Sept. 22, 2008
By PAUL NEWBERRY
This was a celebration nine years in the making.
Even with Tiger Woods reduced to the role of text-messaging fan, the United States ended an era of Ryder Cup frustration with a resounding victory over Europe on Sunday, the 17-inch gold chalice reclaimed by a disparate group of guys and their new-age guru of a coach.
The Americans led from start to finish at Valhalla Golf Club. They weren't going to let this one get away, not after losing three in a row and five of the last six to the Europeans.
"I'm just going to stay up all night and party with my boys," said U.S. coach Paul Azinger, architect of the team that beat the Europeans for the first time since 1999. "We're going to have a good time tonight, fellas."
The street-smart Kim, at 23 the youngest member of the team and certainly the most brash, showed up at the course wearing a gaudy "USA" belt buckle and quickly showed he wasn't conceding anything to Sergio Garcia - not even a 2-foot putt. The folksy Weekley teed off at No. 1, stuck his driver between his legs and galloped down the fairway as though he was riding a toy horse.
"It's time to go," was Weekley's message. "Let's ride this pony to the house."
Less than 5 1/2 hours later, his team was there. Kim routed Garcia. Weekley finished off his match with two holes to spare. Kenny Perry, who skipped two majors to focus on making a Ryder Cup team in his home state, celebrated a win with his overall-wearing, 85-year-old father and proclaimed, "That made my career." Another Kentuckian, J.B. Holmes, showed they can play more than basketball in bluegrass country.
Finally, it was Jim Furyk's turn.
Six years ago, he had to stand there helplessly at The Belfry as Europe's Paul McGinley knocked in the decisive putt. This time, Furyk was conceded the cup-deciding point by gracious Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez. After four other meaningless matches were played out, the Americans finished with a 16 1/2-11 1/2 triumph.
"You dream of winning the Ryder Cup, knocking in the 10-footer for your team and having the place go bananas," Furyk said. "Mine was a 2-foot conceded putt, but I'll take it."
So, how did this happen? How did a country that was blown out by staggering nine-point margins at the last two Ryder Cups turn it around, even after Woods was sidelined by a bum knee?
Start with Captain America.
Azinger spoke all week in terminology more reminiscent of a ballroom seminar - team building, staying on point - but the captain's strategy worked brilliantly.
After lobbying the PGA of America for changes to the selection process that granted him more power, Azinger assembled a 12-man squad that was quickly divvied up into four separate groups.
Team Aggressive: Kim, Mickelson, Justin Leonard and Hunter Mahan.
Team South: Weekley, Perry, Holmes and Furyk (OK, Furyk was born in Pennsylvania, but some concessions must be made).
Team Laid-Back: Stewart Cink, Steve Stricker, Ben Curtis and Chad Champbell.
During the week, Azinger made sure those three distinct pods stuck together in the practice rounds. When picking his alternate-ball and better-ball pairings, he stayed within those subsets, even when switching things up from Friday to Saturday. Finally, the order for Sunday's singles had a familiar ring: the fiery group went first to set the tone, the guys from Dixie (and Furyk) played in the middle to feed off the crowd's energy, the steady guys teed off last as the anchors.
In the end, they were America's Team.
"We've got a great group of guys who were pulling for each other, and really hoping every one of us did their absolute best, whether it was a win or a loss," Kim said. "We just wanted to stick with each other and keep that attitude going."
The Europeans couldn't help but notice the camaraderie, the passion, the sense of purpose from the other side.
It reminded them of themselves.
"Their team was more of a European team," Ireland's Padraig Harrington said.
With half the squad made up of Ryder Cup rookies, the Americans were hardly experienced at this sort of thing. But that's just what Azinger was looking for. He didn't want players tainted by the heartache of losing to Europe time after time.
Azinger used three of his four of his captain's picks on rookies. Three others qualified for the team on merit. All made a huge contribution at Valhalla.
Mahan played in all five sessions and accounted for 3 1/2 points, more than any other American. Kim, Weekley and Holmes each won twice. Curtis earned a point in singles. Stricker was the lone rookie who didn't get a win, but came through with a brilliant up-and-down at the 18th hole in fourballs Saturday to squeeze out a crucial halve that stemmed Europe's momentum.
"We had a lot of newcomers here, a lot of young guys," Furyk said. "They brought a lot of enthusiasm. They fired up the crowd. They infused just amazing energy into the crowd, and also into the team. They won probably the majority of the points on this team.
"They helped us win the Ryder Cup," he added. "I appreciate it."
Mickelson wasn't much of a factor after the first day. He lost again in singles - as he has at every Ryder Cup since 1999 - but it didn't matter. All the newcomers picked Lefty up.
"We know what it's like to be on the other side of it," Mickelson said, referring to the six returnees. "We had six guys who had not experienced that, who were determined to help turn around the United States' performance in the Ryder Cup. They did that. Look at their record. It was phenomenal. They brought a game, an attitude, an energy, and it invigorated the U.S. team."
The Europeans were counting on their Big Three, but they might have been better off with a few more rookies.
Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood, the closest thing to sure things at previous Ryder Cups, each went 0-2-2. Harrington, winner of golf's last two major championships, was even worse (0-3-1). The top European player was Ian Poulter, a disputed pick by captain Nick Faldo who came through with four wins in five matches, more than anyone else.
"My game just wasn't there this week," Harrington said, "and it's probably because of a long, hard summer."
Now, the Europeans must wait two long years for a chance to get the cup back.
See you in Wales in 2010.
"We gave our heart and souls out there," Faldo said. "We can all leave here very proud, chins up, straight back, and we will be back to fight another day."