Well, you didn’t think Paul Azinger was going to let Nick Faldo one-up him when it came to making surprising wild-card picks, did you?
While Faldo stunned everyone by passing over beloved Ryder Cup warhorse Darren Clarke in favor of Ian Poulter, Azinger pulled a shocker by choosing Chad Campbell. Azinger passed over the likes of Woody Austin (who finished 10th on the points list and would’ve made the team automatically in previous years), young gun D.J. Trahan (who sparkled at the U.S. Open), Rocco Mediate (who became a national sensation when he nearly beat Tiger Woods in a playoff at the U.S. Open), and former Masters champ Zach Johnson, among others.
Azinger also made some obvious choices. He added Steve Stricker, who has played well over the last two years save for a mini-slump early this summer; Hunter Mahan, who won in Hartford but muddied his chances by making some anti-Ryder Cup remarks that he later apologized for; and J.B. Holmes, whose long-ball prowess, lone-wolf attitude and play-to-the-home-folks Kentucky background was something that Azinger made no secret about coveting.
Upon further review, as they say in the replay booth, picking Campbell isn’t such a surprise. Campbell, a Texan noted for his Ben Hogan-like flat swing and low ball flight, has had a quiet, solid summer. That, combined with the fact that the other contenders have all but disappeared since the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, makes him a logical choice. Azinger’s biggest problem was one the past three U.S. captains have shared: They wanted to pick the hottest players on the American side — and once again, there weren’t any.
Check out Campbell’s summer. He was 18th at the U.S. Open. Not bad. Since July, he’s been very solid: seventh at the John Deere Classic, third at the U.S. Bank Championship (held as the big stars were playing the British Open, but still impressive), 14th at the Bridgestone Invitational and seventh at the Deutsche Bank Championship, thanks to a 69-66 finish. Those last two rounds, in fact, may have swayed Azinger.
The players who were passed over may have grievances, but don’t forget, Azinger stressed all along that he wanted the hottest players, even if that meant taking a player who’d won three in a row on the Nationwide Tour. He was kidding about that — well, I think he was kidding — but he made his point. A good finish at the U.S. Open is ancient history in terms of a player’s current form, and Azinger clearly emphasized the last few weeks.
Austin had a nice stretch when he finished ninth at the John Deere and then second at the Buick Open, although he let that win slip away with some bad putting at the end. Since then, he’s missed two cuts and has only one top-40 finish — and that was 39th. That spelled “C-o-o-l-e-d O-f-f,” apparently, to Azinger.
Azinger made it clear that he was pulling for Mediate, among the tour’s most popular and enthusiastic Ryder Cup boosters. Mediate appeared to be on track, following his U.S. Open performance with a 19th-place finish at the British Open. But he was 52nd at Firestone, 72nd at the PGA (after a red-flag final round of 85) and 69th at the Deutsche Bank, and he missed the cut at the Barclays.
That spelled “I-c-e C-o-l-d.”
It was the same story with Trahan, a contender at Torrey Pines. A good ballstriker not known for his putting (a strike against him in match play), Trahan was eighth at Firestone, 31st at the PGA, then missed the cut at the Barclays. He blew up with a final-round 80 to finish 67th at the Deutsche Bank. It’s only one round, but when you know that round might be to make the Ryder Cup team, and you don’t break 80, that’s the wrong kind of tiebreaker.
Azinger did what he could, and Campbell may turn out to be the smartest pick of the four. But it doesn’t bode well for the U.S. team that, other than Campbell, no Americans really stepped forward and played well in August. Azinger chose the hottest players he could find. The fact that most of them are only lukewarm was beyond his control.