Azinger’s changes assure a productive Ryder captaincy regardless of results

Paul Azinger
Robert Beck/SI

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. – The 37th Ryder Cup starts 44 days from now in Kentucky, and U.S. captain Paul Azinger is evasive about how he will define a successful captaincy.

At his press conference at the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills on Wednesday, Azinger was asked if only a victory would suffice, and twice responded with a defiant, "What do you think?"

"Next question," Azinger said, thwarting the befuddled questioner.

Translation: Yes, the U.S. skipper will chafe at anything less than a W. He's wired that way. In the wake of two straight 18 1/2 to 9 1/2 drubbings by Team Europe, and the season-ending knee injury of Tiger Woods, it's a tall order. But regardless of the outcome Sept. 19-21, Azinger has done the sensible thing by turning the U.S. Cup effort upside down and shaking vigorously.

First came the announcement that U.S. qualification would be based on the money list, not top-10s. The move was overdue because the PGA Tour is so rife with international players almost half of all potential U.S. Ryder points were going unclaimed.

Then, more importantly, Azinger added emphasis to results from Ryder Cup years, making it all but impossible for a hot player in early 2007 to coast into a spot on the 2008 roster. And just in case someone did manage to slip into the ninth or 10th spot in the point standings without showing much form, Cap'n Paul did away with those, leaving only eight automatic qualifiers.

That leaves four wildcard spots, which Azinger admitted Wednesday will be harder to fill than he anticipated. Boo Weekley (7), Steve Stricker (8), Woody Austin (9), Hunter Mahan (10), D.J. Trahan (11), Rocco Mediate (12), Sean O'Hair (13), Zach Johnson (14), Brandt Snedeker (15) and J.B. Holmes (16) are among those who could find themselves in need of a captain's pick.

Holmes is a Kentuckian who thrives in the macho theater of match play, dispatching Phil Mickelson in sudden death at the FBR early this season, and nearly beating Woods at the WGC-Accenture. It's no secret that Azinger loves the guy.

Austin is "a good match-play player," Azinger said, while Mahan is an "amazing player who leads the Tour in greens in regulation."

Trahan has "great hands," Azinger added, while Mediate "should be the U.S. Open champion."

"Actually, any of those guys I'm happy with," the U.S. captain said, adding that even a player as low as 24th on the points list could make the team with a late surge.

In yet another change, Azinger will not announce his four picks on the Monday after the PGA, as was custom, but on Sept. 2., creating a sort of three-week audition (Greensboro, Barclays and Deutsche Bank) for those who don't make up the great eight this Sunday night.

"I think the system right now is producing what I think should be the best Americans we have to offer," Azinger said. He's also changed the order of play, leading off with the more Yank-friendly alternate-shot format in lieu of best-ball Friday morning.

"If Europe beats us again," Zinger said, "then it's time to say maybe they are beating us because they are just that much better."

Among those in line to make the U.S. team, Anthony Kim (5), Weekley and Stricker would be rookies. (Azinger urged those certain to make the team to play practice rounds together at Oakland Hills.) The next five players on the points list, Nos. 9-13, have zero Ryder Cup experience, but Azinger isn't bothered.

"I've said this all along, that to me, experience is important but it's overrated," he said. "I mean, experience now, anyone who has played in the last six Ryder Cups has experienced getting their ass beat. So, I mean, I'm not looking for experience. I want players that are playing well and that are hot. We're going to probably have seven rookies on this team, unless an experienced player gets hot, then I'll pick him.

"My best Ryder Cup," Azinger said in his final comments from the dais, "was my first Ryder Cup. I had no experience."

He's got no experience as Ryder Cup captain, either, but thanks to his willingness to shake things up, it'll almost certainly be the best performance by a captain since Ben Crenshaw in 1999. Depending on what happens at Valhalla, it could be better.