Affinity more touchy than feely

 

George Kimballon the rivalry between the outspoken Azinger and the often abrasive Faldo. Something has to give.

THE EUROPEAN dominance of the past two decades has transformed the Ryder Cup from a friendly competition between golfers of differing nations into an event that frequently tests the limits of international diplomacy, and the concomitant selections of Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo to captain their sides seemed almost calculated to sustain the Ryder Cup's Era of Bad Feeling.

Azinger is outspoken and occasionally belligerent, Faldo taciturn and frequently abrasive. The two men have engaged in a rivalry 21 years in the making, one that had its seeds on a grey Sunday afternoon on the East Lothian coast when Azinger lost to Faldo on the final hole of the 1987 British Open at Muirfield.

In what was Paul Azinger's first British Open Championship (as it happened, it was mine as well), a bogey on the penultimate hole had dropped the surprising second- and third-round leader into a tie with Faldo, and with the Englishman playing uncommonly steady golf - his final round that day would consist of 18 consecutive pars - the issue appeared headed for a play-off.

When Azinger's approach shot found a greenside bunker, the crowd expressed its delight with a deafening roar. RA officials would subsequently apologise for the behaviour of the spectators, and while Faldo echoed his own disapproval, he did not seem overly convincing, at least not to Paul Azinger.

A shaken Azinger went on to make bogey, handing Faldo his first major championship. As the two shook hands on the green, a tight-lipped Faldo's only words of consolation were "tough luck, old boy". Twenty-one years later, when the Ryder Cup captains reflected on the occasion, Azinger recalled merely: "I finished bogey-bogey and Nick won by one."

"That," interjected Faldo, "was hardly my fault."

Azinger managed a chuckle. "You're right," he said.

Faldo's career had at the time been marked by so many disappointments that the Fleet Street press had christened him "Foldo", and in 1987 there was certainly little indication that he would go on to win six major championships.

For his part, Azinger was a virtual unknown on this side of the Atlantic, a rail-thin 27-year-old from Florida who had only recently begun to introduce himself to US audiences.

As a member of his high-school golf team he was unable to break 80, and while he enjoyed moderate success as a collegian at Florida State, few would have labelled him a professional prospect.

He qualified for a tour card in 1981, but lost it after one year of competition and spent a year slogging through the boondocks playing mini-tours. Regaining his card in 1984, he barely earned enough to cover expenses over the next two years. 1987 had been his breakthrough season. By the time he travelled to Scotland he had already won three tournaments and led the US money list.

British Open results weren't included in the tabulation of US Ryder Cup points in 1987, and despite Azinger's successes on the US tour that year he wasn't part of the team that lost, for the first time on American soil, to the Europeans at Muirfield Village in Ohio.

Faldo, who would go on to become the most successful Ryder Cupper of all time, was already playing in his seventh by the time Azinger made the first of what would ultimately be four appearances. Their only head-to-head confrontation in the 1989 matches at the Belfry came on Saturday afternoon, when Azinger and Chip Beck defeated Faldo and Ian Woosnam 2 and 1.

In the course of that match Azinger caught Faldo paying what he felt was undue attention to Beck's putting line.

"I'll read my partner's putts, if you don't mind," scolded the American.

Two years later at Kiawah, Azinger teamed with Mark O'Meara to administer the most lopsided drubbing of of the event, a 7 and 6 win over the English pairing of Faldo and David Gilford.

AZINGER ANDFaldo were opponents twice during the 1993 matches at the Belfry. Zinger and Fred Couples halved a Friday fourball with Faldo and Colin Montgomerie, and then the two future captains went eyeball-to-eyeball for 18 holes in the final singles match on Sunday afternoon.

On that occasion Faldo famously holed a six-iron on the par-three 14th to go two up, as the crowd positively exploded. As the two captains watched an old video of that episode at a Ryder Cup function earlier this year, Azinger recalled that "while all the fuss was dying down, I went over and sat on a bench by the 15th tee".

"That was sporting of you," replied Faldo. "If you'd hung around, I would have signed the ball and handed it across."

Azinger, in any case, battled back with a birdie on the 15th.

"Then on the 16th, Nick talked me into giving him a five-footer," recalled Azinger. "He told me, 'It's over. You guys have won', so I conceded his putt. Then Davis Love came over and told me the match was still tied. I can't tell how irritating that was."

When the pairing reached the 18th, the US had already mathematically clinched the match, but Azinger had a 10-foot putt for a birdie that would halve his match with the man he saw as his personal bête noire.

"Who gives a rat's ass about our match, because the result of the Ryder Cup was already decided," recalled Azinger. "I went through the motions of preparing for the putt, expecting that at any second Faldo was going to tell me to pick the ball up. That would have been the sporting thing to do."

Faldo remained silent.

"I can't tell you how much pleasure holing that putt gave me," said Azinger.

Even though his non-Hodgkins lymphoma wouldn't be diagnosed for another two months, Azinger retroactively made it part of the drama surrounding that match.

"I had cancer," said Azinger, "and he still couldn't beat me!"

Of course, if Azinger had cancer then, he presumably also had it at the PGA that August, when he overtook Faldo and then beat Greg Norman in a play-off to claim his only major title. (Although he has been free of the disease since 1994, he is to this day described as a 'cancer survivor' as often as he is a 'former major winner'.)

Azinger underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments in late 1993 and early 1994, and consequently didn't qualify for the 1995 matches at Oak Hill, but even in his role as a television commentator he managed to get a dig in at Faldo when he said, on air, of the Briton's slow play in his match against Strange, "They ought to invoke the same-day rule."

