Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Azinger throws a zinger into Ryder Cup choices

As U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger announced his four at-large choices for his Ryder Cup team Tuesday morning, everything was going fairly close to expectations.

Steve Stricker was a lock. He's too good to leave off and he's playing well, something in seriously short supply among the American side.

Hunter Mahan made sense. He made some silly remarks last month about how guys didn't want to play in the Ryder Cup and, discovering he sounded like a jerk, Mahan recanted and deserved the spot Azinger offered.

J.B. Holmes wasn't a surprise. Azinger has seemed infatuated by Holmes' enormous power off the tee and his familiarity with Valhalla, where the matches will be played in two weeks. It didn’t hurt that Holmes is a Kentucky native, though the fact remains that the vast majority of fans on site in Louisville will be from someplace outside Kentucky state lines. This isn't going to be like Rupp Arena, in other words.

The shocker came when Azinger named Chad Campbell as his final choice.

Chad Campbell?

What about Rocco Mediate? Or Scott Verplank? Or D.J. Trahan? Or any of a half-dozen other guys?

No, Azinger chose Chad Campbell, who finished tied for seventh Monday in the Deutsche Bank Championship, thereby earning a spot based on Azinger's pre-determined criteria -- whomever is playing well at the moment.

Azinger was, in effect, trapped by his determination to go with the hottest American players because there really aren't any.

He thought about rookie Kevin Streelman but that would have been an ultra long-shot pick.

He thought long and hard about Mediate, whose personality would have been worth at least half a point to the American side.

He thought about a bunch of guys and settled on Campbell, who seemed almost as surprised as everyone else that he was picked.

Campbell had a nice run in July when he finished tied for seventh at the John Deere and third at Milwaukee but those aren't high-profile events. He did have a tie for 14th at the World Golf Championship event at Firestone but, until his top-10 in Boston, he had a missed cut and a tie for 65th. Not exactly smokin.'

The truth is Azinger didn't have many easy choices.

Across the pond, European captain Nick Faldo was already getting beaten up for picking Ian Poulter over Darren Clarke, a move that has the tabloids in a frenzy.

By his own admission, Azinger is a control freak and likes to be a dominant personality. He restructured the team selection process to give himself more say-so in his roster in part because he wanted it that way and, in part, because nothing else has worked for the Americans since 1999.

He solicited advice from many people, crunched some numbers and, finally, made his own choices.

There is a tendency to give the captains too much credit for what goes right and what goes wrong in the Ryder Cup. They make the pairings, pick the outfits then sit back and watch.

Azinger will bring the fire to the American team. In Faldo's case, there is reason to wonder if the players can warm up to a coach who was so coldly dismissive of others for so many years. Is this the year when the Europeans' famous cameraderie finally fails them?

Questions, questions.

And it's still more than two weeks before we get any answers.