Azinger keeps it 'workmanlike'

 

GOLF RYDER CUP 2008: PAUL AZINGER is a different type of magician to Nick Faldo, it would seem.

Although he had more rabbits to pull out of the hat than his European counterpart, none came as much of a surprise when he yesterday named his four "wild card" picks to finalise the United States team for the Ryder Cup match in Valhalla, Kentucky, on September 19th-21st. Maybe that says as much about the material which Azinger had to work with than his powers to shock.

In fact, of the quartet of favoured players - Steve Stricker, JB Holmes, Chad Campbell and Hunter Mahan - announced in New York yesterday, only one - Campbell - has previous Ryder Cup experience, and that of the losing variety in both 2004 and 2006, while only one - Holmes - has managed a win on the US Tour this season, at the Phoenix Open back in early February.

For sure, Azinger's ploy of extending the period before naming his "wild cards" by three weeks fairly blew up in his face. "Unfortunately, we only had foreign winners," he remarked, of a run that has seen Carl Pettersson and Vijay Singh (twice) win on the US Tour since Pádraig Harrington's success in the US PGA. A barren spell led to thin pickings, it would seem.

Perhaps the only surprise in Azinger's announcement is that there was no room in the team locker room for a character. A personality like Woody Austin, who just missed out on automatic selection when that qualifying period finished at the PGA; or like Rocco Mediate, who was beaten in the US Open play-off by Tiger Woods.

The four captain's picks join Phil Mickelson, Stewart Cink, Kenny Perry, Jim Furyk, Anthony Kim, Justin Leonard, Ben Curtis and Boo Weekley in a relatively inexperienced team for the match in Valhalla in two weeks time. Only six of the 12 players bring any Ryder Cup experience to the party and only three of them - Mickelson, Leonard and Furyk, all members at Brookline in 1999 - know what it is like to taste success in the competition.

With no Tiger Woods available to him, as the world number one recuperates from knee surgery, Azinger felt he had assembled a "workmanlike" team that reminded him of some of the successful teams he featured on as a player. "There's a bunch of workmanlike personalities on this team. I think their personalities all seem to blend and mesh nicely together. All my teams were kind of workmanlike teams, I felt like, in the past, and we had some success. So maybe it will bode well for us."

The United States last won the Ryder Cup in 1999, but has lost each of the last three encounters and the last two - at Oakland Hills in Detroit in 2004 and at The K Club in 2006 - by record margins of 18½ to 9½.

The first call of confirmation which Azinger made was to Stricker, who was only edged out of an automatic place when Ben Curtis qualified by right with a runner-up finish to Harrington at the US PGA last month. When Stricker answered the phone, there was no good humoured chitchat. "Is this a good call or a bad call," asked Stricker, who had been on the receiving end of sympathy calls in the past. "It's a good call, buddy," replied Azinger.

Azinger described Mahan, who had run into some controversy stateside earlier this season when comparing players in the match to "slaves," as a "young lion" after selecting him. He called Holmes, a native of Kentucky, "a bomber," and said that Campbell was a "terrific ball-striker".

"I had a short list (after the PGA), but I also had to look at the guys that went all the way down to 25th on the list and beyond . . . I had some help gathering statistical data on most, if not all those guys, and after crunching all the numbers it became more difficult for me, so I kind of wanted to crumble up that paper and throw it away. For the most part, I think this was wide open."

The US captain admitted he had locked in two players, Stricker and Holmes, for quite some time and had mulled over the options in recent week before deciding on Mahan and Campbell.

"I had three guys that have never played Ryder Cup before and I thought Chad had a little bit of experience. The fact that Chad played really well this past tournament (in the Deutsche Bank, when he was tied-seventh) helped him".