Paul Azinger, the only US captain to win the Ryder Cup this century, welcomed Davis Love’s wildcard picks on Tuesday and said that the side “has a great opportunity to prove that America is still the leading force in the game of golf”.
With the Chicago shootout just three weeks away, Jose Maria Olazabal’s men will no doubt roll their eyes at the comments of Azinger, who hoisted the Stars and Stripes loudly and proudly in Kentucky in 2008. They may also point to the fact that America have won once in the last five Ryder Cups and that Europe boast three of the top-four players in the world — as well as the last four world No.1s.
But Azinger is nothing if not patriotic. He was consulted by Love before he named the expected quartet of Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, Dustin Johnson and Brandt Snedeker. He helped his friend in that regard and then proceeded to bang the drum following the announcement.
“Golf has become a global game but the core strength of the game still comes from America and the strength and the depth of the 12 guys that are representing the US can prove that,” said Azinger, now an analyst for EPSN. “But both teams are very strong and this should be one of the most compelling Ryder Cups ever.”
The latter is definitely correct, as the teams appear to match up so well. While America’s average world ranking is 11.8, Europe’s is 14.7, suggesting the core is as firm as that of a marshallow. It is undeniable that the PGA Tour is stronger than the European Tour, but when it comes to the best 12 of both there is very little in it.
Love, to his credit, has done all that he could to redress the recent Ryder Cup anomaly of European dominance. There is still the odd decision being made Stateside — namely, the decision to give Michael Jordan complete access to the team room — but few could argue with Love’s choices.
It was depicted in some quarters as “difficult”, mainly because Azinger insisted on doubling the number of wild cards four years ago. In truth, it was nothing of the sort and Love should thank Azinger, not just for his advice and cheerleading, but also his foresight.
Stricker is Woods’s partner, Furyk provides experience in a side containing four rookies compared to Europe’s one, Johnson’s immense length is made for Medinah and Snedeker’s immense putting is made for matchplay.
While everyone felt for Hunter Mahan, the player who so wanted Ryder retribution following his final match heartbreak to Graeme McDowell two years ago, his form has tailed off dramatically. “It was definitely a tough call for me,” said Love at the news conference, somewhat bizarrely held at the New York Stock Exchange.
“In the end we rounded out our 12 the best way we knew how. I need Jim Furyk, I need Steve Stricker. All the guys on the team will benefit from those guys being in the team room, the locker room. They compare with anybody and give the team a lot of confidence.”
It was obvious from Love’s statements that Stricker and Furyk were certainties after they fell short when their qualifying race ended at last month’s USPGA. Since then, the likes of Mahan and Rickie Fowler have gone backwards, while Johnson and Snedeker, both injured earlier in the season, have emphatically shown their worth.
Johnson has finished third and sixth in the last two weeks, while Snedeker has finished second and fourth. These were not merely regulation fields, but FedEx Cup events boasting almost all of the world’s elite “You can’t argue with the golf Brandt and Dustin have been playing,” said Love. “They really did lay it right out there for us.”
To complement his four assistant captains, Fred Couples, Mike Hulbert, Scott Verplank and Jeff Sluman, Love has extended the almost traditional invitation to Jordan, the icon who is best friends with Couples and Woods. Not too much should be read into such an absurdity, as the club handicapper will have no golfing input. Instead, he will be there to motivate.
Maybe Love should simply read out Azinger’s grand exclamation and realise they are not just playing for a trophy but also to restate their majesty over the entire sport. In public, Love is rather more reserved. “The European team is obviously great, they are playing well,” he said. “But I love my team, I am excited about my team. And I can’t wait to see how it matches up.”