Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Zinger of a Captain

First off, if you’re hoping to see the U.S. reclaim the Ryder Cup this week, I regret to inform you that the early signs aren’t promising.

Start with Sunday when high winds blew through Louisville, Kentucky, rearranging some of Valhalla’s outdoor furniture and even toppling a TV tower. (Unfortunately for the U.S. team, NBC’s Johnny Miller wasn’t in it at the time.)

It got worse on Monday when the European Team plane touched down on Kentucky tarmac.

On to Plan B.

Lately, Europe’s had to do little more than simply show up at the biennial matches to keep the Cup in its clutches. And now they’re getting cocky. Europe’s Captain Nick Faldo brought only seven of his players on that London-to-Louisville express.

Perhaps they’ll give the U.S. a couple of strokes a side, too. Maybe let our boys drive the cart for a couple of holes or buy them a Jungle Juice to put in their sippy cups at the turn.

Okay, so the Euros weren’t actually planning to play shorthanded; the other five managed to find their way to Valhalla on their own. But there’s no disputing that when it comes to the Ryder Cup, Mother England and her continental cousins have been America’s Daddy.

And there’s no reason to believe they’ll lose custody this year. Europe has proven to be the better team for the last 20 years, and now – if you believe the world rankings – they have better individual players from top to bottom, too, especially with Tiger Woods in absentia. In fact, the Europeans are probably more favored to win this Ryder Cup than they’ve ever been going into any of the previous 36.

Not only have they won the last two by a combined score of 37-19, Europe has won five of the last six and had possession of the Cup for 17 of the last 24 years. The last time one side dominated that dramatically, they had to change the rules to keep it interesting. After the U.S. won each competition from 1959 to 1977, the Great Britain & Ireland team was permitted to add the rest of Europe to better balance the two sides. From 1985 to 1993, the Cup see-sawed in symmetry: two wins for Europe, then a tie, then two wins for the U.S.

Since then, there’s been about as much balance as Shaquille O’Neal teeter-tottering an Olsen twin. The U.S. has won just once since 1993 and even that one (1999) necessitated the greatest Sunday singles rally in Ryder Cup history.

America’s ignominy sunk to new depths shortly after Paul Azinger was picked to lead the U.S. team after the most recent drubbing in 2006. The PGA of America granted the new captain’s wish of amending his team’s qualification criteria to allow him four picks instead of two plus an extra three weeks to make those decisions in hopes that he could field the hottest team possible.

The changes themselves make perfect sense; that Azinger felt the need to change the rules was to tacitly concede defeat under the previous system. Just as it was for GB&I in 1979. It’s a concession Azinger never would’ve made as a player.

In some ways, the presence of Azinger and Faldo as captains hearkens back to a simpler time in Ryder Cup history.

A time when the two sides hated each other’s guts.

Back when those two were in their Ryder Cup primes, most players stuck to their own tours with the exception of the major championships and a handful of others. In that case, it was a lack of familiarity which bred contempt. The two sides barely knew each other and what they did know they didn’t like.

What was especially annoying about the European players was how often they began winning, both individually in the majors and as a team in the Ryder Cup. For three full decades – the 1950s through the 1970s – only three players from Europe won a Grand Slam event: England’s Max Faulkner and Tony Jacklin (two) and Spaniard Seve Ballesteros. That’s four majors out of a whopping 120 over the course of 30 years. Not surprisingly, the U.S. lost just one Ryder Cup during that time (1957).

But from 1983 through 1994, at least one European player won a major each year except 1986. Thus it’s also not surprising that Europe would assert its Ryder Cup dominance, led by Faldo, during that stretch. From that landmark triumph in 1985 which snapped a 28-year winless streak, Europe has gone 7-3-1.

As they were getting over that proverbial hump, the Europeans also managed to get under the skin of their American opponents with an in-your-face attitude borne out of all those decades of being biennially bludgeoned. It was during this time that Azinger cut his Ryder Cup bicuspids, playing in three straight from 1989 through 1993. There were years when it appeared some of those matches might come to blows, and Azinger often played a leading role in those melee-dramas.

Two of his assistant captains this week are men he played for, Raymond Floyd (1989) and Dave Stockton (1991). Floyd, with that legendary Death Stare, has never backed down from a fight; and Stockton was commander of the U.S. troops in the infamous War by the Shore at Kiawah Island when tension between the two teams was arguably at its height. Do you think it’s a coincidence that Azinger chose them as his lieutenants? (I’m giving you the Death Stare while you think about the answer.)

Azinger has a heavily infant infantry: six of his 12 players are Ryder Cup rookies, and he likes it that way. He’s embraced the role of underdog, colorfully noting earlier this year that the only experience a lot of U.S. players have is in getting their backsides beaten. That may explain why his rear infantry – the four captain’s picks – includes three first-timers (Steve Stricker, Hunter Mahan, and J.B. Holmes) and two (Mahan and Holmes) who have a little swagger and aren’t afraid to use it.

The PGA of America has put nearly every kind of personality in its captain’s chair in an attempt to reclaim the Cup. They’ve tried brash (Lanny Wadkins), defiant (Curtis Strange), emotional (Ben Crenshaw), contemplative (Tom Lehman), outspoken (Hal Sutton), and guys with big glasses (Tom Kite). Most of the time it hasn’t mattered who’s been at the helm. (Pep talks don’t usually work when you’re getting your hat handed to you as Sutton’s Stetson was handed his team four years ago in a nine-point loss at Oakland Hills.)

But it mattered in 1999 when that big believer in fate, Ben Crenshaw, had “a good feelin’ about this.” “This” was a four-point deficit his U.S. team had given itself going into the Sunday singles. You might recall how that story ended.

Azinger’s just as emotional but in a different way. Where Crenshaw would wait for fate to intervene, ‘Zinger would opt for storming destiny’s Bastille. You may remember that story, too. The Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 was the rallying point of the French Revolution, which kicked King Louis XVI of France off the throne and ended monarchy in that country as they’d known it. But not before a small town in an upstart nation could name itself in the king’s honor.

The town? Louisville, Kentucky.

Europe has ruled the Ryder Cup for a long time. But dynasties don’t last forever, and every dog has his day. Can Paul Azinger storm the Bastille with six rookies, no Tiger, and a three-Cup losing streak simply by the force of his personality? I don’t know for sure, but to quote America’s last winning captain on the eve of the Ryder Cup’s greatest rally:

I have a good feelin’ about this. That’s all I’m gonna tell ya.