Ryder Cup Selection Buoys American Spirits

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger said yesterday he was excited about the first eight men to qualify for his team and that the newly revised American selection process that puts more emphasis on performance in the year leading up to the competition has worked exactly as he hoped it would.

"I think the selection process has worked. . . . Changing the way we picked this team is going to make a difference," Azinger said yesterday during a news conference at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township, Mich., a day after the PGA Championship had pushed runner-up Ben Curtis, No. 20 on the points list last week, onto the team and knocked Steve Stricker out of the top eight.

Azinger also said of his four wild-card picks to be announced Sept. 2: "The way I look at it, anybody can get on this team.

"I'll look beyond friendship and try to do what's right," said Azinger, a member of four U.S. squads himself, two of them winning teams against the Europeans, who have won five of the last six Cups, including the last three. "I'll reach out to the players who are the most confident and playing the best."

Azinger said he likes the next four players on the points list "a lot," but added that he would wait to see how a number of players would perform in the three remaining tournaments this month before making his final decision. Stricker is No. 9, followed by Woody Austin, D.J. Trahan and Hunter Mahan. Of those three, Stricker is the only player with previous Cup experience and Azinger already has three Cup rookies -- Curtis, Anthony Kim and Boo Weekley.

Azinger also is likely to look lower on the list, particularly at longtime friend Rocco Mediate (No. 14), runner-up to Tiger Woods in the U.S. Open, as a possible captain's choice. He said he would not be influenced by how anyone played last week at Oakland Hills, arguably the hardest venue for any of the majors for this and many other seasons.

J.B. Holmes (No. 17), the longest hitter in the game and a contender for one of those captain's choice selections, led the tournament at the halfway point and was a shot off the lead after 54 holes. He shot 81 in the final round, opening with a triple bogey, and tied for 29th, but Azinger said he would still be very much in the mix for one of the last four spots.

Without Woods, the No. 1 player in the world who is out for the season with a knee injury, Azinger said the U.S. team "will take the underdog role for the first time in a long time. The pressure will be on them a little more than us. We're playing on our soil, but for the first time in a long time, they have everything to lose. . . . We lost the best player in the game and we're all going to have to step up."

The European team is led by PGA Championship winner Padraig Harrington, who has three victories in the last six major championships. Players still have another three events to qualify as automatic selections; captain Nick Faldo will have only two wild-card choices.

Azinger said he intends to seek Woods's input before the matches and might even invoke his name in a "win one for the Gipper" motivational speech before the competition begins.

"I hate that he's not going to be hanging out with us that week. . . . I'd like to pound him in Ping-Pong," Azinger said. "I don't see any positives in not having Tiger Woods on the team. It puts us in a difficult spot."

Azinger said he will not schedule any formal team practice sessions at Valhalla in Louisville in the weeks leading up to the event Sept 16-21, but urged that his players try to get there on their own.

"They're all big boys," he said. "They'll have three practice rounds [during the week of the Cup] and Valhalla is not a difficult course to learn. It's up to each individual the way they see fit. If they could find a way to play some alternate shot [matches] with their buddies to get some sense of what that feels like, I always felt that was helpful."

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