U.S. CAPTAINCY A DIFFICULT ISSUE

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Some time soon the PGA of America will call a press conference to name their new Ryder Cup captain – the man to oppose Nick Faldo’s Europe in 2008.

Some time soon the Professional Golfers’ Association of America will call a press conference to name their new Ryder Cup captain – the man to oppose Nick Faldo’s Europe in 2008.
In the days when the United States were winning all the time it never received that much attention. For the simple reason that it did not seem to matter who it was.
How things have changed, though. Under the successive leaderships of Curtis Strange, Hal Sutton and Tom Lehman the Americans have, for the first time ever, lost three matches in a row.
And “lost” does not really cover the last two. At Oakland Hills in 2004 and the K Club this September they have been thrashed, thumped, demolished, annihilated, battered by a record nine-point margin each time.
By common consent Strange got things wrong tactically at The Belfry in 2002, sending Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods out last in the singles – positions where they might not be able to influence things if Europe gained the momentum, which they did with all the leading lights at the top of the order.
Sutton tried a different approach two years later, pairing up Woods and Mickelson on the opening day, a bold and controversial move which backfired horribly when they lost twice.
Lehman was never going to repeat that and many saw it as a masterstroke when he came up with the idea of the whole team flying to Ireland for an early bonding exercise, team spirit appearing to be the thing that had swung things Europe’s way in the recent past.
It did them no good. Come the match Woods hit his first shot into water, Mickelson did not win one of his five games prior to taking the rest of the year off and once again the stars of the show were all European.
So what next and who next for the 37th staging of the contest at the Valhalla Club in Louisville, Kentucky?
Paul Azinger, who has been sharing television commentary booths with Faldo in the past two years, is the favourite to succeed Lehman.
A feisty competitor in his prime – just pipped by Faldo for the 1987 Open at Muirfield and involved in heated matches with Seve Ballesteros in 1989 and 1991 – the 46-year-old was diagnosed with cancer after his first major win at the 1993 PGA.
But he battled back to become a US Tour winner again in 2000, not long after his great friend Payne Stewart had died in a plane accident.
The main thing on Azinger’s mind last week was keeping his exempt status on the US Tour – the top 125 survive each year and he finished 121st – but in an interview with the Tampa Tribune he said of the Ryder Cup captaincy: “I don’t know. I hear I’m out. I hear I’m in. Don’t know.”
He makes no secret of the fact he would like the job, even though these are not happy times for the American Ryder Cup side.
His take on that is that “it’s like everything to gain, nothing to lose now”.
Lehman has called him the logical candidate and in terms of how he would go about the task Azinger commented: “The Ryder Cup captain is just a captain – he is not a coach.
“I think really the key to success in the future is to get the hottest players in there. Somehow you have to come up with a formula that’s more current hot players.”
The two-year points system was tweaked last time, but it is under scrutiny again because of what happened.
Majors already carry more points, but Azinger thinks other big weeks should carry more weight.
“I mean, my whole career there is only two things I ever choked for – prestige and cash,” he said.
“I never choked trying to make Ryder Cup points.
“So if a guy has the guts to finish second at the Players Championship where there’s more money than second at the BC Open, to me that’s a real barometer.”
Under the present format only top 10 finishes are rewarded with points, but Lehman kept his own table of top 10 American finishers each week and his two wild cards Stewart Cink and Scott Verplank were high up on that.
Whether that is changed remains to be seen, but once again a key thing for the captain – whether it be Azinger, Corey Pavin, Fred Couples or somebody else – is also going to focus on Woods and Mickelson.
Woods did at least top score for Lehman’s side in Dublin, but three points out of five was not quite what he had in mind and that opening shot did wonders for European morale.
Mickelson was the big letdown again, though. And is there anybody out there who can get him to perform as everybody knows he can?
Shutting down for the season straight afterwards makes people believe he wanted to shut down for the season before the match.
Hopefully, during his long lay-off he is not just relaxing with family, but taking a good hard look at himself and what his country expects of him.
The new captain will certainly want him to.
From Mark Garrod, PA Sport Golf Correspondent

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