LOUISVILLE, Ky. - About the only place Paul Azinger ever got the better of Nick Faldo was at the Ryder Cup. Although the only time either captain used a club this week was in TV commercials or replays, darned if Azinger didn't find a way to best his European counterpart again.
A short par putt conceded to Jim Furyk guaranteed that Sam Ryder's gilded trophy would spend the rest of an Indian summer day basking in Kentucky, then linger on this side of the Atlantic for at least the next two years. The first thing Azinger said the moment after was, "I poured my heart and soul into it for two years and my players poured their hearts and souls into it for a week. They deserved it."
Inflated as that made Azinger's contribution sound, it was hardly an overstatement. He lobbied tirelessly to convince the PGA of America to change its qualifying system, using the money list instead of a convoluted point system that didn't always reward players rounding into form, and to give him four captain's selections instead of two. Azinger had nothing to do with the knee surgery that sidelined Tiger Woods, turning him into a text-messaging buddy instead of a rallying cause for Europe's team, but even that might have worked to his advantage.
And when someone asked him what he did to make his dozen players believe they could beat a European side that had won three straight barely breaking a sweat, Azinger replied cagily, "I'm not going to tell you just yet. Not yet. I came with a plan."
However long the rest of us have to wait for the details, a few things were already clear. He did his best to hide a burning desire to beat Faldo, but anybody who turned up at the Louisville airport and watched Azinger cool his heels while the Europeans deplaned to much pomp and circumstance would have picked up a clue.
Their rivalry dated to the wet and cold of the 1987 British Open at Muirfield, where Azinger bogeyed the final two holes and watched helplessly as Faldo motored past him with the last of 18 straight pars. Though Azinger would finally grab his major, Faldo would go on to win a half-dozen. Though Azinger beat the Englishman 2-0-2 in their Ryder Cup singles matches, it was Faldo who went on to set a record for both appearances and points won. Though they wound up sharing the broadcast booth to great advantage for a while, it was Azinger, an Air Force brat who learned to scrap for almost everything he got, who usually wound up playing the straight man to Faldo's suave. comic persona.
And though they made commercials and posed affably for magazine covers and just about anybody else that asked, Azinger was frank when he told Golf Digest in an interview this month, "Yeah, I've felt my accomplishments have been minimized in comparisons with Nick's. I try to brush it off, brush it off, but that's a real feeling. There's always a little something there."
Who better, then, to captain an underdog team than a captain who felt like an underdog his whole life?
"They brought themselves here," Azinger said about his charges, "and if I was the guy that helped organize it, then I'm happy to be that.
"But those guys did it," he added emphatically. "They deserve the credit."
True enough. Yet much of the credit for the spirit that turned a prairie 20 minutes west of downtown into a mosh pit belongs to Azinger. He had plenty of help from Boo Weekley, a Floridian whose country-boy demeanor made the locals adopt him like one of their own. He got a hand, too, from native son Kenny Perry, who at age 48 rejuvenated his career and won three tournaments to make certain he'd qualify.
But it was Azinger's decision to use a much-criticized captain's pick on another Kentucky boy, J.B. Holmes. And besides giving the crowd another rooting interest, Holmes delivered, winning twice and halving his other match. Another of his picks, Hunter Mahan, had ripped the notion of playing in a Ryder Cup as too much ceremony to be worth the bother. Yet Azinger didn't hold that against him and Mahan returned the favor, winning two matches and halving his three others.
If Azinger had any doubts that all of his players were similarly prepared to back him up, those were dispelled shortly after the opening ceremonies. Before departing for a pep rally that Azinger had organized for later Thursday night to unveil his "13th man" rooting strategy, he told his team to stay behind and rest up for Friday's matches. When he climbed on the bus wearing a T-shirt with the slogan on it, who should already be sitting there but the rest of his team.
"He just looked at us," Mahan recalled, "and said, 'Good to see my authority is being followed as the captain.'"
It might have marked the only time all week they didn't follow their captain's instructions to the letter.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org