ON SUNDAY EVENINGin Louisville, in the giddy moments after the Ryder Cup had concluded,victorious U.S. captain Paul Azinger methodically sought out every member ofthe European team amid the sweaty, sloppy masses swarming the 17th green atValhalla Golf Club and offered a soul handshake, a hug and a few heartfeltwords. When he got to Sergio García, Azinger whispered in his ear, "Goodluck the rest of your career—I'm off to the Senior tour."
It figures thatwith the Ryder Cup in the books for only a few minutes, Azinger was alreadyworking on his exit strategy. This Cup will be remembered for the passionateplay of the home team, but the 16 1/2--11 1/2 U.S. victory was a monument tothe preparation of Azinger, who pulled off the most dominant captaining jobsince Seve Ballesteros ran around Valderrama pulling clubs for his players in1997.
Azinger'sfingerprints were all over this Ryder Cup before it even began. He hadoverhauled the team's selection process and gave himself four captain's picksinstead of the traditional two, increasing his flexibility but potentially alsohis culpability. He flip-flopped the order of play in last Friday's openingsession, going to alternate-shot foursomes even though it didn't really play tothe Americans' strengths; with the U.S. winless since 1999 and facing apowerhouse European squad that for the first time had all 12 players in the top50 in the World Ranking, it was change just for the sake of change. ButAzinger's most innovative move was breaking his team into three four-manclusters during the practice rounds, mingling his six rookies among veteranseager to offer leadership. The pairings for the competition would be drawn fromthese teams-within-a-team, and each quartet practiced together every day,allowing the players to get to know each other's games and personality quirksmore intimately. Throughout the week each group was overseen by the sameassistant captain, who kept tabs on everything from the players' puttingstrokes to the amount of electrolytes they were consuming.
"The playersteed it up, but this victory was 100 percent Zinger," Stewart Cink said onSunday evening, enjoying his first Ryder Cup win after three straight losses."He brought a very systematic approach. How we practiced, who we playedmatches with, it wasn't willy-nilly like at times in the past. The moststressful part of Ryder Cup week is always the uncertainty, but his system wenta long way to putting everyone at ease."
September 28, 2008
So too did theabsence of the injured Tiger Woods. He has tried to be a good teammate—and lastweek he texted Azinger a four-word pep talk: KICK THEIR F------ ASSES—but Woodsis a lone wolf who has made his legend by setting himself apart. Without Woodsthe Americans were "a team of equals," said rookie J.B. Holmes. "Wecame together like family." Minus Woods it was also easier for a cult ofpersonality to form around Azinger. Losing five of the last six Cups had led toa succession of uptight U.S. captains whose pinched demeanors only made theirplayers that much more jittery. Azinger, meanwhile, installed a foosball tablein the team room and took on all comers. ("He's in the top 50 on the careermoney list for foosball gambling," says Cink.) On the night before thecompetition began Azinger eschewed a solemn Gipper speech in favor of a raucouspep rally on the streets of downtown Louisville, and during the bus ride overhe whooped it up when irrepressible rookie Anthony Kim led a series of hip-hopinflected chants. The Mickelsons have been a part of 15 consecutive Ryder andPresidents Cup teams dating to 1994, and Phil's wife, Amy, said, "I thinkthis is the most relaxed team we've been around. There's just something aboutPaul—he's a guy's guy, and he brings out the kid in all of them."
YET THE Americansalso summoned the kind of grit that defined Azinger's playing days. ("TheAmerican team has 11 nice guys and Paul Azinger," Ballesteros said at along ago Ryder Cup, a comment that Zinger took as a compliment.) After losingthe first two holes in the opening foursomes sessions, Justin Leonard andcaptain's pick Hunter Mahan, a Ryder rookie, stormed to a 3-and-2 victory overPaul Casey and Henrik Stenson that stirred the ghosts of Brookline. (This wasLeonard's first Ryder Cup since he sank the putt heard 'round the world in'99.) The U.S. stole another match with a clutch birdie on the par-5 18th holewhen Cink busted a 360-yard drive and captain's pick Chad Campbell followedwith a five-iron of such purity that he later said, "I got chills as soon Ihit it."
