LOUISVILLE, Ky. – For U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson, this year’s matches are shaping up to being a rebuilding year.
In order, Dustin Johnson announced an indefinite “leave of absence” from golf for personal reasons; Matt Kuchar, who was also a virtual lock to make the team that will travel to Scotland in September, withdrew from this week’s PGA Championship with an ailing back; and Jason Dufner, who at eighth on the U.S. points list was a leading candidate to either qualify or possibly receive one of Watson’s three captain’s picks, walked off Valhalla mid-round with a neck injury on Thursday.
Add to that Tiger Woods’ miserable week, both physically and competitively, and Watson’s options seem wildly limited.
But where some see lost opportunities, Paul Azinger – the last U.S. captain to lead a team to victory in 2008 at Valhalla – sees an embarrassment of riches.
On Saturday at Valhalla, ’Zinger settled in for a rainy morning of war room talk with GolfChannel.com. With the only proviso that Watson still has three weeks before he finds himself on the clock and because of that much can change, Captain Paul dissected this year’s team, much like he did in ’08, and offered his picks.
“It’s not fair to make picks now because you have three weeks to watch. It’s counter intuitive to say, ‘This is who I’d pick now.’ You have to pick who is red hot after you have three weeks to watch,” Azinger said.
With that footnote, Azinger went back to the formula he used in ’08 and said he would give ownership to the players who qualify for the team and allow them to make the picks.
In ’08, for example, Chad Campbell, who was 21st on the U.S. points list, was one of Azinger’s four picks despite a less-then-stellar run-up to the selection date (missed cut at the PGA, T-65 at The Barclays and T-7 at the Deutsche Bank Championship).
“I’d let them pick because that’s what lets them get invested, that gets them really engaged,” he said. “I didn’t pick (Campbell). They had three players they could have picked. (Steve) Stricker, Stewart Cink and Ben Curtis picked Chad Campbell. They were invested in him and Campbell was so invested in them.”
If the U.S. team’s 16 ½ to 11 ½ victory in ’08 isn’t evidence enough, Azinger’s players from the Valhalla team seem to be the ultimate arbiters of the success of the captain’s plan.
“Few captains, if any, have had an impact on the team and the result as much as he did,” said Hunter Mahan, one of Azinger’s picks in ’08. “He did so much work beforehand that when we got here he told us, ‘Here are your teams.’ He had a huge impact on that week because he could. At the Ryder Cup they give him an opportunity to put (his) mark on it and he put his stamp on it.”
As Azinger studied the current team, which will be solidified after Sunday’s final round, he quickly pieced together potential “pods,” the system he used in ’08 and explained in his book “Cracking the Code.”
Once those pods are set – Bubba Watson, Jim Furyk and Jimmy Walker, for example – Azinger said he would give them a list of possible picks that would join their pod and they could make the choice.
Pushed for who he would pick off the current list, however, Azinger quickly ran through the list of potential candidates.
Spoiler alert: Azinger would not pick Woods.
“I’m not pickin’ Tiger; he’s hurt,” he said.
With the assumption that Phil Mickelson – who is currently 10th on the points list, one spot outside the automatic qualifiers and currently tied for seventh at the PGA – will qualify for the matches, Azinger’s first pick went to Keegan Bradley.
“He loves the Ryder Cup and (the Europeans) are going to be out to get him because of the way he played the last time,” Azinger said, noting that Bradley went 3-0 paired with Mickelson at the matches in 2012.
Although Bradley missed the cut at the PGA, he is 11th on the points list and tied for fourth (WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and The Greenbrier Classic) in two of his last four events.
After that, Azinger said he would swoon all the way to 38th on the point list and select Stricker, which seems a little awkward considering his status as a vice-captain for Watson’s team but a reasonable selection since the part-timer player is tied for ninth this week at Valhalla.
“He brings a calm and steadiness that is just valuable,” he said of the three-time Ryder Cup player.
And finally, Azinger didn’t hesitate before selecting Ryan Moore. Although Moore would be playing in his first Ryder Cup he checks off all the important boxes.
“He is a (U.S.) Amateur champion, he’s a match-play player and he’s got a lot of heart and a lot of guts. He doesn’t have any scars from Ryder Cups past,” Azinger said.
Moore also follows the mold of picking the hot player, having finished in the top 10 in three of his last four starts, and is currently tied for 38th place at Valhalla. As for his status as a rookie, Azinger considers that a bonus.
“I want rookies, dude,” Azinger laughed. “I want rookies who are unscarred and playing well. That’s how I would be thinking. I want to take a bunch of rookies in there, put a chip on their shoulder and go William Wallace on their ass.”
With a large smile etched into his face Azinger added, “You can write that down,” and then set out under skies that were finally starting to clear. For a brief moment, the U.S. Ryder Cup team’s chances seemed a little less gloomy.