Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The 19h Hole: The Team is Set

Today, Captain Paul Azinger announced his four Captain’s Picks to round out the US Ryder Cup team that is set to try to win back the cup from Europe at Valhalla in two weeks. His picks were Steve Stricker, Hunter Mahan, JB Holmes, and Chad Campbell.

They join Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Kenny Perry, Stewart Cink, Anthony Kim, Boo Weekley, Justin Leonard, and Ben Curtis to complete the team.

It appeared that Stricker and Holmes were going to be on the team no matter what. Stricker practically had played his way onto the team in finishing ninth in qualifying that ended after the PGA Championship. Were it not for Ben Curtis’ run to a runner-up finish at Oakland Hills, Stricker would have made the team outright. If the qualifications were changed to end after the Deutsche Bank Championship, Stricker would have made his way back onto the team and unseated Boo Weekley.

JB Holmes did not have the same record that Stricker did. He finished 17th in the points standings, despite a win this season at the FBR Open. Outside of that, Holmes fared pretty poorly on Tour this season. In his biggest audition in the final group of the PGA Championship, Holmes duck hooked a drive on the first hole and seemingly caved his chances. Despite that, Azinger indicated he may pick Holmes because of his Kentucky roots, knowledge of Valhalla, and long driver.

Hunter Mahan found himself in a world of trouble after an interview in Golf Magazine in which he suggested that Ryder Cup participants were treated like slaves and that the PGA of America may not even care about winning the event – just making money. Despite the gaffe, Mahan was solid on the course. He had four top 15 finishes in his last seven starts and an opening 62 at the Deutsche Bank Championship likely locked in his place. Azinger, a belligerent man at times himself, likely shrugged off Mahan’s comments in lieu of that kind of play.

The real surprise was Chad Campbell, who will now be in his third straight Ryder Cup. Despite missing eight cuts this season, Campbell had a top seven finish in Boston this past weekend. That must have been what got him on the team because his best finish other than a runner-up in Houston was a top 3 in Milwaukee opposite the Open Championship.

So, we have our team. We have six rookies on the team – Stricker, Weekley, Mahan, Holmes, Kim, and Curtis. If that’s not staggering enough, the combined record of the players with any experience is not good: 19-37-17. The players with any experience score nothing more often than they score something. That’s bad news for the US psyche heading into Valhalla.

The question, then, has to be whether or not this strategy of Azinger’s will pay off. It is clear that Azinger did not want to overwhelm his team with rookies – having gone for Sean O’Hair over Chad Campbell would have made for more rookies than veterans. Fresh blood may very well be needed since the Europeans have sucked the life out of the usual cast of characters in every contest since Brookline.

But, at what cost will there be new faces on the team? Azinger passed over players with major championship wins, like Zach Johnson and David Toms, for players with local knowledge and younger legs. The Captain must be of the mind that one can only build experience by playing and that he would pick these men to be thrown into the fire first.

His strategy may turn out to be effective. It may work out such that all of the rookies find a way to work with the stalwarts and form two man teams that will mesh immediately. After all, the formula pairings of Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood, as well as Sergio Garcia and Jesper Parnevik were borne out of such circumstances.

What is more is that the entire team will likely have a care free attitude going into the event. The Patriots are under almost no pressure to win having been embarrassed in the last three Ryder Cups. If they were to pull out a victory at Valhalla, it would be viewed as one of the greatest upsets in the history of the Ryder Cup – no joke. As we have seen in the men who have managed to challenge Tiger Woods in major championships, having nothing to lose sometimes can make a player (or pack of them) most dangerous.

No matter what, the Captain’s Picks of both Azinger and Nick Faldo have raised some eyebrows. Those picks will be the most scrutinized of the contest and will provide some of the biggest insights into the genius – or lack thereof – of these two guiding forces.