US HOPEFULS GET THAT WINNING FEELING
Three little words from Paul Azinger – “I want winners” – has already had the desired effect Mark Garrod writes in his latest column.
Three littler words from American Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger – “I want winners” – have already had the desired effect.
First Kenny Perry used them as his motivation in capturing the Memorial title, then on Sunday it rubbed off on Justin Leonard as he triumphed in Memphis.
“I played with Kenny the first two days here,” said Leonard, whose victory moved him up from 12th to fifth in the cup standings, one place ahead of Perry, going into this week’s double points US Open.
“I didn’t actually see Captain Azinger say it, but I heard Kenny repeat it, so those words were with me.
“This puts me in great position to make the Ryder Cup team, which is something I’ve been wanting to play. For the last nine years I’ve been looking forward to one.”
For a player of his undoubted calibre it is hard to believe that Leonard has not been a part of the match since Brookline in 1999 – indeed, since the singles clash with Jose Maria Olazabal which sparked one of the biggest controversies in the history of golf.
Most will not need reminding of what happened, but for the rest here goes:
America trailed 10-6 overnight and no side had ever come back from such a deficit, but home captain Ben Crenshaw memorably told the Saturday evening press conference: “I’m going to leave y’all with one thought. I’m a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about this.”
George Bush, Texas governor at the time, called in at their team meeting and read a poem about the Alamo, a battle in which seemingly impossible odds were overcome.
Pumped up like never before, the United States won the first six singles and from four down Leonard drew level and on the 17th sank a 45-foot putt.
Cue scenes of bedlam and mobbing of the player by ecstatic teammates after they charged across to him from the back of the green. In short, victory celebrations – except they had not won.
Olazabal had a 22-footer to keep the match alive, but could not attempt it until the pandemonium died down. When he missed it America had won, but they had also over-stepped the mark big time.
It left a sour taste and with Colin Montgomerie in particular having been heckled mercilessly, some feared for the future of the event.
For Leonard, though, the over-riding memory was of an heroic comeback.
Asked on Sunday night whether complete strangers were more likely to mention the Ryder Cup to him than his 1997 Open victory at Troon, he said: “The Ryder Cup. I heard it two, three times today.
“I don’t know how much of a lock I am, but I feel pretty good about making it. I’m looking forward to being on that team and I’m looking forward to us winning again soon.
“I definitely think there is more of an emphasis being put on the Ryder Cup this year. Not that there’s been any emphasis lacking in the past, but after you get drummed enough times it’s time to get it turned around and I look forward to being a part of that.”
America have not won without Leonard since 1999, although European supporters might care to remind him (and Azinger) that he did not actually win a game that week and, commentating on television, Johnny Miller actually suggested the best place for him might be at home.
The 35-year-old – 36 this coming Sunday – has won most seasons since then, but has not quite done enough to earn either an automatic spot or a pick from subsequent captains Curtis Strange, Hal Sutton or Tom Lehman.
As for “how much of a lock” he is, well the answer is that he is far from that yet with 11 counting events still to go before the eight automatic picks are decided.
Perry is even less certain of one of those, of course, and could be doing his chances a lot of harm this week by missing the US Open.
The 47-year-old finished joint third in the event in 2003, but was not exempt for Torrey Pines and decided not to try to qualify.
What he has in his favour, however, is that he is from Kentucky and September’s match is in Louisville, Kentucky, on the Valhalla course where he lost a play-off to Mark Brooks for the 1996 US PGA.
That could well lead to him receiving one of Azinger’s four wild cards if necessary. A raucous crowd cheering one of their own will certainly fit into the captain’s blueprint for success, even if Perry’s only previous cup appearance was 2004 in Detroit when Sutton gave him just two games and he lost them both.
Latest United States Ryder Cup table (top 8 qualify on August 11. Captain Paul Azinger then names four wildcards):
1 TIGER WOODS 8,665pts, 2 PHIL MICKELSON 4,244, 3 STEWART CINK 3,581, 4 JIM FURYK 3,117, 5 JUSTIN LEONARD 2,982, 6 KENNY PERRY 2,532, 7 BOO WEEKLEY 2,469, 8 ANTHONY KIM 2,216
9 Zach Johnson 2,046, 10 Steve Stricker 1,991, 11 JB Holmes 1,964, 12 Jeff Quinney 1,916, 13 Brandt Snedeker 1,766, 14 Sean O’Hair 1,758, 15 Woody Austin 1,730, 16 Bart Bryant 1,728, 17 Jerry Kelly 1,700, 18 Paul Goydos 1,502, 19 Steve Lowery 1,420, 20 DJ Trahan
(Points earned as follows: one point for every
1,000 won in regular events, two points for every
1,000 won in majors)
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