Editor’s note: This story appeared in the Jan. 1, 2010 issue of Golfweek.
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Those champagne bubbles never seemed so sparkling as they did 16 months ago at Valhalla for a U.S. team in such dire need of a Ryder Cup triumph. Captain Paul Azinger emerged from a parting sea of fans, high-fived spirited members of his adopted 13th Man brigade and barely touched the Kentucky bluegrass as he made his way from behind the clubhouse to the second-story balcony to join his players.
Before long, corks, flumes of champagne spray and all the bad memories this side of Brookline ’99 would fly off into a Kentucky autumn afternoon.
• Team USA
The celebration was grand, and would go for hours, saluting a job well done. Combine victory at Valhalla with bookend Presidents Cup victories in Montreal and San Francisco, and it would seem captaining a high-flying U.S. squad these days would be as effortless as flipping the autopilot switch to “On.” Not so fast. Once those bubbles went flat in Kentucky, left behind for a new U.S. captain was this sobering reality: The U.S. now will try to hoist a Ryder Cup across the giant pond, something it has not done for the better part of two decades. In fact, the last time the U.S. won in Europe, Tiger Woods was busy winning U.S. Junior championships.
That Corey Pavin will lead the Red, White and Blue seems a good fit. A public case was made for an encore by Azinger, who was willing, but that’s not how the PGA of America operates, and Pavin was anointed the 26th U.S. Ryder Cup captain in December 2008.
Cut into his veins, and Pavin said he bleeds Ryder Cup. Always confident but generally quiet by nature, he’ll be an interesting contrast alongside Europe’s huffy, bombastic Colin Montgomerie.
The Gritty Little Bruin takes on The Irritable Grizzly.
Pavin was on the U.S. team that last won on distant shores, at The Belfry in England in 1993. And what it will take to win abroad once more, this time at Celtic Manor in Wales, will be considerable doses of the intangibles that fill his 5-foot-9-inch frame – mainly, equal parts grit and scrappiness to go with a healthy dash of vinegar.
“I hope to bring a leadership, that’s No. 1, and a competitive spirit,” says Pavin, who
turned 50 in November. “I showed a little bit of that, I think, when I played in Ryder Cups. I want the guys to have fun, but I want them to be extremely competitive at the same time, and I want them to win their matches. It’s not the be-all, end-all, but it’s very important to win.
“I don’t know if I can instill competitive nature in guys, but I think that might be the strongest quality that I want a player to have.”
Pavin played in three Ryder Cups from 1991 to ’95, went 8-5-0, and experienced the entire range of cup emotions. He says he “grew up” playing singles at Kiawah Island in 1991. He won on the road two years later at The Belfry. By the time the U.S. got to Oak Hill in ’95, Pavin, the reigning U.S. Open champion, had emerged as a fiery team leader. Can anyone forget his primal shout and emotional fist pump after chipping in on the 18th hole Saturday to beat Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer in the day’s final four-ball match to deliver a 9-7 lead? The U.S. would lose the next day, setting off a dismal run in which it would drop five of six Ryder Cups heading to Valhalla.
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English seed merchant Samuel Ryder’s little cup once was little more than a biennial walkover for the superior U.S. side. (Great Britain won only three of the first 25 meetings.) But the playing field has leveled significantly since 1979, when Continental Europe expanded the roster of Great Britain & Ireland (the latter added in ’73). Since 1985, Europe holds a 7-4-1 advantage.
“I think there are a lot of reasons,” Pavin says. “I think Europe is a lot better in the last 25-30 years – they’re a ton better than they used to be. And so things are evened out. There is something to be said for home-course advantage. Europe has been smart in playing golf courses where they play (European Tour) tournaments.
“Bottom line is that they have better teams than they have had in the past, and it’s hard to play in a hostile environment. To me, it’s more fun to win in that type of environment than in the United States. To win over there . . . road games are fun to win. I saw something that Lanny (Wadkins) said. He liked to win over here, but to win over there, when everyone is cheering for the other guys, well, it’s pretty fun.”
One of Pavin’s lasting lessons culled from one of his own captains was imparted by Tom Watson, who taught him at The Belfry to pay close attention to silence. Golfers are accustomed to hearing cheers upon hitting good shots; that doesn’t happen when one is a visitor at the Ryder Cup.
The less one hears, Watson told Pavin, the better.
Another former U.S. captain, Dave Stockton, said Pavin would be smart to borrow from Azinger’s successful strategy at Valhalla.
Azinger had three assistants (including Stockton), each in charge of a four-man pod that stayed together in practice sessions and through the week. (Pavin said he’ll name four assistants early in the 2010 season.)
“I think Corey will be just as smart and will rely on some experienced guys,” Stockton said. “In fact, I think he will be fantastic. He is a detail guy, and look at everything there is to learn from Azinger. In my opinion, Azinger was the best there has ever been as far as captain.
“He made lots of changes, he was innovative and he was a true general.”
Azinger’s innovations included increasing captain’s picks from two to four, and that’s one of several momentum-gainers Pavin inherits as he gets ready for Celtic Manor’s Twenty Ten Course. In addition to a three-cup U.S. winning streak, he’ll head to Wales with a comfortable pairing for Tiger Woods, a man who has had a pedestrian record in foursomes and four-ball play (7-12-1 in five Ryder Cups). At the ’09 Presidents Cup in San Francisco, Steve Stricker and Woods proved a formidable duo, going 4-0, and there is no reason to think Pavin, who watched the two play first-hand, would break them up. Pavin said Woods needs a partner not concerned with letting him down.
“I definitely can say that in the past, some of the Ryder Cups, they’ve paired Tiger with some wrong players,” International Team member Robert Allenby said at the Presidents Cup.
“I can see that. Steve Stricker and him are just perfect. That’s probably the No. 1 team in the world.”
Added Frank Nobilo, a Golf Channel analyst and assistant to Greg Norman on the International Team, “America has solved their magic bullet. They’ve found someone he (Woods) doesn’t intimidate on the same side.”
One thing Pavin says he always brought to his captains was that he could play with anybody – long hitters, medium hitters, aggressive players, rookies, veterans – and in studying the U.S. team at the Presidents Cup, he looks forward to a team that has “interchangeable parts.” He also knows, current success aside, that he and his U.S. players will venture to Wales as underdogs. There’s no doubt about it. But climbing mountains and meeting challenges is a task with which the diminutive, short-hitting Pavin, a shotmaker who won 15 times on Tour, is very familiar.
“I mean, my whole career, I’ve kind of been an underdog,” he said, “and it’s been fun to play that role. I like it. It’s not about proving people wrong. It’s about proving to myself that I can do this.
“I’ll be honest: It’s really fun to do.”
– James Achenbach contributed