November 25, 2008

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.

"Experience," Oscar Wilde said, "is simply the name we give our mistakes."

U.S. captain PaulAzinger, facing reporters in Louisville on the eve of the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla, put it more bluntly: "I think experience is overrated."

But he had to say that, didn't he? His players had become biennial doormats, and their most recent loss to the European pros -- an 18½ to 9½ pasting in Ireland -- had golf pundits wondering if the trans-Atlantic series was crapping out. Throw in the fact that five-time Ryder Cupper Tiger Woods couldn't play (knee surgery) and the fact that six of Azinger's 12 players had the same Ryder Cup record as Sarah Palin (0-0-0) -- well, it didn't look good for the stars and stripes.

But come Sunday, Sept. 21, those six American rookies had pumped more fists and trotted off more greens than any U.S. players in memory. They were the stars of a 16½ to 11½ rout that brought the Ryder Cup back to the States for only the second time since 1993 -- proving that experience is overrated and prompting me to nominate them for Sportsmen of the Year.

Start with Anthony Kim. The 23-year-old hotshot with the jeweled belt buckle was so stoked on the final day that he barreled off the 14th green unaware he had already won his match, 5 and 4, over a demoralized Sergio Garcia. "It was like we got another veteran," said assistant captain Dave Stockton, "except one who had never lost and felt invincible."

Then go to Boo Weekley. A self-styled naïf with a backwoods drawl and a suspiciously polished iron game, Weekley went undefeated in three matches and unnerved his opponents by leading cheers and by straddling his driver like a hobby horse as he cantered off the first tee on Sunday. At Valhalla the sweetest sound was a lusty "Boooooo!" filtering through the trees. Said Weekley, "I feel like a dog that somebody done stuck a needle to and juiced me up like I've been running around a greyhound track chasing one of them bunnies."

Then you had the bomb-and-gouger, J.B. Holmes. A normally taciturn Kentuckian with a flair for the long ball, Holmes won a point and a half as Weekley's four-ball partner and then upped the wattage on Sunday by hitting his last four approach shots inside five feet to dispatch Soren Hansen. And let's not forget the excitable Hunter Mahan, who had hoisted a monkey on his own back by saying that the Ryder Cup treated the players like slaves. Mahan did get worked at Valhalla -- he and veteran Phil Mickelson were the only Americans to play all five matches -- but the former No. 1 amateur earned two wins and three halves to lead his team in points.

The other two American rookies earned just two points between them -- but what points! Ben Curtis, two down to six-time Ryder Cupper Lee Westwood after 10 holes on Sunday, finished strong for a 2 and 1 victory. Steve Stricker -- who, at 41, looked about as much like a rookie as Azinger did -- made critical putts to thwart Garcia and Paul Casey in a Saturday four-ball match, including a dramatic 15-footer for birdie on 18 that preserved a two-point U.S. lead. "Steve Stricker, in one moment, just kept us in there," Azinger would say later. "I think that putt made the difference in these matches."

I won't go that far, but the six rookies finished 9-4-8, and that was the difference. "They brought a lot of enthusiasm, they fired up the crowd," said Jim Furyk. Mickelson, the American with the most (and mostly bad) Ryder Cup memories, also tipped his hat to the rookies. "Look at their record," he said. "It was phenomenal. They brought a game, an attitude, an energy, and it invigorated the U.S. team."

But here's something you can bank on: Two years from now, in Wales, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain will tell reporters that his team is strong because it is led by players "who have been there" -- guys like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Anthony Kim, Boo Weekley, J. B. Holmes and Hunter Mahan.

Because, he'll say, you can't beat experience.

A Sportsman of the Year nod to the Valhalla Six would remind him -- and us -- that you most certainly can.

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