LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (Reuters) - Much-needed vigour and passion has been breathed back into the Ryder Cup by Paul Azinger’s triumphant United States team after six years of European dominance.
Three successive victories by Europe, the last two by record-equalling margins, had prompted some cynics to suggest the U.S. needed to beef up their line-up with Canadians and South Americans.
The Europeans had held the upper hand over their opponents with regard to team unity and a relaxed but committed approach, plus the ability to hole birdie putts when they matter most.
While the Americans have traditionally gone into the biennial competition with a stronger combination in terms of world rankings, that has changed for the last two editions.
Going into Valhalla Golf Club last week, the Europeans had no one outside the top 50 in their 12-man line-up while the Americans had two in JB Holmes (56) and Chad Campbell (57).
However, Azinger’s meticulous preparations for the 37th Ryder Cup, a revamped selection system and an unwavering focus on team bonding within three distinct groups paved the way for a rousing victory by 16-1/2 points to 11-1/2 on Sunday.
His six rookies, three of them captain’s picks, galvanised the Americans who, in many ways, out-Europed Europe by piling up red numbers on the board in the bluegrass state of Kentucky.
“I think Phil (Mickelson) put it nicely earlier in the week when he said they have no scars,” Britain’s Paul Casey said of the U.S. rookies who combined for nine wins and eight halves.
“That was a good point. They just played very, very good golf, as well.”
Jim Furyk, a veteran of five previous Ryder Cups, agreed.
“Experience, experience, experience -- that’s what we’ve always driven and we had a lot of newcomers here and a lot of young guys,” he said. “Right on down the line, you look at them, six new guys and they brought a lot of enthusiasm.
“They fired up the crowd. They infused amazing energy into the crowd and into the team and won probably the majority of the points. They helped us win the Ryder Cup.”
Anthony Kim, aged 23, and Hunter Mahan, 26, were the youngest U.S. rookies and are almost certain to underpin American Cup teams for the next decade.
Perhaps Azinger’s most remarkable achievement was infusing his team with a level of unity and ease under pressure not seen in recent American line-ups.
Many of his predecessors have failed to find the ideal blend between the journeyman player on the team with the leading lights and multiple major winners but Azinger succeeded through a three-group strategy.
In the build-up to the Ryder Cup, he kept the same four-man groups together in practice and never went outside those combinations in selecting his foursomes and fourball pairings.
“I’ve had this idea for about five years,” Azinger said. “I tried to play up was the team concept here, and the concept worked. We just decided to come together in small groups.
“We put for guys together in practice rounds and they played together every day and they were the four guys that stayed together the whole week. They were never going to come out of their little group. That’s the way I did it.”
Azinger’s three groups were: Kim, Mickelson, Justin Leonard and Mahan; Boo Weekley, Kenny Perry, Holmes and Furyk; and Stewart Cink, Steve Stricker, Ben Curtis and Campbell.
As for Europe, they were simply outplayed by the Americans over three days of high-quality golf and exhilarating shot-making at Valhalla.
Their top three of Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia failed to win a single match between them while rookies such as Justin Rose, with three points out of four, and Graeme McDowell (2-1/2 out of four), made outstanding debuts.
“America were marginally, marginally better in different areas,” said European captain Nick Faldo. “The shot-making is very similar. We can all leave here very proud, chins up, straight back and we will be back to fight another day.”
Europe will now prepare to win back the 17-inch gold trophy when the teams next meet in the Ryder Cup on Welsh soil at the Celtic Manor Resort in 2010.
Editing by Padraic Halpin
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