Faldo had already played his last Ryder Cup when Azinger was added to the team as a wild-card pick for the 2002 matches at the Belfry. Since Curtis Strange didn't use Azinger once over the first two days, his inclusion seemed a sentimental gesture on the part of the American captain, but when he got his chance, Zinger did his part, holing out from a bunker on the last to halve his match with Niclas Fasth.

But Azinger's Ryder Cup squabbles were hardly limited to Faldo. In another meeting of future captains, in 1989 at the Belfry, he was matched against Seve Ballesteros in the pivotal third-day singles when the Spaniard asked to replace a scuffed ball and Azinger refused the request.

"Is that the way you want to play today?" asked Seve.

Later in that match, Azinger left himself a two-foot putt on the 13th green, and clearly expected Seve to concede the next, but Ballesteros responded with a stony silence.

One-up going into the last hole, Azinger drove into the water, and another bickering match ensued when Ballesteros questioned the legality of his drop. Both men made bogeys, and Azinger won the match.

While he was hardly the first or the last opponent to accuse Azinger of bending the rules, Seve got into another highly public confrontation with the American two years later at Kiawah Island. In their foursomes match against Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, Azinger was playing a 100-compression ball and partner Chip Beck a 90, but the Americans conveniently switched balls on a par-three hole.

The television cameras captured much of the ensuing argument, and when Azinger insisted he and Beck were "not trying to cheat", Ballesteros sarcastically replied, "Oh, no! Breaking the rules and cheating are two different things."

After the camouflage-clad Americans won that "War at the Shore", Azinger's jingoism reached an embarrassing new low when he boasted, "I'm proud to be an American. We went over and thumped the Iraqis, and here we rallied to beat the Europeans."

Ballesteros was moved to note the American team had consisted of "11 nice guys and Paul Azinger".

It should probably be noted here that one needn't be a European to regard Azinger as a jerk. Prior to its embarkation for the Belfry in 1993, the US Ryder Cup team was invited to a reception at the White House by president Bill Clinton. Azinger declined, saying he didn't want to "shake hands with a draft dodger".

("Excuse me," remarked one of my colleagues at the time, "but exactly what war did Paul Azinger fight in, anyway?")

Of course, if the PGA of America had been looking for a nice guy, they wouldn't have picked Azinger. Both captains, in fact, stand in stark contrast to their immediate predecessors.

IF EUROPEretain the Cup, you won't see Faldo up on the roof whooping it up with the boys with Guinness running out of his nose, and Azinger was chosen in part because his whip-cracking style would be a marked departure from the laid-back, player-friendly approach of Tom Lehman.

Like Faldo, Azinger openly campaigned for his captaincy, although as much as he coveted the position, it is unclear whether he would have done so had he known in advance his would be the first American side since 1995 that didn't include Tiger Woods.

"We'll be an underdog," said Azinger. "We're missing the greatest player on earth, arguably the greatest player ever. That's a big blow to us."

When it has come to renewing his personal rivalry with Faldo, Azinger hasn't needed much encouragement from the press - although he's gotten it, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Back in April Azinger, in his infamous interview with the Mail on Sunday, said that although Faldo had "tried to redefine himself" to make his personality more palatable to television audiences, golfers "from his generation and mine don't want to have anything to do with him.

"If you're going to be a prick and everyone hates you, why do you think that just because you're trying to be cute and funny on air now the same people are all going to start to like you?" asked Azinger.

It's difficult to imagine that even someone as thick as Paul Azinger failed to anticipate the uproar those comments would produce. While he did not claim to have been misquoted, he blamed the resultant furore on the Fleet Street tabloid mentality, and attempted to quell the storm by phoning Faldo and leaving a good-natured message on his answering machine.

"I don't know if you've seen it," said Azinger's message, "but one of those papers says I called you a prick and said that everyone from your generation hates you. Even though you pretty much are and everyone pretty much does, I have more diplomacy than to say that."

Azinger had plainly expected the European team to include Darren Clarke, and registered his surprise on August 31st when Faldo spurned the Dungannon veteran and instead chose the English duo of Paul Casey and Ian Poulter to round out his squad.

"I thought Clarke was a lock, and that it would be between Casey and Poulter for the other spot," said Azinger.

Two days later when the US captain appeared at the Hotel Martinique in New York to announce his own wild-card selections - Steve Stricker, JB Holmes, Hunter Mahan, and Chad Campbell - he was asked again about Faldo's snub of the Irishman, but this time deftly deflected the question.

"I don't want to get into why I didn't pick who I didn't pick, and I certainly don't want to justify for Nick why he didn't pick who he didn't pick," said Azinger.

Enhancing the home-field advantage by setting up the course to suit the particular talents of his players has traditionally been among the prerogatives enjoyed by the host Ryder Cup captain, and Azinger, a self-described "control freak", is no exception.

Although he would not meet with Valhalla greenkeeper Mark Wilson until the next day, it was clear from Azinger's wild-card selections he would favour a set-up that favoured big bashers like Holmes - monstrously long but not especially accurate off the tee.

"Personally, I'm tired of playing in five-inch rough," said Azinger in New York that morning. "A bomber is probably going to like the course. The first cut is going to be pretty wide in spots. I don't think there's necessarily an advantage one way or the other, but I just don't want anyone to feel handcuffed off the tee.

"I mean," he quickly caught himself, "I don't care if Europe feels handcuffed. I just don't want our guys to feel handcuffed."