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Forward Spin
Gary Van Sickle
November 13, 2006
Adam Scott wraps up the 2006 season with a win at the Tour Championship But golf is buzzing about what happens on Tour in 2007 and the new 'Zing in the '08 Ryder Cup
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November 13, 2006

Forward Spin

Adam Scott wraps up the 2006 season with a win at the Tour Championship But golf is buzzing about what happens on Tour in 2007 and the new 'Zing in the '08 Ryder Cup

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The 20-mph gusts that blew through Atlanta last Thursday clearly annoyed the 27 millionaires going about their business during the opening round of the season-ending Tour Championship, at East Lake Golf Club. "We need a damn gardener out here," Ernie Els said after spending the day clearing leaves, pine needles and assorted debris from his line on the windswept greens.

Others would say the winds were perfectly timed. Just as surely as they ruined scores and disrupted Atlanta's lovely montage of fall colors, they were a metaphor for the period of transition the PGA Tour has now entered. Adam Scott ended an era when he won the Tour Championship and $1.17 million with an 11-under-par 269. The player who wins the Tour Championship next year, when it becomes the grand finale of the FedEx Cup playoffs, could take home 10 times that. The winds of change, in this case, do not mean small change.

Equally striking were the changes for the Ryder Cup, which became a hot topic last week after news leaked that Paul Azinger would be named U.S. captain for the 2008 match. The 46-year-old Azinger was a logical choice: He won the 1997 PGA Championship and was a passionate Ryder Cupper on the 1989, '91, '93 and 2002 U.S. teams with a 5-8-3 (2-0-2 in singles) record. He takes the job as the Americans enter a new era in that event too--the Age of Desperation. The U.S. has lost three straight Ryder Cups and has gone from favorite to underdog to punching bag. "Paul is a great choice," said Jim Furyk, the runner-up by three shots at East Lake and a mainstay of the last five U.S. Ryder squads. "He's feisty, and he brings a bit of an attitude to a team that I think needs some right now."

Azinger was officially introduced as captain on Monday morning at a press conference at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, where the '08 Cup will be contested. In an unprecedented and bold move, Azinger rewrote the team's selection process. Here's how:

BIG DEAL NO. 1 He'll have four wild-card selections on the 12-man team instead of two. Pro: Two fewer "Sorry, pro" phone calls to make, and with four picks Azinger can really put his stamp on the team. Con: He might wind up in the same predicament Tom Lehman experienced in August, only instead of having to pick two guys who didn't do diddly all summer, he'll have to select four.

BIG DEAL NO. 2 The U.S. team may not be finalized until literally the last minute. A scheduling quirk has the '08 Ryder Cup being played the week after the Tour Championship. While the eight automatic qualifiers will be determined after the PGA Championship, Azinger has been given the option to wait until the Monday of Tour Championship week--a mere seven days before the team lands in Louisville--to make his wild-card selections. In recent years the captain announced his picks the day after the PGA. "I have free rein," Azinger said on Sunday night from Louisville. "My goal is to pick the hottest players. It's historic for the PGA of America to agree to this. It completely hoses them on their souvenir programs, team posters--everything. But they don't care. They're desperate to win. They know if it doesn't happen pretty soon, they're not going to be able to sell the Ryder Cup to the American public." Pro: Azinger is almost guaranteed to find somebody who's playing well. Con: The extra month of pressure from the FedEx Cup playoffs and the possibility of being a pick might mentally drain some players.

BIG DEAL NO. 3 The eight players who automatically qualify will do so based on their earnings, which is ironic because next year the Tour is basically eliminating the money list and replacing it with FedEx Cup points (box). Previously, players were awarded Ryder Cup points only for top 10 finishes. Under the new system, in 2008 players will get a point for every $1,000 they win, with the '08 majors counting double. Earnings from the 2007 majors will also count--but not double--and no other '07 earnings will count. Because the players believed that top 10 finishes after this year's PGA counted toward the '08 Cup, those with top 10s will be awarded a quarter point for every $1,000. Says Azinger, "I told the PGA, 'I've never choked for a World Ranking point in my life. I've only choked for prestige or cash.'" Pro: Every American who makes a cut earns credit toward qualifying for the team; since this system rewards quantity, some pros may play more. Con: The $50,000 won against a weak field counts the same as the $50,000 won against a strong one; the '06 Funai Classic champ gets some Ryder Cup credit, but the '07 winner gets nothing.

The dramatic changes were agreed to barely a week after Azinger was offered the captainship, which occurred during a dinner with PGA of America officials last month in Orlando. "I was pretty sure they weren't flying in to tell me I wasn't going to be the guy," Azinger says. "They asked me a whole host of questions, and after about an hour they said, 'We came here thinking you'd be the guy unless you really screwed up answering the questions, and you know what, Zinger? You haven't screwed up. We want you to be captain.' I said, 'Wow, that's fantastic. I told myself that if you offered me this, I'd take a day or two to think about it, but screw that. I'll take it.'"

One other change shows that Azinger will be a players' captain. There normally are two formal dinners with the European team, officials and special guests during Ryder Cup week. In '08 there will be only one. "I got us another free night," Azinger says. "Tiger's going to love that. Everybody is."

In Atlanta, Woods was the story of the week in absentia. He skipped the Tour Championship claiming fatigue, yet will play in China this week for a large appearance fee (a reported $3 million). Phil Mickelson also passed, so the Tour's supposed grand finale was missing the game's top two attractions. The no-shows were a black eye for the event. Tom Pernice, who tied for fifth, called them "a disgrace." Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said he was "very disappointed" with the absences but tried to change the focus to next year's tournament, which will come seven weeks earlier and will have a lot more at stake.

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