But the realstory of the opening day was Mickelson, who arrived at Valhalla 1-9-1 in hisprevious 11 Ryder Cup matches. His hangdog countenance in all those lossesbecame the face of U.S. futility, but on Friday there was something noticeablydifferent about Mickelson. Azinger had divined that Mickelson would get acharge from the exuberance of the 23-year-old Kim, so he made them partners,not least because they share the DNA of flashy Southern California phenoms.Mickelson has never looked more animated or energized than he did over theclosing six holes as he and Kim brawled their way back from three down againstPadraig Harrington and Robert Karlsson to earn a crucial halve that wasn'tsecured until the rookie sank a knee-knocking five-footer for a tying par onthe last hole.
At 3--1 theAmericans took a lead into Friday afternoon for the first time since 1991, andthey weren't done. Playing the best golf of a long day, Leonard and Mahan sankthe Spanish armada of García and Miguel Angel Jiménez, 4 and 3. Only Azingerthought that teaming the Texans was an obvious pairing, but Leonard and Mahanperfectly alchemized their disparate games, and Leonard's wide-eyed intensityrubbed off on his laconic partner. Mahan had made headlines in advance of theCup with some unenthusiastic comments about the event. Now what did he think?"Best day of my life, man," he said.
Friday afternoonthe U.S. also unleashed its secret weapon, Thomas (Boo) Weekley, a self-styledgood ol' boy from Milton, Fla., who had never seen the likes of all the RyderCup pomp. Of his new team-issued wardrobe Weekley said, "These pants I'vegot on are probably the most expensive thing I've ever owned."
Weekley'sdown-home shtick played particularly well with the Kentucky galleries, whomWeekley revved up with nonstop cheerleading. This didn't sit well with one ofhis Friday four-ball opponents, Lee Westwood, a proper English gent who enduredWeekley's histrionics with the puckered look of a man who had just tasted a badshepherd's pie. But Weekley is, among other things, one of the purest ballstrikers in the world, and on the 12th hole he shaped a huge hook around atowering tree and then coaxed in a 30-footer to win the hole, celebrating witha series of lusty fist pumps that loosed some inadvertent spittle from the fatpinch of chewing tobacco stuffed behind his lower lip. All of this was set to asound track of "Boo-S-A!" That birdie helped Weekley and Holmes fightWestwood and Soren Hansen to a draw, the 12th consecutive match Westwood hadplayed without a loss, tying Arnold Palmer's record.
The key battle ofthe opening afternoon turned out to be Mickelson and Kim versus Harrington andGraeme McDowell. Kim pulled off a series of clutch shots—including stiffing histee shot on the par-3 14th hole to give the U.S. its first lead—but it wasMickelson who led the way with seven birdies, including one on each of thefinal two holes to ice a 2-up victory. In the Friday twilight he and Kimcracked jokes and exchanged low fives as they awaited a TV interview on the18th green. They were the very picture of team spirit, and Kim's girlfriend,Lisa Pruett, couldn't contain herself. "Aaawww, look how cute they aretogether," she cooed.
At 5 1/2 to 2 1/2the U.S. had its first Friday-night lead since 1995, with Mickelson-Kim andLeonard-Mahan providing 3 1/2 of the points. The charmed pairings were nosurprise to U.S. assistant captain Olin Browne. "If you only know Zingerfrom his TV work, you think he's pretty off-the-cuff, but there's so much depththere," says Browne. "He's insightful, he's thoughtful, he's thorough,and most important, he has a tremendous ability to connect to people and toread them."
