In other team sports — pennant-race baseball would be Exhibit A — a cliche in better clubhouses everywhere is, “On this team we have a different hero every night.” And so it was for Team USA at the Ryder Cup. The golfing lads, in uniform for the week, played five in three days, all day games: the Friday morning alternate shot, the Friday afternoon better-ball, with more of the same on Saturday, then concluding with the Sunday singles. Your American golfing heroes:
• Justin Leonard in Session 1, during which the diminutive Texan, thin-lipped and gritty, putted as he did during the Clinton years while introducing his playing partner, fellow Lone Star Stater Hunter Mahan, to the peculiar ways of alternate-shot golf and the unique intensity of the Ryder Cup.
• Phil Mickelson in Session 2, during which the dimpled lefthander from San Diego, with a pedestrian team-events record over the past 15 years, played the Leonard role for another rookie, introducing a fellow Californian, Anthony Kim, to better-ball Ryder Cup play.
• Kenny Perry in Session 3, during which the pride of Franklin, Ky., paired with Jim Furyk to handily defeat one of the strongest European pairings, Padraig Harrington of Ireland and Robert Karlsson of Sweden, along the way giving one million (or at least 40,000) flag-waving Kentuckians on the Valhalla Golf Club hillsides reason to cheer even more lustily.
• Boo Weekley in Session 4, during which the good ol’ boy from the Florida panhandle paired with long-whacking Kentuckian J.B. Holmes, whooped and spat his way around the course while holing putts and winning the only full U.S. point of the Saturday afternoon session, along the way also winning adoption by the partisan, drawling crowds as an honorary Bluegrasser.
• Kim in Session 5, during which the loose, talented 23-year-old, playing against Sergio Garcia of Spain in the critical leadoff position in the Sunday singles, made 10 3s in 14 holes, giving the U.S. its first point of the day and setting the tone.
Kim, winner of two Tour events this year, was given the leadoff position by Paul Azinger because, the U.S. captain said, he had an “aggressive” personality. Which Azinger definitely meant as a compliment. “I welcomed it,” Kim said of his spot in the order. He has shown, this year in general and last week in particular, that his confidence is not simply a facade, that he is the second-best American golfer and that he may be ready to go head-to-head with Tiger Woods. If Ryder Cup golf doesn’t freak you out, nothing really should.
Part of Kim’s success last week was a product of his natural exuberance. He’s as outgoing as Woods is reserved, and in victory on Sunday, Kim slapped hands with hundreds of fans and doused them with champagne, never taking a Purell break. (Woods is germ-phobic.) Kim said of his Ryder Cup experience, “I wouldn’t trade this for $10 million.”
As a coach, Mickelson was superb last week. He slowed Kim down at times, putting an arm around his shoulder and getting right in his ear. Mickelson’s own golf was good at times but mediocre overall. (He was trounced by Justin Rose in the singles.) Still, from start to finish Mickelson seemed like a 24-hour party person, and Kim was a big reason why. “He’s just a funny, funny dude,” Mickelson said. “I had the best time hanging out with him.” It was the latest example of the teacher learning from the student.
Then there was the natural: Weekley. Every successful team has a mascot. Last year, when the U.S. won the Presidents Cup, Woody Austin played that role memorably, and at Valhalla, Weekley may have outdone him. Weekley concocted a word, compatabate, that was immediately employed by his 11 teammates to describe the high goal of team unity. Azinger spoke often of the importance of the 13th man, the Kentucky fans, and no player did more to inspire them, including galloping off the 1st tee on Sunday with his driver between his legs as if it were a hobbyhorse. Weekley is viewed on Tour as a loner, somewhat diffident. Last week, between his teammates and the fans, the honorary Kentuckian looked as if he had found love, maybe for the first time as a pro. He said of his team, “I think we actually became a family.” He was dead serious.
Among Kentuckians, there was probably nobody on either team that needed victory more than Perry. He’s had a long, remunerative and mostly unremarkable career, and before last week he had done two memorable things: He lost the 1996 PGA Championship at Valhalla in a playoff to Mark Brooks, and he skipped this year’s U.S. and British Opens in order, by his thinking, to help secure a place on the Ryder team. As for the other majors, he wasn’t in the field at the Masters, and he pulled out of the PGA after one round with a scratched cornea. At Valhalla he finished the week 2-1-1 after a resounding singles victory over Henrik Stenson. “I figured this week was going to define my career,” Perry said. “You know what? It made my career.”
The career of Leonard, the 1997 British Open champion who had fallen out of the top 100 by 2006, has been back on solid ground for two years, but last week he showed that he might be ready to contend in majors again. He played twice on Friday with Mahan and did so again on Saturday morning, winning 21/2 points. (On Saturday afternoon, when Azinger wanted to rest him, Leonard walked the course, following his teammates and eschewing the cart offered him.) He won those points the way he won his Open, and the way he got into a playoff in another British Open and in a PGA — with his putter. It’s one thing to win at Memphis with good putting, which Leonard did in June. It’s another thing to make good strokes in the Ryder Cup. Last week his stroke was so solid and reliable, it brought to mind only one other in golf: that of Tiger Woods himself. “This week,” Leonard said, “is a step in that direction, to contend in majors again.”
At Valhalla, when Leonard wasn’t making putts, he was managing the considerable talents of his partner, Mahan, who, like most young golfers, can be a high-strung perfectionist. (Leonard himself used to be one.) “What I told him,” Leonard said, “was that Hunter Mahan golf was good enough.” Mahan, in his interviews, was using that language almost verbatim, and no doubt the words were a factor in propelling him to a stellar 2-0-3 performance. He had come to the Ryder Cup looking to bury critical comments he had made about the event, and he could’ve tried too hard, but Leonard surely helped with that.
As he sat next to Azinger at the postvictory press conference, it was easy to see Leonard as a future Ryder Cup captain. He has the detail-oriented personality that the PGA bosses like, and he has the critical win-the-point, no-crying-in-public mentality that typified Azinger’s reign. When Leonard spoke of the keys to the U.S. victory, he went technical right away: Azinger had reworked the selection process, and that made an enormous difference. Someday, Leonard said, he’d love to be captain.
Azinger would accept no such credit. He cited the rookies, the course maintenance, the returning lettermen, the fans, the players’ wives, the opponents, the PGA of America officials, the caddies. One stud per session — someone on Friday morning, someone else on Friday afternoon, do it again on Saturday and Sunday — Azinger didn’t see it that way, and why would he? “Victory,” John F. Kennedy once said, “has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” For the Americans, you could explain the U.S. win a hundred ways, with a different hero in each retelling.