The Europeans were prohibitive favorites in the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville. And why not? They had won three in the row, the previous two by complete and utterly embarrassing landslides.
Paul Azinger accepted the U.S. captaincy from the PGA of America under several conditions, including changing the qualifying process to make it more current, pushing back the date to make his captain’s picks and increasing the number of such selections from two to four.
Going into the week, Azinger was already hamstrung, as he was without the services of the top-ranked player in the world. Tiger Woods, the 2008 U.S. Open champion, had been sidelined by reconstructive knee surgery. But during a downtown rally he appealed to fans to serve as the home team’s 13th man, and he used innovative tactics such as grouping players of like personalities in four-man pods and pairing them only with other players within their pod. For the first time since 1979, the Americans led at the end of each of the five sessions. The U.S. rolled to a five-point victory, its most lopsided win since a nine-point triumph in 1981. Most conceded that Azinger seriously out-captained Nick Faldo, his former Ryder Cup foil and colleague on ABC golf telecasts.
Has it really been eight years since America’s only Ryder Cup victory in the 21st century? Here’s a look at where the victors are now along with reflections from the winning captain:
Age at Valhalla: 48
He still lives in Bradenton, Fla., and he has a great gig, working as an analyst for Fox Sports on its USGA package. He was among those who questioned on-air how the USGA could let the final round of the U.S. Open drag on without making a decision about eventual champion Dustin Johnson’s possible moving-ball penalty.
Before this year, he worked for ESPN and was part of its farewell British Open telecast in 2015. He turned 56 this year, but other than four events in 2010 he hasn’t played the Champions tour. He’s just not interested in the travel or the practice grind.
In the wake of the Valhalla feel-good moment, he authored a book, Cracking the Code, about the philosophies and principles his team used to win the Cup and how they can be applied in business. It’s a nice peek behind the Ryder Cup curtain.
Zinger has always been a youthful, energetic type with whom other golfers want to hang out. He’s a story-teller, an accomplished Foosball player, a boxing fan and the kind of guy who might press you on the back nine or on any given shot—all skills that made him closer to his ’08 players than most Ryder Cup captains.
Captain’s comments: “I can reflect back on the ’08 Ryder Cup now as the greatest experience of my professional life. I was asked to lead 12 guys who are great at what they do. We organized a philosophy that created an environment that allowed them to play their best. The challenge for me was to get out of their way. We came out on top, thank goodness. It changed my life. I can talk to corporations about the business principles we applied at that Ryder Cup. I never had that opportunity before.
“Dr. Ron Braund deserves some credit. It was his idea to put the guys together by personality. It took me five months to say yes to that. Through observation, we broke the 12 players into four personality categories. We’d call Ron and say, ‘This guy is more of a steady supporter than an influencing relator.’ That’s the kind of stuff we were talking about. And it worked. The only other person to do anything like this was Juli Inkster, and by the way, her team came back and won the Solheim Cup [in 2015].
“Ron was with me in the cart all week. I’d say, ‘I’ve got to go say something to Anthony Kim and Phil Mickelson, they’re getting their asses kicked,’ and Ron would say, ‘Go challenge ’em.’ He didn’t tell me what to say, just what approach I should take. I’d say, ‘I’ve gotta say something to Chad Campbell and Stewart Cink,’ and he’d say, ‘Go encourage them.’ That’s how it worked. He was huge.
“Now I’m a part-time fisherman, part-time motorcycle rider, part-time instructor and permanent grandparent. Life is good.”
Age at Valhalla: 34
Ryder Cup record: 2-1-0
The West Texas native was a rising star in the early 2000s when in a magazine survey his peers voted him the best player (besides Mickelson) most likely to win a major. Campbell never quite lived up to that potential, but he did win four times by the end of 2007, and he lost in a three-way playoff at the ’09 Masters. He has had at least one top-10 finish every year since 2001. His ballstriking has always been superlative, but his putting and short game have not measured up. His last win came at the 2007 Viking Classic.
Captain’s comments: “Chad was another iron horse. My captain’s picks went 6-3-5—that’s 8 1/2 point; that’s got to be a record. Chad was really Cink’s pick. He insisted on him. Stricker might have wanted Scott Verplank, I don’t remember. When Chad and Stewart fell behind early that first day, they regrouped. I walked up to them and said, ‘I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is, you guys made a 10 on this hole. The good news is, you’ve got everything to gain and those guys have everything to lose. Remember what Lou Holtz said: Winning is what’s important now. You’ve got about 300 yards to decide. Go get ’em.’ They took their time, Stewart put his arm around Chad and said, ‘Let’s just start over like we’re all square.’ They chiseled their way back and won that match 1 up over Europe’s best, Ian Poulter and Justin Rose. That was a critical moment.
