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Azinger makes right moves

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It’s September 2002, and Paul Azinger, who’d just competed in his fourth Ryder Cup, is standing in an airport terminal in England awaiting the long flight home after yet another American loss at The Belfry. The British tabloids on the news agent racks are lambasting U.S. captain Curtis Strange for the singles order he’d trotted out the previous day, when he’d wasted Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, his biggest guns, at Nos. 11 and 12, respectively. The U.S. would lose, 15 1/2 to 12 1/2.

Since the Ryder Cup became a mega-event in the mid-1980s, when people actually started watching, this has been the basic formula for captains: Win and be a hero; lose and shoulder the blame. There is no gray area between. Think about it: Before that fateful Sunday put forth by the U.S. squad at Brookline in 1999 that ended in victory – a triumph that has kept the Americans from losing six Ryder Cups in a row – was Ben Crenshaw any better as captain than Hal Sutton, whose team got lapped by nine points in 2004? There is a great disparity in the Ryder Cup legacies of the two.

Back in the airport five years ago, on that Monday morning after, Azinger was asked about Strange’s strategic X’s and O’s. He shook his head in disbelief.

“There may come a day,” Azinger said, sticking up for his captain, “when somebody turns down that job.”

• • •

Azinger did not pass when the PGA of America extended their offer to captain the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 2008. He accepted. But he did it on his own terms; what long has been an Azinger trademark.

He would be captain, the deal went, if the PGA of America would overhaul its selection system. The way Azinger viewed it – the way everyone should see it, he opines – the U.S., guided by an antiquated, two-plus-year, top-10 system, was forever heading into the matches with a team not as hot as its opponent. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that. Azinger lobbied, and gained approval, for what is basically a one-year system (the lone exception being that players could earn points from 2007 majors). The scale now reflects money, too, not top-10 finishes. Because as Azinger puts it, “money and prestige” are the only two things that ever made him choke.

“I just feel that our selection process didn’t grow with the times,” Azinger said. “With all the foreign players coming in (to the PGA Tour, making it tougher for U.S. players to garner top 10s), I thought the process was part of the problem. It was outdated. That’s not a slight on anybody who ever played Ryder Cup, but let’s face it: some guys had made it on previous year’s performances. That’s not happening now. If you’re not playing well now, you’re not getting on the team. I just feel it’s more current, and I hope it works. It’s going to be hard to argue that the system hasn’t produced the guys that you want there.”

He hopes he has figured it out, because he always has been a guy to figure things out. He’s the kid with the unorthodox swing and low, piercing ball flight who went from the bag room at Bay Hill Club and a non-descript junior college career to playing at Florida State and then 26 years on Tour, winning a dozen times (including the the 1993 PGA Championship) and piling up roughly $15 million in career earnings. Included in that run was his biggest triumph, a successful bout with lymphoma in 1994. When it comes to being a fighter, Azinger, 48, a four-time Ryder Cup competitor himself, always has ranked among golf’s top heavyweights.

His players know Azinger will bring intensity to the side, but they also realize he will bring levity as well. Azinger wants his 12 players to have a great life experience, and he knows the journey will be richer if the team can turn around recent U.S. misfortunes and win.

“I think his intensity will be good, but he’ll bring laughter, too,” Mark Calcavecchia, a longtime friend of Azinger’s, said earlier this season. “He’ll bring some sort of relaxation to the guys that I think maybe they’ll need. That’s all they need. You look at the Presidents Cup, and they’re more relaxed because they’re playing against Mike Weir and Vijay (Singh) and guys that you like, as opposed to playing against Ian Poulter and Monty (Colin Montgomerie) and Darren Clarke and (Lee) Westwood, those guys, because we want to beat them so bad we can’t relax.

“I think he’ll win.”

• • •

In 2007, not long after he accepted the captaincy, Azinger flew to Dallas to sit in on a meeting of past U.S. Ryder Cup captains. It was a veritable Who’s-Who of golf, and all had gathered to help Azinger assess the troubling U.S. team malaise that has existed for so long in the Ryder Cup. Not surprisingly, everybody had a different take on Europe’s domination, and varied opinions were offered on how the U.S. can win again.

Sutton told the room that golf is a game of cycles, and this was no different. “It took 10 years to get into this mess,” he said, “and it could take 10 years to get out.”

Dow Finsterwald, who captained the team to victory in 1977, then took his turn. He told the room the tale of the wise, seasoned prize fighter. An older member of the media sitting ringside on fight night had noticed the fighter blessed himself with the Catholic cross just before the match, a battle the boxer had gone on to win.

The scribe asked the boxer afterward, “I noticed you crossed yourself when you stepped into the ring. Do you think it helped?”

And the fighter said, “Yes sir, I do. . . . But it also helps if you can fight.”

More than a year later, with the Ryder Cup now upon him, Azinger still grips the point of Finsterwald’s story.

“All the great ideas, all that, are fine and dandy,” said the captain. “But your boys have to play well at the time. If they’re playing well coming in, you have to believe they’re going to continue to play well.

“As a player,” the captain continued, “there was the anxiety of performance. As a captain, the anxiety is not the same. I can’t control the performance; I can only hope to be organized, can only hope to be able to get the players together that need to be together. I can only hope to send them out in the right order. We’ll have 12 guys who are coming in playing decent golf. That’s critical. And then, it’s golf. We all know how golf is. It’s going to be interesting.”

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