2008 U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Paul Azinger

After losing two consecutive Ryder Cups by the same terrible score of 18 1/2 to 9 1/2, the PGA of America will need every break to fall just right for the U.S. to be competitive again at the 2008 matches at Valhalla. After the PGA announced on Monday that PGA champion, cancer survivor and ABC announcer Paul Azinger will captain the team, so far, so good.

Azinger’s appointment, which was reported by the AP last week, was perhaps the worst kept secret in golf. He was approached about the job in 2004, but declined in order to concentrate on his own game. He had a 5-7-3 record in four Ryder Cups, and was widely regarded as one of the game’s fiercest competitors. His 1989 singles victory over Spain’s Seve Ballesteros is considered one of the most acrimonious matches in the event’s volatile history.

Azinger, whose taste for the fight is remarkable even on the hyper-competitive PGA Tour, will be exempt on the Tour in 2007, but his playing career has been winding down for the last five years. As it has he’s sought new outlets for his competitive fire. He took up foosball, played in the World Series of Poker and formed a winning tandem in the ABC broadcast booth with Nick Faldo, who will lead the European team in ’08. The two captains clashed several times as Ryder players, including a match in which Faldo sauntered across the putting green and conspicuously stood behind Azinger’s partner Chip Beck.

“I’ll read my partner’s putts, thanks,” Azinger said.

“Just trying to help,” Faldo replied jauntily.

The two laughed about the incident as broadcasters, and in fact Azinger really didn’t need the help, going 2-0-2 in their matches. His Ryder teams won twice (’91, ’93) and lost twice (’89, ’02), but he now takes over an American team that has lost three in a row.

The losing streak is expected to test even Azinger’s formidable will to win. A few years ago he and his caddie and I were on the practice green at Bay Hill, and most everyone else had gone home, as it was dark. But Azinger started a game that did not require a ball, just a club. The object: Pick out a hole, close your eyes and walk to that hole that’s now in your mind’s eye. When you think you’re over it, put the club grip-down to the grass. Closest to the hole wins.

The drill is meant to help with distance control on the greens, or just to pass the time, but Azinger played to win, and more often than not, he did. Now, with the 2008 captaincy decided, the PGA, the game’s top pros and countless American golf fans will close their eyes and think of 1999, the last time the U.S. won, and hope that Paul Azinger can lead the way back.

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