Monday, 15 September 2008

Azinger, asked to take on Faldo in the Ryder Cup one last time, can he maintain his unbeaten record against England's finest?

You only have to look at their body language to see they're really bestest buddies...

The man the Americans have put their faith in, to lead the American team to a much needed and long awaited victory in the Ryder Cup, has a pretty remarkable back story. Never thought of as one of the greats of the game, Paul Azinger was not thought to even have what it took to be a professional in his early career. Having grown up with a father who made his money from boats, the "only proper job" which Azinger ever had was working on those boats, scraping barnacles from the bottom of the hulls. He went to college where his interest in golf took him to dreaming of becoming a pro. He was told he hadn't the talent and spent a few years getting on the tour, dropping off it and then getting back on board.

Perhaps it was these experiences which spurred him on to try harder and built up the tenacity and intensity in the man, qualities which were behind the decision to give him the captaincy. He made changes to his game which turned him into a serious competitor on the tour, playing with the consistency that is essential to establishing yourself in the upper echelons of the game. He played with a fervour as well and his Ryder Cup exploits are more famous for his ability to rile the opposition than go out and beat them. He famously recovered from a bout of cancer to come back and be a force in the game once more; he’s a man who seems to enjoy doing things against the odds and isn’t scared of stepping on toes in the process. The most famous quote about the man stems from Seve Ballesteros who said "The American team has 11 nice guys ... and Paul Azinger."

It's fairly ironic that the man who Azinger find's himself pitting his wits against is a man who his golfing career seemed inextricably linked with. When he found himself bogeying the last two holes of the 1987 Open Championship at Muirfield who was it who came through to become a Major winner instead of him. One Nicholas Faldo Esq. The pair had a frosty relationship from the point on. Faldo getting under Azinger’s skin with the throwaway line “Tough Luck, Old boy”, right after his Muirfield victory, which gave Azinger a chip on his shoulder for some time after; Azinger absurdly claiming it was the first time he had heard of a player who had been established on Ryder Cup teams for a decade already and had several prominent wins.

The pair then had several spicy encounters in the Ryder Cup. The most talked about being the clash they had in the singles in 1993. The Yanks already had the Cup in the Bag but the 12thth hole to nudge ahead but Azinger came back to draw with a birdie. Their match Halved, Azinger can proudly claim not to have dropped a point against Faldo, the most prolific European Ryder Cup player ever. singles match between Azinger and Faldo continued on, both players giving it their all with nothing but personal pride on the line. Faldo had a hole-in-one on the 14, but Azinger came right back with a birdie on the next, ignoring the hole-in-one celebrations, focussed on the job at hand. He finished off his gutsy display with a 12 foot birdie putt on the last to halve the match. He had done it, Faldo never beat Azinger in Ryder Cup play; the most prolific points scorer Europes ever produced, never took points from Azinger.

The result of that match took on much greater significance as Azinger found out what conditions he had played it under. His shoulder had bothered him so much that week that he couldn’t put his scorecard in his back pocket. He had put off a scan to play in the Ryder match, when he had it afterwards, it was discovered he had cancer, a lymphoma in his shoulder. He was in the NBC commentary booth when they replayed the titanic battle he’d had in that match with Faldo. "Look at that, I had cancer and he still couldn't beat me.”

Azinger recovered from his battle with cancer, but it took him six years to get back to form. He had won his first Major at the USPGA, so his battle with the disease probably took his best years away from him. But it is testament to Azinger that he managed to get his game back to compete once more at a Ryder Cup in 2002 and won more tournaments after his illness.

It seems strange that the pair who had such a frosty relationship in their playing days, formed a successful partnership in the commentary box after hanging up their clubs, though much of their chemistry was built upon the sniping for comedic effect they could do. However, once more, Azinger had a right to feel aggrieved when ABC lost their coverage, Faldo was the only one to be picked up by CBS. A kick in the teeth for him again.

It’s not the first time he’s had a feeling of inferiority when comparing himself to Faldo. Where Azinger played by feel and a natural swing, Faldo had built himself a swing that would become the most reliable in the world, mechanical, a thing of function and it made him the most successful Englishman in the game ever. Azinger would see him putting in the hours on the range and think, I should be doing that, but he didn’t, and he knew that was probably why Faldo would have six majors to his one. But that wasn’t who Azinger was, he does things his way, by instinct, and that’s how his captaincy will be.

I do declare it the most whimsical jape of the season!
What a buffoon that stuffy english Cad looks now, look at him,
he looks like he has bunny ears, you see, like a bunny, Ha Ha! A classic piece of tomfoolery.
Azinger, I'd give my left left ball to have your wit...

The first act of Azinger's captaincy was the audacious overhaul he made to the qualifying system for the match. He gave himself more control over who would be there by doubling the number of Captain's picks from two to four. A ballsy move, which did increase his chances of having the team he wanted there but setting himself firmly in the firing line if his picks fail to perform. I always thought his thinking was that there would be a pool of players in great form coming into the event and he could have his pick of the bunch, but such is the seeming decline in the US game, with more and more of the biggest players in the game coming from overseas, that that was simply not the case and Azinger found himself selecting from a bunch of Rookies who had had decent years but hadn't precisely set the world alight.

He had to select three rookies in the end, giving him six overall, the largest number in a US team since 1927. You'd have to argue that none of those he did pick would exactly strike fear into the Europeans if drawn against them, but who else could he have gone for? The big names in american golf have been slowly coming of an age where they are being put out to pasture, Davis Love, David Toms, Fred Couples, and few real stars have come in behind them. The unavailability of Tiger Woods has made this all the more apparent; Where the European team has grown with it's success and had more players coming in who look strong, the american tour has been producing less and less homegrown stars of the calibre it used to and a team which got beat despite looking good on paper, now looks average, no matter how fancy a pen you wrote it down with.

Ask yourself this. Would Azinger have picked any of the guys he did over Clarke, Monty, Poulter or Casey? Remember, all those guys were outside the top TEN of the Europeans... I beleive that's what the French refer to as "le strength en depth."

The other overhauls he made included limiting the qualification to one year, though last years Majors counted too, which to be fair has worked to his advantage and he'll be happy with who got in on merit. The eight automatics hold the established big boys of the US, Mickelson, Furyk, Cink, as well as those who has a storming year, such as Kenny Perry and new upstart Anthony Kim. Still, one can't help compare the two teams and see that even the big players on the US side have lost more points than they have won. Kenny Perry, has played one match and lost both points he competed for...

I think however this could be a real chance for Azinger to get something right here. The world and the wife, apart from Jack Nicklaus, sees the Americans as underdogs. They're on their home turf. It shouldn't be hard to get the crowd really fired up behind the americans. It shouldn't be hard to motivate a group of players who must be sick of seeing the Europeans celebrating on the sunday, while they have nothing to look forward to but their slating in the morning press. He has a player in his ranks who has the potential to turn into the American Sergio Garcia, Anthony Kim. He hasn't played a game in the Ryder Cup so far, but I find it hard to believe he won't take to it like a duck to water. He's one of the most competitive young players I've seen in a long time and he is the one guy I would imagine the Europeans will be particularly wary of. An unknown quantity.

That's all it might take, a few of the young guns to claim some scalps early on and the crowd will really become a huge factor in the match. He was famous in his playing days for riling Europeans, perhaps it's his best hope to roll the dice, pass on a few tricks of his trade and unsettle the Euroboys and create a real dogfight. Maybe then they'll have a chance. Maybe a team of 12 hateful guys and Paul Azinger could pull it off….

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