "Come on!" as his mates gathered around the 18th green when he closed out Kenny Perry and Jim Furyk. The second happened on the same green when another Zinger pick, Steve Stricker (who had the worst record of the week among the Americans), made perhaps the most important stroke of the event when he holed a crucial birdie putt to get up-and-down from a dismal spot and gain a half against Garcia and Paul Casey.

Westwood

Sunday morning Azinger placed the U.S. hopes on the 23-year-old shoulders of Kim, who wanted out first. The kid with the red, white and blue belt buckle pummeled Garcia until he, Kim, was senseless. So focused was the youngster on pounding away at his opponent, he humorously didn't even know when it was over. Captain Faldo was betting everything the Cup would come down to the 12th man. Instead, the rednecks cleaned and dressed him. The middle of the American lineup—Weekley, Perry and Holmes—put it away, with a finishing kick from Jim Furyk. Had the back of the European lineup—Westwood and Harrington—dominated Ben Curtis and Chad Campbell the way Kim swamped Garcia, thereby throwing the pressure of the Cup squarely on Holmes … well, who knows? All week, however, Westwood never approached the form that nearly earned him a spot in the playoff in the U.S. Open, and Harrington was clearly running on empty after winning two major championships in four weeks.

And that is how Paul Azinger saved the Ryder Cup.



The Crucial Half-point

[#image: /photos/55ad9e66add713143b43b146]||||||Stricker ranked 178th on tour in accuracy, but his tee ball on 18 was clutch, especially with partner Curtis in the rough left of the fairway bunker. Stricker bumped his third shot off the slope of the collection area and down through a hollow. He made the 18-foot, uphill putt to secure the tie.

Steve Stricker's birdie on the 18th hole of Saturday afternoon's four-ball secured only a half-point for him and Ben Curtis against Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey. But later, American players would call his putt the one that turned the matches. Stricker's second shot on the par-5 hole found a hillock right of the green in tall grass. He pitched onto the putting surface, his ball rolling below the hole and ending up 18 feet from the cup. With Casey and Garcia looking at birdie putts of 10 feet or less, Stricker's up-and-down ensured the Americans would get a tie in their hard-fought match, and that the U.S., leading 8-5 at the time, would have a multiple-point advantage heading into Sunday's singles play.



Word For Word

"I didn't come here to try to teach one player how to play this game. All I tried to do is play up the team concept here, and the concept worked."

Paul Azinger, U.S. Ryder Cup captain, after his team's resounding 16½-11½ victory at Valhalla GC.


__"I wish every golfer, every player on tour, could experience this because it's just amazing. If I get to play in a couple more of these, that would be unbelievable." __

Hunter Mahan, who made news before being selected for the Ryder Cup by saying players were treated like "slaves" because of all the social functions they must attend prior to tournament play.


"It's like Michael Phelps training with a great white shark in the pool."

NBC analyst Johnny Miller, on the pressures of the Ryder Cup compared to regular golf tournaments.


"I feel like a dog someone stuck a needle into and juiced them up at a greyhound track to chase one of them bunnies."

Boo Weekley, on how excited he was to play in the Ryder Cup.


"We hold the golf clubs and we hit the shots, not the captain. If you want to talk about me and Sergio being rested, that's the session we won. So you tell me whether Nick was right or wrong."

Lee Westwood, in defense of beleaguered European captain Nick Faldo, who sat team stalwarts Westwood and Sergio Garcia Saturday morning.