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Golf News

Shrewd captaincy earns Azinger Cup reward

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (Reuters) - Paul Azinger’s bold and imaginative captaincy was vindicated in the best possible way when the United States won the Ryder Cup on Sunday for the first time since 1999.

Renowned for his passion as a player, Azinger was under pressure to end a run of three successive defeats by Europe in the biennial competition and his team duly delivered with a rousing victory by 16-1/2 points to 11-1/2.

Immediately after being named U.S. captain in November 2006, Azinger announced a revamped selection process aimed at giving him the hottest players while he also switched the opening Cup session from fourballs to foursomes.

Both ploys worked like a dream. His six rookies all rose to the occasion at Valhalla Golf Club and the opening foursomes matches resulted in a 3-1 lead for the Americans, their first in 17 years.

Perhaps his biggest achievement, though, was getting his players to compete in an inspired but loose way, just as the Europeans have managed to do so often over the last 20 years.

Again, he succeeded. Rookies like Anthony Kim and Boo Weekley played a significant role with their energised approach to the week, as did the Valhalla fans who were dubbed by Azinger as the 13th man.

“A lot of things changed from the last Ryder Cup to this one,” a beaming Azinger told reporters after the Americans triumphed for the first time since Brookline in 1999.

“We created the “13th man” and I’m real proud of these people. They made a big difference and kept our guys energised.

“Our guys bought into the concept, and they bonded. We just went out there with a one-shot-at-a-time mission, and we did it.

CAPTAIN’S PICKS

“And my captain’s picks played well,” he added, referring to Steve Stricker, Hunter Mahan, Kentucky native JB Holmes and Chad Campbell. “I’m real proud of them. The pressure is always on them.

“These guys came together as a group and we just stuck to a message. We stayed on message and I wanted them just to play to play great. I told every player that they were on a free roll this week because they weren’t expected that much.”

Europe, bidding for an unprecedented fourth successive victory, had greater strength in depth and the Americans were missing world number one Tiger Woods for the first time since he made his debut at Valderrama in 1997.

“In the end, it comes down to putting and heart and our guys had a lot of heart this week, they really did,” said Azinger, a veteran of four Ryder Cups as player.

“The European team is just an incredible team. I feel fortunate we were able to pull this off.”

Azinger’s final gamble of the week came when he top-loaded his last-day singles order in pursuit of a quick kill. His team led 9-7 after Saturday’s fourballs and needed a further 5-1/2 points to win the Cup.

“The European team is still just a phenomenal team and when I looked down, I evaluated every match,” Azinger said of his line-up.

“It was like our edge, their edge, toss up. It seemed like every single one to me was toss up, toss up, toss up, maybe their edge a little bit. I had no idea. The golf was spectacular on both sides, and our guys just came out on top.”

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