Huffman: Azinger gives U.S. the edge - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Huffman: Azinger gives U.S. the edge

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Posted: Thursday, September 18, 2008 12:14 am | Updated: 9:54 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

I have a Ryder Cup theory that has held up well over the last decade, even if I did absorb a red, white and blue butt-kicking in 2006.

The theory goes like this: If the teams from the U.S. and Europe are evenly matched — and since 1979 that’s pretty much been the case — then go with the team that sports the best leadership.

I call it the Captain Courageous principle, and it has held up in three of the past four Ryder Cups.

That’s why this time around, I’m in a quandary, especially with the Americans being 0-3 this century.

The teams are so closely matched it’s almost a coin flip when the Ryder Cup matches unfold later this week at bluegrass-infested Valhalla Golf Club near Louisville, Ky.

Here is my view: If Paul Azinger’s American-bred big hitters hold up, they’ll squeak out a victory. If the track gets a little sloppy, Nick Faldo and his European mudders will tie it up and retain the Cup.

Granted, that’s a wishy-washy preview, but my gut feeling is these matches will be the closest on record since the Americans won, 14 1/2-13 1/2, with a miracle comeback at the Country Club near Boston in 1999.

That was the only U.S. win in the past six Ryder Cups dating back to 1993, when the Yanks prevailed, 15-13, at the Belfry in England.

Before we get all gloom-and-doom about the U.S. reportedly being big underdogs in these Patriot Games, let’s remember that the Yankees still lead the biennial series, 24-10-2. But ever since 1979 — the year Great Britain and Ireland added the rest of Europe to their team — the score is 7-7.

So what happened? Well, first and foremost the foreign pool of talent increased exponentially when the blue and gold increased its population base to roughly 750 million.

Looking at it conversely, the U.S. stood pat with a population base of around 300 million, deciding it didn’t need to add Mexico and Canada, or even South America, to keep pace.

At first, the change produced limited results. The matches got tighter but the U.S. kept winning.

But lately, we have seen a pronounced shift in the Ryder Cup landscape, as the U.S. has been blown out of the last two matches by identical 18 1/2-9 1/2 scores.

Not even Tiger Woods could save his U.S. teammates — or for that matter, himself.

There is no “I’’ in team, a point the Euros have driven home with a vengeance over the past 10 years. That has a lot to do with my belief that the bigger the ego of the captain, the less chance the team will respond to his calling.

As proof I offer the last four Ryder Cups, with the exception being Tom Lehman two years ago. Unfortunately, Lehman was saddled with the supersized egos on his own team, which made his job much tougher. That and the Euros had their best team ever.

Looking back to 1999, Ben Crenshaw did not have an ego, which is why his U.S. team came from nowhere on the final day. If anything, Gentle Ben’s positive reinforcement of a seemingly lost situation was the difference.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, U.S. captains Curtis Strange and Hal Sutton were so full of themselves that the team was shackled from the start, with bad ideas like pairing Woods and Phil Mickelson — two guys who definitely don’t like each other — together.

So what lies ahead for Azinger and Faldo? On paper, their teams are pretty close to a push. The U.S. has six first-timers and the Euros have four rookies.

Europe has seven players in the top 20 of the world rankings to six for the U.S. But the U.S. has four players in the top 10 compared to three for Europe, even if Mickelson is the highest ranked (No. 2) and not playing close to form.

And while the U.S. hits the ball farther and putts just as well, the Euros are riding a tidal wave of momentum.

At the same time, without Colin Montgomerie and Darren Clarke, this is not the same European team of the last two Ryder Cups.

It all comes down to the Captain Courageous principle, where the easygoing “Zinger’’ truly fits the motivational mold of a Captain America.

Mark Calcavecchia, one of the few guys on the PGA Tour who tells it like it is, had this assessment of Azinger in Golf Week: “I think his intensity will be good, but he’ll bring laughter, too,” Calcavecchia said. “He’ll bring some sort of relaxation to the guys, because (the problem is) we want to beat (the Euros) so bad we can’t relax.’’

On the other hand, the full-of-himself Faldo is not well liked or respected in Europe, a reputation he only enhanced this time around by picking his pal Ian Poulter over the more qualified Clarke.

As European correspondent John Huggan wrote in Golf World: “It’s old news that (Faldo’s) direct contemporaries — men like Mark James, Sam Torrance, Ian Woosnam and Sandy Lyle — still have trouble talking about him without sneering just a little. An only child spoiled rotten by his adoring mother, Faldo has always marched to his own beat, only rarely considering the consequence and impact of his self-centered actions on others.’’

Adding all that up and I’m going with a U.S. win at the wire, 14 1/2 to 13 1/2.

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