“Then I put Chad in the 12th position on Sunday. I put the steady group at the end because I thought they could deal with the pressure the best. I told Chad, ‘I’ve been in the last position; it’s going to be the worst night of your life. Sorry I have to do it to you, but I trust you if it comes to that point. I don’t know who hits it better on planet Earth than you, and you can do it when it matters. Do you mind going there?’ He said, ‘No I don’t mind.’ He accepted being the last guy out. And he won that match.”
Age at Valhalla: 35
Ryder Cup record: 1-2-0
A year after a star turn in the Ryder Cup, Cink rewrote a fairy tale finish when 59-year-old Tom Watson was on the verge of winning the British Open. Cink prevailed in a playoff, but his game was in a bit of a downward spiral even before he won the claret jug. He hasn’t won a tournament since, and he has had only one top 10 in the past three years. This year he’s taking time off to help his wife, Lisa, as she battles cancer.
Captain’s comments: “Cink was another older guy who was strong in his pod of four with Steve Stricker. He was the guy who put his arm around Chad Campbell when they were four down and came back to win a key match. He’s always a steady hand, a real pillar. Stewart said afterward, ‘It was a weird Ryder Cup; it’s my only Ryder Cup where I never saw anybody hit a shot except the three guys in my group until my match was over on Sunday’. He became a quiet leader.”
Age at Valhalla: 31
Ryder Cup record: 1-1-1
The Kent State alum, an out-of-nowhere winner of the 2003 British Open at Royal St. George’s, has played his way off the radar. This year he made just one cut in five PGA Tour events and one cut in nine Web.com tournaments. Curtis earned his Ryder Cup spot thanks to a pair of runner-up finishes and steady play, making 18 of 22 cuts. Though he struggled at Valhalla, he beat Lee Westwood in singles. He is a four-time PGA Tour winner, his only victory since Valhalla coming at the 2012 Valero Texas Open.
Captain’s comments: “He wasn’t playing very well that week and wasn’t giving his partner, Stricker, as much help as he hoped, which had to be nerve-wracking for Ben. Steve got paired with Curtis twice and bailed them out of a match on Saturday with a huge putt to give us a 9-7 lead going into Sunday. Ben came through in a few big moments, and I give him a lot of credit; he knew he wasn’t hitting it all that well, but he hung in there like a bulldog on Sunday.”
Age at Valhalla: 38
Ryder Cup record: 2-1-1
Furyk has experienced such a renaissance that he is a contender for a captain’s pick this year even though he is already one of Love’s vice captains. Furyk, who was sidelined for an extended period by a wrist injury, didn’t win this year, but he shot the lowest score in PGA Tour history with a final-round 58 at the Travelers Championship. (In 2013 he also shot a 59.) “I haven’t gotten away from it,” he said this month at the Deutsche Bank Championship. “It gets mentioned probably 150 times a day.”
Furyk had a banner year in 2010, winning three times. He holed a memorable putt in the rain (he turned his cap backwards so water wouldn’t drip off the bill and distract him) to win the Tour Championship and the $10 million FedEx Cup title. He is the likely 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup captain.
Captain’s comments: “Furyk was a bit of a caution light with the three guys we put him with. They were very hard on themselves, and I felt they might need a pat on the back, which wasn’t Jim’s M.O. But Jim embraced the idea of becoming an encourager, and his Ryder Cup became about how he could make the people around him better. That should really be the team’s mission statement.
“I honestly thought Furyk was going to get the clinching point on Sunday, and I told him so on Saturday night. That was my biggest regret of the week. I turned out to be right, but it put a lot of extra pressure on Jim.”
Age at Valhalla: 26
Ryder Cup record: 2-0-1
Nobody hit it longer than Holmes, a captain’s pick who was coming off his second win in Phoenix in three years. Holmes, like Perry, is a Kentucky native, and he played collegiately at Kentucky, so he was another crowd favorite. Holmes was the Tour’s Comeback Player of the Year following his return from two brain surgeries in 2011. The first was for a rare brain malformation that was causing vertigo. The second surgery a month later was to change the adhesive used on the titanium plate in his skull, as he was allergic to the material.
