With new team and new approach, Americans win their first Ryder Cup since 1999

September 23, 2008

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — This 37th Ryder Cup won’t be remembered for its great golf shots, although they were plentiful and spectacular.

We won’t recall any last-hole heroics — they were numerous, too, just not on Sunday.

We’ll probably even forget just how excruciating the tension was on the last day, and just how much the final outcome was in doubt. The Americans’ five-point margin of victory (16 1/2-11 1/2) wasn’t remotely indicative of how close this Ryder Cup was. The end came oh-so-suddenly when J.B. Holmes birdied three of four holes, turned his match around and set up Jim Furyk to two-putt his way to the clinching point with four matches still on the course.

What we will remember about the Americans’ first Ryder Cup victory since 1999, and only their second since 1995, are these scenes:

Kentucky’s Kenny Perry getting tearful hugs from his whole family, including his father, after winning his singles match against Henrik Stenson in a page that surely came straight out of Destiny’s playbook. Perry, 48, from little Franklin, Ky., had said this event would define his career and that, after narrowly losing the ’96 PGA Championship here, Valhalla Golf Club owed him. That debt is paid in full.

American captain Paul Azinger, his voice cracking with emotion as he tried to do an interview with NBC’s Jimmy Roberts in the chaotic moments after Furyk clinched the Cup. “In the end, it comes down to putting and heart,” said Azinger. “Our guys have a lot of heart.” Azinger’s passion was evident when he drove his golf cart down empty fairways Sunday afternoon, waving to fans like he was waving to friends he recognized, jumping out to give them fist-pumps or a pump-up-the-volume gesture.

Furyk wiping some errant moisture from his eyes as he recalled what it felt like to be on the losing end of the decisive Ryder Cup match, and how blessed he felt to have this moment, not for himself but for his teammates and his captain.

Anthony Kim pounding home a clutch par putt with authority and striding toward the next tee because he couldn’t wait to win another hole, only to be told that the match was over, he’d just beaten a helpless Sergio Garcia, 5 and 4. We’ll remember the smiles on the faces of Garcia and European assistant captain Jose Maria Olazabal, who couldn’t help but be amused by the kid’s enthusiasm. They showed true sportsmanship as they shook hands and offered sincere congratulations. Mostly, we’ll remember the infectious smile of Kim and the unbridled joy of the 23-year-old.

Azinger, again, bursting onto the stage of an old-fashioned pep rally Thursday night, followed by the rest of his players and their wives (all wearing 13th man T-shirts), throwing souvenirs into the crowd during a rollicking assembly that felt like the night before a big homecoming football game. It was cheesy, maybe, but it was real.

Boo Weekley, the countrified golfer who became a certified legend at Valhalla. Sure, he holed a bunker shot for eagle at the par-5 seventh hole in Sunday’s singles matches and acted like he expected to do it, but the truly indelible image came at the first tee. After hitting his drive, he went charging off with his driver between his legs, galloping Happy Gilmore style as if he were riding a pony. He smiled his way through the week, an infectious skill that cannot be underestimated. “That was an amazing moment that will never be duplicated,” Azinger said of Boo’s pseudo-ride. “Everyone cracked up.”

There were many other memorable scenes, too, from the boisterous fans — no American Ryder Cup crowd has been louder or better for three straight days than these folks — to the ones dressed as leprechauns and matadors and the Weekley supporters with their signs of “Boooooo” and “You’re my boy, Boo.”

The message of this Ryder Cup wasn’t one of redemption, like the Olympic Dream Team basketball squad. This American team didn’t look back. They were all about forming a new team. It seemed real when Azinger, speaking at the closing ceremonies, thanked the Valhalla superintendent and his crew and promised “the whole team is going to come down and hang out with you.” Quite a change when previous American Ryder Cuppers were often thought of as aloof guns for hire.

The book is closed on European Ryder Cup dominance. This week felt like the start of something big, or at least something new. Thanks to Azinger and the Americans, the event has been re-energized and restored to its rightful place as the most exciting thing in golf. And the Americans did all this without Tiger Woods, the world’s best player. Instead, they relied on a core of young players that included J.B. Holmes, Hunter Mahan and Kim, guys who are going to be around for a while.

The matches could’ve gone either way. European captain Nick Faldo said it many times after it was over. So did Azinger. They were right. That’s big news because it means that the Americans, if nothing else, got themselves back on equal footing with the Euros.

There was vindication enough to go around, and satisfaction. “I’m pretty damn happy right now,” Jim Furyk said Sunday night.

Earlier, he and the rest of the American team had created the one scene that may outlive the others. It was the traditional celebration as Azinger and his players shook bottles of champagne and sprayed them in every direction from behind an American flag draped over the second floor balcony of the clubhouse. They waved flags, they sang songs, they laughed, they threw arms around each other’s shoulders, they savored the moment.

They never looked more like a team. It was beautiful.