UNITY HAS alwaysbeen the hallmark of the European squad, but the usual good vibes disappearedafter the disastrous opening day, and Faldo was at the center of it all, asusual. Early in Ryder Cup week he had made so many minor missteps one Britishtabloid deemed him CAPTAIN COCK-UP in an unforgettable headline. But all ofthat was nothing compared with the media firestorm that erupted after theannouncement of his Saturday morning foursomes' pairings. Faldo benched his twomost accomplished Ryder Cuppers, the unbeatable Westwood and García, who were amind-boggling 8-0-1 in foursomes play. The jingoistic European media contingentis notorious for cheering on its team in the press center, but by now the FleetStreeters were openly rooting against their side out of antipathy to Faldo, whobefore his recent image makeover had spent a quarter century as golf's biggest"pr---", to use Azinger's less-than-delicate description from earlierthis year.
Yet the Europeansrallied around their embattled captain, taking 2 1/2 points in the session toclose the deficit and set up an afternoon of classic Ryder Cup golf. Three ofthe four better-ball matches went to the 18th hole, and the final hour of playwas so tense that Azinger confided he was experiencing stomach cramps. The keymoment for the Americans came when captain's pick Steve Stricker buried ado-or-die 20-footer for a birdie on the 18th hole to secure a halve against theduo of García and Casey. Azinger later said, "I think that putt made thedifference in these matches for us."
So heading intosingles the U.S. led 9--7, needing 5 1/2 more points to bring home the Cup. OnSaturday night the mood in the team room is always telling. This time it wasthe Europeans who were overwrought, as magisterial assistant captain José MaríaOlaàbal gave an impassioned speech that had more than one European playerblinking back tears. By contrast, the Americans enjoyed their mellowest nightof the week. "There was no Kumbaya moment," says Browne. "The RyderCup is all about sphincter factor, isn't it? The guys were loose, they wereready to play, so Paul just let 'em be."
The first slot inSunday singles is usually reserved for the team's emotional leader, and thatwas certainly the case when the Euros sent out García. Azinger took a flier onKim, and why not? "He has Tiger's confidence level," Cink said onSunday night. "Honestly, I think some of the guys on the other team wereafraid to play him." They certainly will be next time around, as Kim madeseven birdies over the first 13 holes in giving García a 5-and-4 spanking. TheU.S. got another important early point from Kenny Perry, the 48-year-oldFranklin, Ky., native who gave the week its beating heart. Weekley, finishingoff an unbeaten debut, came through with six birdies, an eagle and, after hisvictory over Oliver Wilson, three theatrical bows to the crowd at the 16thgreen. Holmes, another Kentucky boy, from Campbellsville, drew the U.S. withina point of victory with an impressive win over Hansen, and moments later JimFuryk clinched the Cup when Jiménez conceded a two-footer on the 17th hole.Faldo had optimistically sent out two of his best players—Westwood andHarrington—in the final two matches, and typical of the captain's miserableweek, both were rendered obsolete by the early returns. (With the Cup outcomealready decided, both would eventually lose anyway, to Ben Curtis and Campbell,respectively.)
Azinger, whoturns 49 in January, was expansive after the victory, singling out each playerby name and saying of having reclaimed the Cup, "This is bigger to me thananything I've ever been a part of."
The only thingAzinger didn't feel like discussing were the finer points of what he called his"team-building system." That may or may not be because by Sunday nightthere was already a movement afoot to alter Azinger's future in a way thatdoesn't include senior golf. Said Cink, "He doesn't want to give away allof his secrets because we may force him to come back in two years and do thisall over again."
For his part,Azinger would only make one commitment following the rousing U.S. victory:"I'm not going to think about [another captaincy]," he said. "I'mjust going to stay up all night and party with my boys."
"He has Tiger's confidence level," Cink saidof Kim. "I think some of the guys on the other team were AFRAID TO PLAYHIM."
"This is BIGGER TO ME THAN ANYTHING I've ever beena part of," Azinger said of reclaiming the Cup for the U.S.
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