Holmes picked up wins in 2014 and ’15 and played in the 2015 Presidents Cup, his first team event since Valhalla. As long as ever, he’s having a good ‘16, quietly finishing fourth at the Masters and third at the British Open. He finished T4 at the BMW Championship and was awarded with one of Davis Love’s captain’s picks the next day, meaning he’ll make his second Ryder Cup appearance at Hazeltine this fall.
Captain’s comments: “I made him a wild-card pick, but it was the other three players in his pod who owned that pick. That’s how it worked with us. Furyk wanted a bomber, and Kenny loved J.B. After that, Boo didn’t really have much say. J.B. played with a chip on his shoulder that week. He’s always hard on himself, but he really performed. When he hit those bombs off the tee, it was very intimidating.
“On Thursday evening, [vice captain] Olin Browne called me and said, ‘J.B. thinks there’s a limb on the 16th hole that’s in his way. The tree is 310 yards out and the limb is 40 feet up.’ I said, ‘Geez, we couldn’t even reach that tree and he’s worried about that limb?’ So I called Mark Wilson, the superintendent, and he said, ‘I’m already on it, Zinger. Olin just called me, and we’ve got a guy up in that tree right now.’ That’s right, we were trimming limbs at the 11th hour. In his singles match, sure enough, J.B. hit a big drive down the left side, and it bounced a couple of times off the hillside and back into the fairway—a good break. And it didn’t hit any tree limbs. He smashed an even longer drive at 17 and wedged it stiff for the win.
“J.B. may have been the second-most nervous guy on the team, but he turned out to be clutch, and he played great.”
Age at Valhalla: 23
Ryder Cup record: 2-1-1
The brash youngster provided the most satisfying moment for the Americans in singles play when he crushed Sergio Garcia, Europe’s emotional leader and traditional thorn in the U.S. side. Four years later Kim walked away from the game due to injury. He had at least six surgeries in the four years after the Ryder Cup, he said, with ailments that included a torn Achilles, a torn rotator cuff, a torn labrum, spinal fusion and a thumb injury He also has thoracic outlet syndrome, he told The Associated Press last year in a rare interview. The reclusive Kim reportedly has a $10 million insurance policy that he can collect as long as he never hits another golf shot in competition. Officially, he still has a PGA Tour medical exemption and could regain status by winning about $613,000 in 16 tournaments. Asked if he may have played his last pro round at 26, Kim told the AP, “Anything’s possible.”
Captain’s comments: “He was our off-the-course team leader. Everybody laughed at AK because he was a street kid, a chip-on-your shoulder kid. He wanted Sergio all week. I don’t think he realized that we couldn’t just match ’em up when we got there. He kept saying, ‘I want to play Sergio, Zing. I want to play Sergio.’ It never worked out until Sunday, and we got lucky. Anthony ate it up and responded. He said on the 1st tee, ‘I’m gonna whup his ass for you today, Captain.’
“That was one of the classic moments in Ryder Cup history, I think. After he won that match, I gave AK a big hug on the green, and then he kind of backed off. He was pointing at me, and if you can read his lips, he was saying, ‘I told you I was gonna whup his ass!’ It’s sad his career ended so soon. I would have loved to see what he might have done these last eight years if he’d been healthy.”
Age at Valhalla: 36
Ryder Cup record: 2-2-1
The author of the Ryder Cup’s most famous shot—the putt at Brookline in 1999 that clinched the Cup—cut back his schedule this year to 13 events. Leonard, a Dallas native and the father of four, had a solid season in ’08 with a win, a runner-up and $3.9 million in earnings, but despite a couple of close calls, he hasn’t won in the years since. The following year he played in the Presidents Cup, but Valhalla would be the last of his three Ryder Cup appearances. Sporting a mountain-man beard, Leonard moved the family to Aspen in 2015, and this year he tried his hand as a TV golf analyst.
Captain’s comments: “Justin was with Hunter Mahan, and he’s one of those guys who had the ability to make the players around him better. His attitude and steadiness and the way he carries himself had a really positive effect on Hunter. Their matching personalities trumped everything else. Justin ran into Robert Karlsson on Sunday in singles, and that guy played his ass off. I didn’t say much to anybody all week, but I caught Justin coming off the 9th green and said, ‘Holy crap, you ran into a buzz saw!’ He said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ I said, ‘You’ve gotta play like you know he’s gonna give you two holes; you’ve gotta think you’re only two down.’ Then Karlsson birdied the next two holes or something like that.”
