New leadership leads U.S. team to first Ryder Cup since 1999

New leadership leads U.S. team to first Ryder Cup since 1999

Paul Azinger
Kohjiro Kinno/SI

On sunday evening in Louisville, in the giddy moments after the Ryder Cup had concluded, victorious U.S. captain Paul Azinger methodically sought out every member of the European team amid the sweaty, sloppy masses swarming the 17th green at Valhalla Golf Club and offered a soul handshake, a hug and a few heartfelt words. When he got to Sergio Garcia, Azinger whispered in his ear, “Good luck the rest of your career — I’m off to the Senior tour.”

It figures that with the Ryder Cup in the books for only a few minutes, Azinger was already working on his exit strategy. This Cup will be remembered for the passionate play of the home team, but the 16 1/2-11 1/2 U.S. victory was a monument to the preparation of Azinger, who pulled off the most dominant captaining job since Seve Ballesteros ran around Valderrama pulling clubs for his players in 1997.

Azinger’s fingerprints were all over this Ryder Cup before it even began. He had overhauled the team’s selection process and gave himself four captain’s picks instead of the traditional two, increasing his flexibility but potentially also his culpability. He flip-flopped the order of play in last Friday’s opening session, going to alternate-shot foursomes even though it didn’t really play to the Americans’ strengths; with the U.S. winless since 1999 and facing a powerhouse European squad that for the first time had all 12 players in the top 50 in the World Ranking, it was change just for the sake of change. But Azinger’s most innovative move was breaking his team into three four-man clusters during the practice rounds, mingling his six rookies among veterans eager to offer leadership. The pairings for the competition would be drawn from these teams-within-a-team, and each quartet practiced together every day, allowing the players to get to know each other’s games and personality quirks more intimately. Throughout the week each group was overseen by the same assistant captain, who kept tabs on everything from the players’ putting strokes to the amount of electrolytes they were consuming.

“The players teed it up, but this victory was 100 percent Zinger,” Stewart Cink said on Sunday evening, enjoying his first Ryder Cup win after three straight losses. “He brought a very systematic approach. How we practiced, who we played matches with, it wasn’t willy-nilly like at times in the past. The most stressful part of Ryder Cup week is always the uncertainty, but his system went a long way to putting everyone at ease.”

So too did the absence of the injured Tiger Woods. He has tried to be a good teammate — and last week he texted Azinger a four-word pep talk: kick their f—— asses — but Woods is a lone wolf who has made his legend by setting himself apart. Without Woods the Americans were “a team of equals,” said rookie J.B. Holmes. “We came together like family.” Minus Woods it was also easier for a cult of personality to form around Azinger. Losing five of the last six Cups had led to a succession of uptight U.S. captains whose pinched demeanors only made their players that much more jittery. Azinger, meanwhile, installed a foosball table in the team room and took on all comers. (“He’s in the top 50 on the career money list for foosball gambling,” says Cink.) On the night before the competition began Azinger eschewed a solemn Gipper speech in favor of a raucous pep rally on the streets of downtown Louisville, and during the bus ride over he whooped it up when irrepressible rookie Anthony Kim led a series of hip-hop inflected chants. The Mickelsons have been a part of 15 consecutive Ryder and Presidents Cup teams dating to 1994, and Phil’s wife, Amy, said, “I think this is the most relaxed team we’ve been around. There’s just something about Paul — he’s a guy’s guy, and he brings out the kid in all of them.”

Yet the Americans also summoned the kind of grit that defined Azinger’s playing days. (“The American team has 11 nice guys and Paul Azinger,” Ballesteros said at a long ago Ryder Cup, a comment that Zinger took as a compliment.) After losing the first two holes in the opening foursomes sessions, Justin Leonard and captain’s pick Hunter Mahan, a Ryder rookie, stormed to a 3-and-2 victory over Paul Casey and Henrik Stenson that stirred the ghosts of Brookline. (This was Leonard’s first Ryder Cup since he sank the putt heard ’round the world in ’99.) The U.S. stole another match with a clutch birdie on the par-5 18th hole when Cink busted a 360-yard drive and captain’s pick Chad Campbell followed with a five-iron of such purity that he later said, “I got chills as soon I hit it.”

But the real story of the opening day was Mickelson, who arrived at Valhalla 1-9-1 in his previous 11 Ryder Cup matches. His hangdog countenance in all those losses became the face of U.S. futility, but on Friday there was something noticeably different about Mickelson. Azinger had divined that Mickelson would get a charge from the exuberance of the 23-year-old Kim, so he made them partners, not least because they share the DNA of flashy Southern California phenoms. Mickelson has never looked more animated or energized than he did over the closing six holes as he and Kim brawled their way back from three down against Padraig Harrington and Robert Karlsson to earn a crucial halve that wasn’t secured until the rookie sank a knee-knocking five-footer for a tying par on the last hole.

At 3-1 the Americans took a lead into Friday afternoon for the first time since 1991, and they weren’t done. Playing the best golf of a long day, Leonard and Mahan sank the Spanish armada of Garcia and Miguel Angel Jimenez, 4 and 3. Only Azinger thought that teaming the Texans was an obvious pairing, but Leonard and Mahan perfectly alchemized their disparate games, and Leonard’s wide-eyed intensity rubbed off on his laconic partner. Mahan had made headlines in advance of the Cup with some unenthusiastic comments about the event. Now what did he think? “Best day of my life, man,” he said.

Friday afternoon the U.S. also unleashed its secret weapon, Thomas (Boo) Weekley, a self-styled good ol’ boy from Milton, Fla., who had never seen the likes of all the Ryder Cup pomp. Of his new team-issued wardrobe Weekley said, “These pants I’ve got on are probably the most expensive thing I’ve ever owned.”

