Azinger's 13th man brings U.S. the Ryder Cup

Azinger’s 13th man brings U.S. the Ryder Cup

Anthony Kim celebrated with the home crowd after his win over Sergio Garcia.
Fred Vuich/SI

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — They’ll never get credit in the history books, but it was Paul Azinger’s 13th Man, all 40,000 of them, who won the 37th Ryder Cup for the United States. Captain America’s two-year plan to fire up his players and the Kentucky crowd worked.

Azinger had the unenviable task of trying to turn around the fortunes of a team that had lost three Ryder Cups in a row, including record defeats in the last two matches. The low point was the last home stand at Oakland Hills in 2004, when even the home fans in Detroit turned on the downbeat U.S. players. Azinger knew how important it was to get the home fans on his side, and he did his utmost to create a less-than-friendly environment for the away team. He knew that the crowd was crucial in two previous American wins. Remember the Desert Storm camouflage hats at Kiawah Island in 1991? Remember the boozy Boston crowd in the Battle of Brookline in 1999?

“The fans in Kentucky can be the 13th man,” Azinger said. “They’re rabid fans; they understand rivalries. They serve alcohol there, so anything is possible. But my message really will be simply that I want the crowd to be completely into it, but in the end sportsmanship plays out. But at the same time, I want this crowd to be raucous and unruly too, to a point where they’re not out of line.”

The captain himself was the ringleader. His team threw what Azinger said must have been 10,000 lapel pins into the galleries when the team arrived to play its first practice rounds on Tuesday. He and his team also held a Ryder Cup pep rally on Thursday night. The players fired T-shirts out of a cannon to fans partying on Fourth Street in downtown Louisville.

The slogan on the shirts reflected Azinger’s masterplan: “I’m the 13th Man.” Azinger also told fans that it was OK to cheer when the Europeans missed putts, remarks that he refused to apologize for. “I think I said ‘You can cheer when they miss,'” Azinger said. “Essentially, when we go over there, they cheer when we miss.”

Azinger said he was educating the American fans in the ways of the Ryder Cup. “I don’t think that the American fans are really into what the Ryder Cup is all about,” he explained. “It wasn’t meant to be malicious. The European fans get it.”

Azinger also gave a wild-card pick to Kentuckian J.B. Holmes and spent the practice days telling everyone that he was going to pair him with Kenny Perry, the other homeboy, “to get this place rockin’.”

It was a bluff, but a darned clever one. It made the headlines, engaged the locals and fueled the hype. And then Azinger unleashed his secret weapon: Boo Weekley. And Weekley got right under the skin of his English opponent, Lee Westwood.

Weekley became the Americans’ on-course cheerleader, waving his arms at the galleries to crank up the volume. By the weekend, the now traditional cheers of “Boooooooo” had turned into “Boo-S-A! Boo-S-A!”

“They have taken a good hammering the last couple of times, and they had to try something,” Westwood said on Friday. “If that means whipping the crowd into a frenzy, then so be it … I didn’t expect the players to get involved, though, quite as much as they have done.”

On Sunday afternoon, the Englishman was still upset. “I’ve been abused all week, and I don’t think that’s golf,” he said. “Some of the things that have been said to me have been shameful.”

At the start of his Sunday singles match against Oliver Wilson, Weekley even paid homage to the Kentucky Derby by riding his driver up the first fairway like Seabiscuit’s jockey. “I wanted to ride it on to the clubhouse because we’re ready to celebrate,” Weekley said.

But Boo wasn’t alone in encouraging the galleries. Anthony Kim’s arms were in constant motion, and Hunter Mahan borrowed Tiger Woods’s fist pump. Azinger stood up at the wheel of his cart and zipped around waving his cap at the home fans like a NASCAR driver on a victory lap.

“I wish we weren’t so outnumbered in the crowd,” Faldo said. “We could have done with a few more faces over here in the crowd. Maybe the gas prices had something to do with it.”

After his win on Sunday, Weekley finally admitted that golf is better than hunting and fishing, and he praised the home fans as he handed them beer and champagne.

“I love them,” he said. “I appreciate them being here and supporting the team. I’ve fed off it all week. They [the Europeans] took it to us the last couple of years. And now it’s time for us to take it back. You get chills when they start hollering your name and ‘U.S.A!'”