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American Revolution
ALAN SHIPNUCK
September 29, 2008
With a new approach and passionate leadership from its captain, Paul Azinger, the U.S. team played inspired golf to take back the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1999
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September 29, 2008

American Revolution

With a new approach and passionate leadership from its captain, Paul Azinger, the U.S. team played inspired golf to take back the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1999

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The key battle of the opening afternoon turned out to be Mickelson and Kim versus Harrington and Graeme McDowell. Kim pulled off a series of clutch shots—including stiffing his tee shot on the par-3 14th hole to give the U.S. its first lead—but it was Mickelson who led the way with seven birdies, including one on each of the final two holes to ice a 2-up victory. In the Friday twilight he and Kim cracked jokes and exchanged low fives as they awaited a TV interview on the 18th green. They were the very picture of team spirit, and Kim's girlfriend, Lisa Pruett, couldn't contain herself. "Aaawww, look how cute they are together," she cooed.

At 5 1/2 to 2 1/2 the U.S. had its first Friday-night lead since 1995, with Mickelson-Kim and Leonard-Mahan providing 3 1/2 of the points. The charmed pairings were no surprise to U.S. assistant captain Olin Browne. "If you only know Zinger from his TV work, you think he's pretty off-the-cuff, but there's so much depth there," says Browne. "He's insightful, he's thoughtful, he's thorough, and most important, he has a tremendous ability to connect to people and to read them."

UNITY HAS always been the hallmark of the European squad, but the usual good vibes disappeared after the disastrous opening day, and Faldo was at the center of it all, as usual. Early in Ryder Cup week he had made so many minor missteps one British tabloid deemed him CAPTAIN COCK-UP in an unforgettable headline. But all of that was nothing compared with the media firestorm that erupted after the announcement of his Saturday morning foursomes' pairings. Faldo benched his two most accomplished Ryder Cuppers, the unbeatable Westwood and García, who were a mind-boggling 8-0-1 in foursomes play. The jingoistic European media contingent is notorious for cheering on its team in the press center, but by now the Fleet Streeters were openly rooting against their side out of antipathy to Faldo, who before his recent image makeover had spent a quarter century as golf's biggest "pr---", to use Azinger's less-than-delicate description from earlier this year.

Yet the Europeans rallied around their embattled captain, taking 2 1/2 points in the session to close the deficit and set up an afternoon of classic Ryder Cup golf. Three of the four better-ball matches went to the 18th hole, and the final hour of play was so tense that Azinger confided he was experiencing stomach cramps. The key moment for the Americans came when captain's pick Steve Stricker buried a do-or-die 20-footer for a birdie on the 18th hole to secure a halve against the duo of García and Casey. Azinger later said, "I think that putt made the difference in these matches for us."

So heading into singles the U.S. led 9--7, needing 5 1/2 more points to bring home the Cup. On Saturday night the mood in the team room is always telling. This time it was the Europeans who were overwrought, as magisterial assistant captain José María Olazábal gave an impassioned speech that had more than one European player blinking back tears. By contrast, the Americans enjoyed their mellowest night of the week. "There was no Kumbaya moment," says Browne. "The Ryder Cup is all about sphincter factor, isn't it? The guys were loose, they were ready to play, so Paul just let 'em be."

The first slot in Sunday singles is usually reserved for the team's emotional leader, and that was certainly the case when the Euros sent out García. Azinger took a flier on Kim, and why not? "He has Tiger's confidence level," Cink said on Sunday night. "Honestly, I think some of the guys on the other team were afraid to play him." They certainly will be next time around, as Kim made seven birdies over the first 13 holes in giving García a 5-and-4 spanking. The U.S. got another important early point from Kenny Perry, the 48-year-old Franklin, Ky., native who gave the week its beating heart. Weekley, finishing off an unbeaten debut, came through with six birdies, an eagle and, after his victory over Oliver Wilson, three theatrical bows to the crowd at the 16th green. Holmes, another Kentucky boy, from Campbellsville, drew the U.S. within a point of victory with an impressive win over Hansen, and moments later Jim Furyk clinched the Cup when Jiménez conceded a two-footer on the 17th hole. Faldo had optimistically sent out two of his best players—Westwood and Harrington—in the final two matches, and typical of the captain's miserable week, both were rendered obsolete by the early returns. (With the Cup outcome already decided, both would eventually lose anyway, to Ben Curtis and Campbell, respectively.)

Azinger, who turns 49 in January, was expansive after the victory, singling out each player by name and saying of having reclaimed the Cup, "This is bigger to me than anything I've ever been a part of."

The only thing Azinger didn't feel like discussing were the finer points of what he called his "team-building system." That may or may not be because by Sunday night there was already a movement afoot to alter Azinger's future in a way that doesn't include senior golf. Said Cink, "He doesn't want to give away all of his secrets because we may force him to come back in two years and do this all over again."

For his part, Azinger would only make one commitment following the rousing U.S. victory: "I'm not going to think about [another captaincy]," he said. "I'm just going to stay up all night and party with my boys."

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