Weekley’s down-home shtick played particularly well with the Kentucky galleries, whom Weekley revved up with nonstop cheerleading. This didn’t sit well with one of his Friday four-ball opponents, Lee Westwood, a proper English gent who endured Weekley’s histrionics with the puckered look of a man who had just tasted a bad shepherd’s pie. But Weekley is, among other things, one of the purest ball strikers in the world, and on the 12th hole he shaped a huge hook around a towering tree and then coaxed in a 30-footer to win the hole, celebrating with a series of lusty fist pumps that loosed some inadvertent spittle from the fat pinch of chewing tobacco stuffed behind his lower lip. All of this was set to a sound track of “Boo-S-A!” That birdie helped Weekley and Holmes fight Westwood and Soren Hansen to a draw, the 12th consecutive match Westwood had played without a loss, tying Arnold Palmer’s record.

The key battle of the opening afternoon turned out to be Mickelson and Kim versus Harrington and Graeme McDowell. Kim pulled off a series of clutch shots — including stiffing his tee shot on the par-3 14th hole to give the U.S. its first lead — but it was Mickelson who led the way with seven birdies, including one on each of the final two holes to ice a 2-up victory. In the Friday twilight he and Kim cracked jokes and exchanged low fives as they awaited a TV interview on the 18th green. They were the very picture of team spirit, and Kim’s girlfriend, Lisa Pruett, couldn’t contain herself. “Aaawww, look how cute they are together,” she cooed.

At 5 1/2 to 2 1/2 the U.S. had its first Friday-night lead since 1995, with Mickelson-Kim and Leonard-Mahan providing 31/2 of the points. The charmed pairings were no surprise to U.S. assistant captain Olin Browne. “If you only know Zinger from his TV work, you think he’s pretty off-the-cuff, but there’s so much depth there,” says Browne. “He’s insightful, he’s thoughtful, he’s thorough, and most important, he has a tremendous ability to connect to people and to read them.”

Unity has always been the hallmark of the European squad, but the usual good vibes disappeared after the disastrous opening day, and Faldo was at the center of it all, as usual. Early in Ryder Cup week he had made so many minor missteps one British tabloid deemed him captain cock-up in an unforgettable headline. But all of that was nothing compared with the media firestorm that erupted after the announcement of his Saturday morning foursomes’ pairings. Faldo benched his two most accomplished Ryder Cuppers, the unbeatable Westwood and Garcia, who were a mind-boggling 8-0-1 in foursomes play. The jingoistic European media contingent is notorious for cheering on its team in the press center, but by now the Fleet Streeters were openly rooting against their side out of antipathy to Faldo, who before his recent image makeover had spent a quarter century as golf’s biggest “pr—“, to use Azinger’s less-than-delicate description from earlier this year.

Yet the Europeans rallied around their embattled captain, taking 2 1/2 points in the session to close the deficit and set up an afternoon of classic Ryder Cup golf. Three of the four better-ball matches went to the 18th hole, and the final hour of play was so tense that Azinger confided he was experiencing stomach cramps. The key moment for the Americans came when captain’s pick Steve Stricker buried a do-or-die 20-footer for a birdie on the 18th hole to secure a halve against the duo of Garcia and Casey. Azinger later said, “I think that putt made the difference in these matches for us.”

So heading into singles the U.S. led 9-7, needing 5 1/2 more points to bring home the Cup. On Saturday night the mood in the team room is always telling. This time it was the Europeans who were overwrought, as magisterial assistant captain Jose Maria Olazabal gave an impassioned speech that had more than one European player blinking back tears. By contrast, the Americans enjoyed their mellowest night of the week. “There was no Kumbaya moment,” says Browne. “The Ryder Cup is all about sphincter factor, isn’t it? The guys were loose, they were ready to play, so Paul just let ’em be.”

The first slot in Sunday singles is usually reserved for the team’s emotional leader, and that was certainly the case when the Euros sent out Garcia. Azinger took a flier on Kim, and why not? “He has Tiger’s confidence level,” Cink said on Sunday night. “Honestly, I think some of the guys on the other team were afraid to play him.” They certainly will be next time around, as Kim made seven birdies over the first 13 holes in giving Garcia a 5-and-4 spanking. The U.S. got another important early point from Kenny Perry, the 48-year-old Franklin, Ky., native who gave the week its beating heart. Weekley, finishing off an unbeaten debut, came through with six birdies, an eagle and, after his victory over Oliver Wilson, three theatrical bows to the crowd at the 16th green. Holmes, another Kentucky boy, from Campbellsville, drew the U.S. within a point of victory with an impressive win over Hansen, and moments later Jim Furyk clinched the Cup when Jimenez conceded a two-footer on the 17th hole. Faldo had optimistically sent out two of his best players — Westwood and Harrington — in the final two matches, and typical of the captain’s miserable week, both were rendered obsolete by the early returns. (With the Cup outcome already decided, both would eventually lose anyway, to Ben Curtis and Campbell, respectively.)

Azinger, who turns 49 in January, was expansive after the victory, singling out each player by name and saying of having reclaimed the Cup, “This is bigger to me than anything I’ve ever been a part of.”

The only thing Azinger didn’t feel like discussing were the finer points of what he called his “team-building system.” That may or may not be because by Sunday night there was already a movement afoot to alter Azinger’s future in a way that doesn’t include senior golf. Said Cink, “He doesn’t want to give away all of his secrets because we may force him to come back in two years and do this all over again.”

For his part, Azinger would only make one commitment following the rousing U.S. victory: “I’m not going to think about [another captaincy],” he said. “I’m just going to stay up all night and party with my boys.”