One thing seems clear, Paul Azinger has made all the right moves

Paul Azinger with Jose Maria Olazabal
Robert Beck/SI

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It’s way too early to make any lasting pronouncements about this Ryder Cup, but one thing looks obvious so far: Paul Azinger has made all the right moves.

There’s plenty of time for backfiring. And don’t get giddy about the Americans’ 5 1/2 – 2 1/2 lead after Friday. A few putts here, a chip there and Europe has a 5-3 lead. It’s a reversal of the misfortune that has plagued the U.S. in recent Ryder Cups. They tended to lose pretty much every close match. Not Friday. It was America’s first truly good Ryder Cup day since Sunday at Brookline in ’99.

And if the crowd at Valhalla sounds a lot more enthusiastic than the ones at Oakland Hills in 2006, it’s probably because they’re a bunch of proud Kentuckians and, oh yeah, the Americans are actually winning holes and matches.

So what has Azinger done right? Almost everything. Start with the selection system. He set it up to be essentially a one-year process so the point standings would better identify the players who were hot leading up to the Cup. That worked.

He changed the wild-card process so he got four picks instead of just two. One of his picks, Chad Campbell, hit the clutch 5-iron second shot that effectively won his and Stewart Cink’s foursome match against Justin Rose and Ian Poulter. Hunter Mahan, another pick, put his iron skills on display as he and Justin Leonard defeated Paul Casey and Henrik Stenson. Then Mahan contributed four more birdies in the afternoon as the Texans shot down Sergio Garcia and Miguel Angel Jimenez in best-ball play, 4 and 3.

Yes, pretty good picks.

Then there was the decision to start with alternate shot, or foursomes. Foursomes used to be the first session in Ryder Cup play until the European captain Seve Ballesteros asked for a change to four ball at Valderrama in ’97. American captain Ben Crenshaw switched it back in ’99, when the Americans won. Since then, the four-ball sessions have been played first, and the Euros have taken early leads and rolled over the Americans. Not this time.

“Looks like a good move now, doesn’t it?” Azinger joked as he ducked out of the press room after a mid-day press briefing Friday. “It wasn’t so much that we play better one way or the other; it was just change for the sake of change.”

The reasons don’t matter. Results do. Azinger got them Friday. His Anthony Kim-Phil Mickelson combination was electric and produced a win and a halve and more amazing shots than any other. The Leonard-Mahan pairing looks like genius, too, with their 2-0 mark. Mahan looked like a star in the making, and Leonard looked like a rediscovered star.

In eight matches Friday, the Americans lost only one. It was Azinger’s dream day come true, but he wasn’t admitting to anything.

“It could’ve gone either way today,” he said. “Phil and Anthony came back from three down twice, Cink and Campbell came back from three down, Hunter and Justin came back from two down, and Boo and J.B. were two down. We had some nice comebacks today. But we’re not even to the halfway point, and we know that.”

Meanwhile, European captain Nick Faldo has looked challenged. He passed over Darren Clarke, a Ryder Cup favorite, and picked Ian Poulter, who chunked-shanked-gaffed a short wedge shot into the water at the par-4 13th hole this morning. It was a stunning error that cost him and Rose the lead in their match, a lead they never regained. Faldo’s other pick, Paul Casey, blocked a shot into the hazard at the 15th hole. That led to a bogey and gave the U.S. duo of Leonard and Mahan a 2-up lead. The Euros lost, 3 and 2.

Faldo’s pairings were odd in that he left out Miguel Angel Jimenez, a foursomes ace, in the morning but played him in the afternoon with Sergio Garcia. That broke up the usual Garcia-Westwood four-ball pairing. Garcia and Jimenez lost in the afternoon, and Westwood and Soren Hansen had to rally to escape with a halve in four ball.

In addition, Faldo sent out long hitters Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey in foursomes and sat them down for four balls, the game they normally excel at. Curious moves, at best. “This event produces spectacular golf and takes golfers to levels they’ve only dreamed of,” a somewhat glum Faldo said Friday night, trying to explain the Americans’ early charge. “They all played exceptional golf. I’m sure my team will rally tomorrow.”

Worst of all, potentially, Faldo benched two of his best players, Garcia and Westwood, for Saturday morning’s foursome matches. Lucky for him, he met with the media before the next day’s pairings were released, so he didn’t have to answer pointed questions from the British press.

Still, it all comes down to the golf. If Faldo’s lineup produces, he’ll be the genius. It’s this simple — when your players play well, your moves seem brilliant and cunning. When your players don’t play as well as the other guys, your strategy seems flawed.

Azinger clearly has a magic touch so far. I wrote in a preview story that Azinger was going to be worth four points as captain. So far, he’s already earned at least two and a half.

“I’m happy to have a lead for the first time in a while,” Azinger said after the morning session.

The Ryder Cup is a marathon, he said, not a sprint. After the first day, however, Azinger is running well ahead of Faldo when it comes to pushing all the right buttons. Another day like this and the only thing button left for Faldo to push will be the one marked, “Panic.”