Azinger out to end US drought

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Ryder CupEven without Tiger Woods, the Americans are running out of excuses in the Ryder Cup.
 
They have one victory against Europe in the last 15 years of this biennial grudge match, and that required a miracle putt from Justin Leonard that only slowed the shift in power. They have not led after any day, any session since that Sunday at Brookline in 1999.
 
Not that they haven't tried.
 
Hal Sutton thought he created a juggernaut by pairing Woods and Phil Mickelson in 2004, a move that got torpedoed. They lost both matches, and an inspired European team went on to its most lopsided victory.
 
Woods tried to get more involved in 2006. He took four rookies out to dinner ' even paid the bill ' and then agreed to fly to Ireland for two days of practice to show this U.S. team was unified. Europe won by the same score, 18 - 9 .
 
Paul Azinger
U.S. captain Paul Azinger is hoping his team can win back the Ryder Cup. (Getty Images)
Now it's Paul Azinger's turn.
 
Before he agreed to be the next U.S. captain, he persuaded the PGA of America to overhaul the qualifying system by basing the points on money instead of top 10s, replacing an archaic system that Azinger felt did not deliver the best players. Only results from this year counted, except for the 2007 majors. He doubled his captain's picks to four selections, then pushed back the date for choosing them by three weeks to give him more time to evaluate the hot hands.
 
Nothing in this blueprint suggested Woods would have season-ending knee surgery after the U.S. Open and not make the trip to Valhalla Golf Club, where Woods won the PGA Championship in 2000.
 
Even so, Azinger feels the new criteria at least gives the Americans a fighting chance.
 
'If we win, I'll go down as having the lowest IQ of any genius who ever lived,' Azinger said.
 
And if they lose?
 
Again?
 
'I don't think there's more at stake than there has been any other year, because we always want to win so bad,' said Stewart Cink, who has experienced nothing but losing since his first Ryder Cup in 2002. 'The fact we've lost a few ... that's history now. It really doesn't have any bearing on this one. We're tired of losing.'
 
But the Americans certainly are used to it.
 
Europe has now captured the Ryder Cup three consecutive times, five out of the last six, eight of the last 11. For the first time, all 12 of its players are among the top 50 in the world, led by British Open and PGA champion Padraig Harrington.
 
The Americans counter with six rookies, the most on a U.S. team since 1979. And with Woods sitting this one out, the Americans do not have a current major champion on their side for the first since the Ryder Cup began in 1927.
 
About the only thing they have in their favor is a raucous crowd that awaits in Kentucky when the matches begin Sept. 19.
 
The trick is to give them something to cheer.
 
'It will be unique to be in America, on our home soil, as underdogs,' Azinger said. 'But clearly, the European team is strong. I think it's one of the strongest teams I've ever seen them bring across here.'
 
Europe is so strong that captain Nick Faldo figured he could do without Colin Montgomerie, who has never lost a singles match and has played in every Ryder Cup since 1991; and Darren Clarke, the inspirational figure at The K Club in Ireland two years ago when he went 3-0 in his first competition since his wife died of cancer.
 
Phil Mickelson, who has not won a singles match in the last three Ryder Cups, was the leading points-earner for the United States. The leader of this team, however, might be Kenny Perry, who went 0-2 in the only Ryder Cup he ever played.
 
Perry, who grew up about two hours away in tiny Franklin, Ky., considered it a long shot that he could make the team at age 48, especially coming off knee surgery in 2006 and consecutive years without a victory. But he qualified easily with three PGA TOUR victories ' only Woods has won more on the TOUR this year ' despite playing only one round in the four majors.
 
Perry wasn't eligible for the Masters, withdrew from U.S. Open qualifying, turned down a spot in the British Open when he qualified late, then withdrew from the PGA Championship after the first round with a nagging eye injury.
 
For a guy who normally tries to avoid attention, Perry sees the Ryder Cup as his defining moment.
 
'This is the pinnacle of my career,' Perry said. 'I'm either going to be a hero or a goat in the state of Kentucky.'
 
He will have some Bluegrass company in J.B. Holmes, one of Azinger's four wild-card picks who was selected for his sheer power. Holmes, who twice has won the FBR Open, worked the scoreboard on the 14th hole at Valhalla during the 2000 PGA Championship and has played the course more than anyone at the Ryder Cup.
 
Other fresh faces for the United States include the explosive Anthony Kim, a two-time winner this year; Steve Stricker, regarded as the best putter on the U.S. team; and Hunter Mahan, chosen despite criticism of the Ryder Cup largesse in a magazine interview this year.
 
Azinger doesn't see the rookies as a liability.
 
'I've said this all along ' to me, experience is important, but it also is overrated,' Azinger said. 'Anyone who has played in the last six Ryder Cups has experienced getting their (behinds) beat. I'm not looking for experience. I want players that are playing well.'
 
What's at stake for Europe?
 
It typically gets motivation from being classified as a second-rate tour, although it now has more players among the top 30 than the Americans. The European Tour is going global, and next year will introduce the 'Race to Dubai' to counter the FedExCup.
 
'There's probably not as much at stake for the European team as the U.S. team,' Harrington said. 'There's more pressure on them. I would think for the Ryder Cup, there needs to be a good, tight match. I think the U.S. team needs a win now.'
 
Along with making putts, Europe has done a remarkable job pulling together with so many personalities from so many countries. This will require extra work this year, particularly with the captain.
 
Some players were perplexed publicly, disenchanted in private, when Faldo left Clarke off the team in favor of Ian Poulter, who chose to play on the U.S. tour instead of trying to make the team on his own. Clarke has won twice this year, while Poulter only has two top-10s, including a runner-up finish to Harrington at the British Open.
 
'Some will agree. Some will disagree,' Faldo said. 'I'm the guy that has to live with it, and I can live with my decision.'
 
As captains, Faldo and Azinger bring their own rivalry.
 
They were partners in the broadcast booth for ABC Sports, but their relationship dates to the 1987 British Open, when Azinger bogeyed the last two holes to pave the way for the first of Faldo's six majors.
 
Azinger never lost to Faldo in four Ryder Cup matches, including a famous halve in 1993 at The Belfry in which both fought to the final hole even though the Americans had already clinched the Ryder Cup. Azinger was diagnosed with cancer in his right shoulder shortly after the matches, and played in only one more Ryder Cup.
 
Ultimately, though, the outcome is out of the captains' hands.
 
The Ryder Cup is decided by putting, whether it is Leonard making one from 45 feet as he did at Brookline, or Sergio Garcia making everything in sight while building a 14-4-2 record.
 
Azinger does not know what else he could have done to field a better team. Now, it's up to his players, who are under pressure to win even if they feel they have nothing to lose.
 
'If you're going to represent the United States, you'd better be ready to win,' Cink said. 'And if you don't win, you'd better be ready to take the heat.'
 
Related Links:
  • U.S. Report Cards
  • European Report Cards
  • U.S. Ryder Cup Team and Records
  • European Ryder Cup Team and Records
  • Full Coverage - 37th Ryder Cup