Age at Valhalla: 26
Ryder Cup record: 2-0-3
A Ryder Cup rookie in 2008 who was also a member of the 2010 and ’14 teams, Mahan is coming off his worst season, with 13 missed cuts in 22 events and only one top 25. This is the same guy who has won six times and $29 million. He failed to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs this year and has fallen out of the top 200 in the World Ranking. Mahan’s focus has switched from golf to family—he and his wife, Kandi, have had three children in the last four years. Mahan got bonus husband points when he withdrew from the 2013 RBC Canadian Open as the 36-hole leader after Kandi went into labor. He has had five wins since Valhalla, the last at the 2014 Barclays, which prompted Tom Watson to make him a captain’s selection. In 2010 he lost the deciding singles match to Graeme McDowell when he stubbed a chip shot on the 17th hole.
Captain’s comments: “Hunter came in as black-sheep material because of comments he made in 2008 about the Ryder Cup and how the PGA of America parades you around and all that. He left as a golden boy. He played great and behaved above and beyond. He embraced this Ryder Cup as much as anybody on our team. He couldn’t wait to be there; he felt it was a privilege. He was picked by the three guys in his pod, who had six choices, and they selected him without hesitation. When I told him those three guys picked him, I think it was life-changing for Hunter. He played great at our Ryder Cup, and he played great for a long time after that.”
Age at Valhalla: 38
Ryder Cup record: 1-2-2
Now you know why Phil passed on the offer to be a vice captain for this year’s team. Phil easily qualified on points in a very good year that was missing only one thing: a victory. He famously shot a bogey-free 65 in the final round at the British Open at Troon, only to get edged by Henrik Stenson, who shot 63. Phil also was a runner-up at Pebble Beach and Memphis. His eight victories since Valhalla include the 2010 Masters and the 2013 British Open. He is sure to be a Ryder Cup captain one day… if he ever stops playing so well.
Captain’s comments: “Phil was probably the key component to the Ryder Cup in 2008. He and Jim Furyk were the guys most intrigued and engaged by the idea of dividing guys by personality perspectives and putting them in pods. The small groups are what everybody clings to, but the real outside-the-box thinking was going from pairing players with like games to pairing players with like personalities in groups. I always struggled with the idea that, You’re telling me I shouldn’t put a bomber with a good wedge player? It was logical to me in pressure situations to pair guys who processed information the same and thought the same.
“My analogy is, if Vegas has a 1% edge in blackjack, and that’s a pretty small edge, they’ve been building pretty big casinos based on that. They don’t win every hand, though. You can do everything right and lose, and you can do everything wrong and win.
“Anyway, we’d lost four of the past five Cups, and Phil and Jim had been on every team. They were tired of getting shelled, and they were like, This is different; I like it. Their support helped make it successful.”
Age at Valhalla: 48
Ryder Cup record: 2-1-1
The elder statesman of the squad, Perry won three times in ’08 to qualify for the team on points. The native of Franklin, Ky., was the local favorite, and he rose to the occasion, capping his week with a crucial singles victory over Stenson. He won twice in 2009 and lost a heartbreaking playoff that year at the Masters before transitioning to play more senior golf. He’s an eight-time winner on the Champions tour and the proud builder, owner and operator of an outstanding public course in his hometown.
Captain’s comments: “Kenny had the most pressure of anybody because he was playing in front of his home crowd. He probably had the week of his life and played some of the greatest golf. He embraced the idea that he was Kentucky’s own. I talked to him about how Tiger shows up in character. I said, ‘You can be a character.’ He did show up in character; he was Kentucky’s kid.”
Age at Valhalla: 41
Ryder Cup record: 0-2-1
A captain’s pick despite being winless in ’08, Stricker went on a tear after Valhalla, with eight victories over the next four seasons. He cut back to 13 events in 2013 but still had four runner-up finishes and won $4.4 million. He had a slow recovery from offseason hip surgery at the end of 2014 but bounced back superbly this year, playing his way into the British Open by finishing fourth in Memphis. Then he was fourth at Royal Troon. He made it through the first two FedEx Cup events with a ranking of 76th on the points list. Stricker, who turns 50 next February, is the early favorite to be 2020 Ryder Cup captain because those matches will be played at Whistling Straits in his home state of Wisconsin. He served as tournament host for a Champions tour event that debuted this summer in Madison, where he lives.
