BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. A PGA Championship in a Ryder Cup year always gives the tournament a little extra juice. For one thing, you have Ryder Cup captains on the loose. Two years ago, it was Tom Lehman, lurking around trees, spying on the talent, analyzing his potential picks. Two years before that, Hal Sutton was doing the same. Two before that, Curtis Strange; three years before that, Ben Crenshaw.
They all brought their own thing to it: Lehman, uber-sensitivity; Sutton, a healthy dose of kick-assism; Strange, post-9/11, struggling to find the right tone; Crenshaw, his boyish wonder, culminating in a green-kissing. Good characters, all of them. All of them lost, except Crenshaw, and his win was out of a Mark Frost book.
And then there's this year's guy, Paul Azinger, the biggest character of them all. A good player with a bizarrely strong grip. A guy who sees everything and comments on everything, who stared in amazement one year at the Hawaiian Open as he watched the gyrations of a lady marshal who gave full body English to her ball-direction signals. On Thursday, he hit his opening tee shot with a fairway wood, came off the tee, rifled through the coolers filled with waters and sports drinks and energy bars, found something he liked, made a fist and flexed a muscle and said, "Striped it." He went on to make the cut this week and finish 19 over, tied for 63rd.
It's actually kind of amazing that he got the job as Ryder Cup captain because there's sort of a rebel streak in him. He's always been one to analyze and tweak the various moves made by PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem and his deputy, Henry Hughes. Earlier this year, he was an outspoken critic of the Tour's new drug-testing policy, believing that it gives too much power to the commissioner and is too harsh on so-called recreational drugs. He believes what a player does in his private life, if it does not impact his behavior as a Tour player, should not be monitored by the PGA Tour brass. There's a wide libertarian streak in the man.
Tom Lehman, bless his likable soul, had a devoutly religious, Byron Nelson-inspired theme going on with his team that went something like, "Play the game with the right spirit, and everything else will take care of itself." You may remember the result in Dublin. (Trounce-city.) Zinger will not be going down that road. He had this funny who's-on-first exchange in a press conference earlier this week.
Reporter: Can anything other than a win be regarded as a success for you?
Azinger: What do you think?
Reporter: Well, I'd like you to say it.
Azinger: Say what?
Reporter: What you think.
Azinger: About what?
Reporter: My question.
Azinger: What was the question again?
Reporter: Can anything other than a win be regarded as a success?
Azinger: What do you think?
Reporter: I'm not paid to be Ryder Cup captain.
Azinger: I'm not paid either.
Azinger is actually great with reporters, and earlier this year he was quoted in a British tabloid dissing the European Ryder Cup captain, Nick Faldo. Some writers tried to turn it into a big thing, that there really was some sort of venom between the two men, Ryder Cup competitors years ago, foils in the ABC booth in more recent years.
In actual fact, the two men are buds, and their twist-the-needle shtick on TV worked because it was real and because it was fun. Last month at the British Open at Royal Birkdale, Azinger and Faldo went out for refreshments together at least twice. They've been debating who has a harder job: Faldo, who has 10 players who make the team automatically and must pick two players; or Zinger, who has eight players who make the team automatically and must pick four players.
Azinger is a real student of human behavior, and one of the things he's trying to do now is get deep inside Faldo's head and figure out what Faldo plans to do with his pairings. Crafty, crafty man.
At the PGA Championship, Zinger was in the field and Faldo was in the broadcast booth. Advantage Zinger. Zinger has always been a live wire and has had no late-40s personality change. Advantage Zinger. Faldo was one of the greatest Ryder Cup players ever. Advantage Faldo. Faldo was a first-ballot Hall of Farmer. Advantage Faldo.
When Zinger looked at the rainy leader board on Saturday after he had completed his third round, he saw that one of his favorite young players, the long-smashing J.B. Holmes, a birdie machine, was leading. Holmes beat Phil Mickelson earlier this year in a sudden-death playoff in Phoenix, but he wilted under the pressure at Oakland Hills on Sunday, shooting 81.
Still, Holmes is from Kentucky, where the matches will be played this year, which makes him an interesting candidate for the team.
When asked about the chances of having two Kentuckians Holmes and Kenny Perry, who has a secured spot on the team that will meet in Louisville in mid-September, Azinger said: "It would be out of control. I'm confident the Kentucky crowd is going to be well behaved and extremely raucous and supportive of the team, and I'm relying on them to be our 13th man."
He then went on to make his case that the Americans really are the underdogs this year.
If the Cup were decided by its captains, you could name the winner now. Unfortunately for Azinger, the play of the 24 players has the final say.