Paul Azinger had a lot of Ryder Cup theories, and he wasn't afraid to share them. The conventional wisdom of pairing a long bomber with a deft putter was not very wise, he said, and neither was picking a Ryder Cup vet over an emerging would-be rookie.
What was Europe doing right? Where was America going wrong? Azinger had answers for all of the above, and more. This was back in 2005, when I was hanging around with the 1993 PGA champion for a story on his foosball hobby. Nobody had appointed him to captain anything, but he knew, as others did, that his day would come. The man is wired for the Cup.
That Azinger's underdog U.S. team won, 16 1/2 to 11 1/2, at Valhalla on Sunday does many things, first and foremost renewing a rivalry that had gone stale from two consecutive 9-point drubbings by Europe. But it also answers definitively the question of whether or not the captain really matters in these things.
Um, yes, it does.
European captain Nick Faldo is being marinated for the biggest barbecue of his life. Even before the 37th Ryder Cup matches began, the ruthless British press dubbed him "Captain Cock-up" for inadvertently revealing his Friday pairings. They appeared to be scrawled on a slip of paper in his hand, and came to light when the Euro captain seemed to forget that the Ryder Cup might attract photographers with expensive lenses.
Faldo nearly came to tears when he was asked about meeting Muhammad Ali on Thursday, an all-too-human reaction from a man not known for his warmth, but his strangest move was to leave both Darren Clarke and Colin Montgomerie off his team. Even for American fans, the absence of both players from a Ryder Cup was palpable, like a phantom limb.
But as much as the European press will eviscerate Nick the Not so Quick, Azinger's moves had a far greater impact. He began to put his stamp on the 2008 Ryder Cup the moment he was introduced as captain on November 6, 2006. He said the points system would now emphasize performance in the year of the actual Cup, not the year previous. He wanted the hot players.
He said he would be taking four captain's picks, not two.
He said he wanted "guys on the team that say 'dude.'"
"Experience," he said, "is way overrated."
And so he got at a team with six rookies, including the breakout star of the Cup, 23-year-old Anthony Kim, who throttled Sergio Garcia 5 and 4 Sunday and finished the week with two and a half points (2-1-1).
Paul Azinger got a team with lots of guys who say "dude," a guy who lets his driver speak for him in J.B. Holmes, and even a player who speaks a language all his own in Boo Weekley.
Every team needs a jester, a guy who can be relied on to keep things light, but you get the feeling Azinger knows that. (Clarke has filled that role for Europe.) Woody Austin kept the 2007 Presidents Cup team laughing, and with Azinger encouraging Boo to be Boo, Weekley kept everyone but Lee Westwood in stitches in Louisville. On Sunday, while thrashing Oliver Wilson 4 and 2, the U.S. team's southern comfort threw a leg over his driver and actually began to ride the thing, up and down, like it was Trigger. Can you imagine Davis Love III doing that?
Azinger not only changed the selection process, he altered the order of play, starting the competition with alternate-shot (foursomes) instead of best-ball (four ball). For whatever reason, the American team had enjoyed more success at foursomes, and so he let them play that game first. It panned out in a big way, as the Americans got off to a quick 3-1 lead and never trailed.
When you think about the Cup as much as Azinger has, you understand these things. Seve Ballesteros breathed the Ryder Cup in the same way; as the captain of Europe's 1997 team, he was the one who changed the order of play to best-ball in the morning, for the same reason that Azinger changed it back. It gave his team the best possible chance.
If Azinger was Ballesteros, and Weekley was Austin, then Kim was Garcia, the irrepressible, incandescent talent running and jumping all over the course while piling up points and reminding even veterans like Phil Mickelson that this is supposed to be fun.
A team needs that, just as it needs a jester. But odds are Azinger did not consciously sit down and try to fill all of these holes. He intuited it.
When you think about the Cup as much as Azinger has, you appreciate the significance of having local talent on your team. And you get the importance of attitude. So when you notice Bluegrass State native Holmes strutting off the tee at the FBR Open while taking out Mickelson in sudden-death, and almost beating Tiger Woods eye-to-eye after that, you recognize things may be breaking your way. And when Kentuckian Kenny Perry wins three times to free up a captain's pick, you know things are breaking your way.
But you never say these things. You say to anyone with a microphone that your team is simply lucky to be in the same zip code as these Europeans, a team so stocked full of talent it gives you nightmares. You say this is their Ryder Cup to lose, no question.
His assertion that experience is overrated proved true with his selections of rookies Holmes (2.5 points) and Hunter Mahan (3.5 points), who won and halved their singles matches on Sunday to remain undefeated for the week. Chad Campbell, who unexpectedly beat Padraig Harrington, 2 and 1, finished with 2 points. Among the four U.S. captain's picks, only Steve Stricker never really found his groove, but even he didn't get skunked, earning a half point.
Maybe Azinger intuited that the 9th and 10th men to qualify for the U.S. team on merit have historically earned fewer points than the two captain's picks. Or maybe he actually did the math.
In the end, who knows why he did anything? Why did he call Faldo a word that rhymes with "trick" with a U.K. writer's tape recorder running? Why did he make such an effort to have goofy T-shirts printed up for a "13th man" rally in Louisville on Thursday night, and why did his entire team join him on stage?
Why did he have Lou Holtz talk to his team, when his team's youthful "dude" demographic probably doesn't know him from any other TV talking head?
Paul Azinger has a feeling for this event like Ben Crenshaw had a feeling that something special was going to happen on the last day of the 1999 Ryder Cup. The PGA of America has settled into a one-and-done mentality for its captains, but after Valhalla, the Ryder Cup that got turned on its head, that's one more custom worth abandoning immediately.