IT'S THE players, stupid. Pardon my bluntness, but I'm tired of hearing the same old lame excuses for Team USA's embarrassing routs in the last two Ryder Cups. The Americans don't care. They don't have camaraderie. They're selfish. The season ends for Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods the moment the last putt drops at the PGA Championship. Phil and Tiger despise each other. The team has no true leader.
While there may be a bit of reality to some of the above, here's the inconvenient truth: The Europeans simply have had better players and superior teams. Paul Azinger, the 48-year-old perpetual teenager who'll captain this year's U.S. squad at Valhalla in Louisville, is aware of that. "I didn't think they were great sports the way they celebrated and rubbed our noses in it, but the reality is that they were better than us," Azinger says in retrospect.
The Americans' three wins in the 1990s were close and, one could argue, lucky. If Bernhard Langer makes that famous putt on the final hole at Kiawah Island in '91, if a couple of putts fail to drop at the Belfry in '93, and if Mark James doesn't manage his singles lineup like the captain of the Titanic at the Country Club in '99, the U.S. could be looking at a 25-year winless streak.
It's Azinger's task to stop this avalanche, and he has already made a few savvy moves. He changed the qualifying system, switching it from a two-year points system based on top 10 finishes to a one-year (plus the previous year's majors) accounting based on money won. Not coincidentally, that's how the Euros do it. Azinger will also have four captain's picks instead of the two, and he won't have to pick until several weeks after the PGA Championship—just like the Euros.
His latest decision—to restore the order of play to the pre-1997 format—seems insignificant but is also pure genius. The Ryder Cup traditionally began with foursomes (alternate shot), not four-ball (better-ball), but in '97 the order was reversed at the behest of Euro captain Seve Ballesteros. In the last three Ryder Cups the Americans have gone 2-8-2 in opening-round four-balls. The last time foursomes kicked off the event, in '99, the U.S. won.
Azinger will also set up the course to favor his team. If he's loaded with long hitters, "maybe there won't be any rough," Azinger says. He's not joking.
But what will truly make Azinger an effective captain is what sets him apart from the current generation of ridiculously wealthy stars: The Ryder Cup is personal to him. The fact that Europe's captain is Nick Faldo, his former ABC boothmate and his opponent in an intense '93 singles match that was halved even though Faldo made an ace on the back nine, only adds fuel to Azinger's fire, one that will spark his players. And don't forget, Azinger partnered Tiger in a match in '02. They're buds.
In 2006 Tom Lehman seemed to make all the right moves as captain, too, including a team trip to Ireland to scout the K Club, yet his squad lost all five sessions, a Ryder Cup first. The difference between Lehman and Azinger is that Zinger is combining the off-course maneuvering and passion with a better selection process; therefore he will have a better team, giving the Americans their best chance to win in a decade.
So if the U.S. does lose a fourth straight Ryder Cup in September, we won't need excuses. There will be only one reason—the usual one. It's the players.