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Aye aye, Cap’n!

HONOLULU – Paul Azinger, Captain America, esteemed holder of all U.S. Ryder Cup aspirations, has a lot on his hands if he’s to return that important little 17-inch chalice to the U.S. beyond a three-day visit to Kentucky this fall.

He knows it’s a big job. Which means he now has to play Father Golf, keeping up with everything going on, seeing who among his fledgling flock is hot, seeing who desires most to grab one of the 12 spots on his squad. Which means he needs to watch a lot of golf on TV, which could, in turn, present a problem.

“I hate watching golf,” he said Tuesday at the Sony Open, where he is making his 2008 competitive debut. “I have to be honest with you . . . I hate the announcers.”

He pauses for a second, then roars in laughter at his joke, having once, of course, served alongside Mike Tirico and Ryder Cup friend/foe Nick Faldo inside the booth at ABC. With the U.S. trying to reverse its troubling Ryder Cup ways (read: losing), a sense of humor is a must. Azinger has a good one.

“He’s definitely one of the funniest human beings to be around that I’ve ever known,” says longtime pal Mark Calcavecchia. “I think his intensity will be good, but he’ll bring laughter, too. He’ll bring some sort of relaxation to the guys that I think maybe they’ll need. That’s all they need.”

Believe it or not, though the Ryder Cup is eight months away, the days are short and growing busier for Azinger. He not only is trying to resurrect his own game (he turned 48 this week) but simultaneously trying to turn around the decade-and-a-half-long Charlie Brown fortunes of the puzzling U.S. Ryder Cup team. If the Ryder Cup were played today at Valhalla, his squad would boast the top four players in the world (Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk) yet still be considered the underdog.

Go figure.

He was no different than the rest of us when he used to roll his eyes thinking about the overrated “role” of a captain. Really, what’s to do? Why all the fuss? Pick out some clothes, maybe. Line up a few meals. Make sure a pingpong table is ordered. Instead, he finds himself immersed in the job. Not weekly, but daily.

“There’s a lot to do,” he said. “It has consumed me. The problem is, you do the logistics . . . the stuff that consumes you is stuff that you can’t control, because it’s stuff that happens the week of (the event).”

In order for Azinger to accept the captaincy, he needed to see some changes. So Azinger will have four captain’s picks, not two. Some people view that as more pressure on his shoulders; he sees it as a luxury. Now there will be two fewer people he’ll disappoint. In the past, the U.S. team traditionally has been finalized the morning after the PGA Championship in August. Azinger will have a window of three weeks after the PGA before pulling the trigger on his picks Sept. 2. Somebody who has had an awful season suddenly could win two weeks in a row after the PGA, and you can bet ’Zinger will go with the hot hand.

In addition, with the exception of a few points doled out at last year’s majors, the 2008 Ryder Cup team will be assembled on how its players performed in 2008. The one-year system is designed to give Azinger the hottest guys. Anyone with a Tour card has a shot. The new system also discarded the old model of awarding points only for top 10 finishes; now Ryder Cup ranking is tied to the very thing that makes golfers go, and always has made golfers tick: Money.

“I just feel like the last couple Ryder Cup teams, there wasn’t a lot of changeover – hardly any changeover – in the week leading in,” Azinger said. “The guys who were secure on the team weren’t finishing in the top 10 and they weren’t losing any ground because nobody that was close (to breaking in) was finishing in the top 10 to supplant them.

“I just feel the money list is the true barometer. It’s really what measures everything we do out here. You stay exempt based on where you are on the money list. You get into majors based on where you are on the money list. Everything we do is based on money. I just feel like it’s the right barometer.”

If, say, Azinger were to win this week, he’d suddenly jump right into the thick of the Ryder Cup mix, and the captain likes that. When David Duval came out in December and said his top goal for 2008 would be the Ryder Cup, Azinger ate it up. Loved it. In the old system, with Duval spotting his peers an entire season after barely playing in ’07, such a quest would not have been possible. This time around, it’s entirely possible.

“He’s not behind the 8-ball,” Azinger said. “That’s the beauty of this process. David Duval could have a terrific year and make the team. If David Duval made that comment and he was a full year and half behind in points, it would be very, very difficult. If I win this tournament, I’m fifth in Ryder Cup points. I see nothing wrong with that.”

The reality is that Azinger will not be making his own team. He went roughly five months without even touching a club after leaving the Travelers Championship in Hartford in June with a bad back that he wrenched while moving a boat in his garage back home in Florida. He’s playing this year on a medical extension, and will play 10-15 events. Truth is, when Azinger gets out on Tour these days, he often seems as interested in fishing or hunting as he is in the golf. In Hawaii, he’s gone bonefishing. He joked Tuesday that he’s so competitively rusty golf-wise “I haven’t even gambled at home” with the boys back at Gator Creek.

That’s OK. Captain America has a bigger mission this season. If he can help the U.S. turn around a dismal stretch in which it has won the Ryder Cup outright just once since 1993, then he’ll have done his magnanimous deed. That will feel as good as winning any major. He’ll continue to feel his way, the Ryder Cup filling his thoughts for the next eight months.

“We’ll be on the golf course, and it’s definitely on his mind,” said his agent, Tom Elliott. “Every decision he’s made, he’s probably changed his mind two or three times. He’s a guy who thinks a lot.”

This captaincy thing is pretty much an entirely new experience, his only previous shot at it being in 1994, when he stepped in as assistant and helped playing captain Hale Irwin with the inaugural Presidents Cup.

Apologies to the suits in Ponte Vedra Beach, but it’s no Ryder Cup.

“I know how important it is,” Captain America says of his new calling. “You really just have to be fairly organized and realize you have a bunch of really big boys who are showing up to play, who all know what they’re doing. My responsibility to myself is to give them as much free time as possible, make sure we are all relaxed as possible, and get the right players together.

“(Then) go have it. Play golf. It’s just golf, in the end.”

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