Captain’s comments: “Steve was an obvious pick, an easy pick. He made the putt of his life on Saturday, one of the greatest pressure putts ever made in a Ryder Cup, but it’ll probably go down as just a footnote. It was the last match on the course, every player is out there, every fan is watching. You can’t put a guy more on an island than that, and he made the putt. You can say it wasn’t to win a major but it was to keep us ahead 9-7 instead of [being tied] 8-8, and he knew it. He buried it. I told him, ‘I can only think of one other guy on the planet who could’ve made that putt, and he’s sitting at home with ice on his knee.’ That was Tiger. And Tiger texted him after that putt. It was the putt of his life, the putt of our lives and the putt of our Ryder Cup. It set the tone for our Saturday night. We were relaxed. It was just like a Thursday night. We didn’t need a pep talk after that.”
Age at Valhalla: 35
Ryder Cup record: 2-0-1
Who can forget the sight of country-boy Weekley making like Happy Gilmore and galloping off the 1st tee while pretending to ride his driver like a horse? It was silly, dumb fun. Weekley never got enough credit for his ballstriking, probably due to the aw-shucks personality of a guy from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College who had a habit of addressing most everyone as Mr., Miss or Sir. He won once in 2008 to earn a spot on the team. After Valhalla, he racked up one more victory—his third—and piled up more than $10 million in earnings. He had threatened to retire and go fishing once he had won enough, but Boo is still on Tour.
Captain’s comments: “Boo was the head of levity and didn’t realize it because he was just being himself. One of the fun things was seeing what food Boo chose every day. We had three kinds of food, and Boo was always having fried chicken or hog jaws or black-eyed peas or turnip greens or something.
“We weren’t bonding as 12 guys. They don’t all want to do the same things. Some guys don’t want to hear a motivational video, but some guys need it. Some guys don’t want to play Ping Pong, but some guys have to. We never did anything all together except what we had to do all together. When we got back to the hotel, it was, Do what you want. We did hang out in the team room, but there was no, ‘Let’s get together and talk about how much we love each other after this week’ crap. Inevitably, Boo would hold court each night. It was awesome. Boo told great stories, including the hilarious one about fighting the orangutan.
“And it didn’t hurt that he played his ass off. I’d go, Hey, Boo, how you feeling today? He’d say, ‘I’m a little nervous, Mr. Zinger.’ That’s how he was. ‘Hey, Mr. Zinger, you care if I only play nine holes today?’ I’d say, Do what you want, Boo Daddy; you’re the man. I think everybody on that team had confidence in my confidence in them, Boo maybe more than anybody.”
Age at Valhalla: 49
He’s a Champions tour regular now with a pair of wins, including the 2011 U.S. Senior Open.
Captain’s comments: “He’s one of my dearest friends. I wanted to share the Ryder Cup experience with him, and he was invaluable. He has an ability to get right to the root of an issue without all the blather. He was an obvious choice because of his relationship with Tiger, but he was a perfect mix with my redneck pod because he’s a blue-collar, go-fishing, get-his-hands-dirty guy. He was great.”
Age at Valhalla: 66
He captained the 1989 U.S. squad that played to a 14-14 tie at the Belfry, but by 2008, Floyd was a ceremonial senior tour golfer. He’s the winner of 14 senior titles along with 22 PGA Tour victories.
Captain’s comments: “You couldn’t find a guy better at encouraging and building confidence. Justin loved him. Mickelson and Bones [caddie Jim McKay] were like, Geez, Raymond Floyd, what the hell? And they loved him; they absolutely loved him. The best part of Raymond, with the strength of his personality, was that he didn’t try to overshadow anybody. He was there for everybody but himself.”
Age at Valhalla: 66
He had his own Ryder Cup moment with Azinger and Floyd in 1991 when he captained the U.S. side to victory in The War by the Shore. A year after Valhalla, Stockton made one last circuit around the Champions tour and more or less retired.
Captain’s comments: “The hardest thing for Dave was to not be out there teaching. The best thing Dave does is to be strategic. He helped the guys pick that course apart about how they were going to play it, and they did mainly because of Dave’s strategy. I could completely trust all three of these assistants. If anything dicey had come up, and it didn’t, I could count on them giving it to me straight.”