- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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NAPLES, Fla. -- For the better part of the past three months, since the U.S. Ryder Cup team celebrated on the balcony at Valhalla, Paul Azinger had us believing the captain really did matter -- that his pulling of strings and stroking of egos made a difference.
Azinger didn't have to sell us on the notion. The results spoke for themselves with a 16½-11½ victory over Europe as the U.S. won for the first time since 1999.
On Thursday, while Azinger played in the pro-am preceding the annual Merrill Lynch Shootout at Tiburon Golf Club, his successor, Corey Pavin, was officially being named to the captain post some 1,100 miles away in New York City.
Although there had been a good bit of speculation over whether Azinger would return for a nearly unprecedented second straight stint as captain, the PGA of America elected to go the traditional route and went with a former Ryder Cup player who was anything but a surprise pick.
Pavin will try to guide the Americans to their first two-match winning streak since 1991 and '93 when they head to Wales in 2010.
And traveling across the pond will bring us back to reality. This heated, emotional, patriotic competition is about the players performing under the most intense pressure -- whether the captain does a great job or not.
"Until this year, I pretty much thought the captaincy role was overrated,'' said PGA Tour veteran Mark Calcavecchia, a member of four U.S. teams. "Like Hal Sutton or Tom Kite or Curtis Strange had anything to do with our guys getting smoked?
"But Zinger ... he had his little groups; he put the hillbillies together, put other guys together, and it worked. It's not rocket science. You've just got to make putts. They embraced the crowd, they looked like they were having fun, and they finally got over the hump of being nervous and uptight about it. That's all they needed to do.''
And Azinger played a big part in that. He divided the 12-man team into three groups of four similar personalities and had those players practice together, and he took his pairings for the matches from those groups. He worked the Louisville crowd and stoked it to be a 13th man. And he got the players to buy into his concept.
Pavin will bring just as much passion to the event, as well as a better playing record. (Azinger was 5-7-3 in four Ryder Cups but played on only one team after he was diagnosed with cancer.) Pavin played on two winning teams and went 8-5. His 15 PGA Tour titles included the 1995 U.S. Open.
Although Pavin would be wise to follow Azinger's formula for success at Celtic Manor while adding his own personal touches, it's still more about whether the players can put the ball in the hole. Americans such as Anthony Kim, Kenny Perry and Hunter Mahan did; Europeans such as Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood did not.
And that is always the big difference at the Ryder Cup, regardless of whether the losing captain seems to get pummeled.
"He fits the mold, 48 or 49 years old, won a major, played in the Ryder Cup,'' said former U.S. Ryder Cup player Brad Faxon, who played on two teams. "When he was playing in his heyday, he was as tenacious of a player as we've had. So I think he will be a guy who is a great captain.
"There are all different kinds of personalities. If a guy loses the Ryder Cup, that doesn't mean he's a bad captain. I had Tom Kite as a captain and Lanny Wadkins. They tried their hearts out. It's usually just so close. And going over there will be harder than it was over here, no doubt about that.''
In the glow of victory on that Sunday night, several of the U.S. players lobbied for Azinger's return in 2010. Who knows whether that was the bubbly talking, but by all indications, the team would have not been opposed to having Azinger guiding it again.
But there were negatives to that, too. Azinger will turn 50 in 2010 and wants to compete on the Champions Tour. And can he rise any higher than he did at Valhalla?
"It was such a great moment for him,'' Calcavecchia said. "What if they go over there and he's captain and just get their ass kicked? He'd be saying, 'Why did I do that? I could have gone out with all these great memories, and now I go out with this ass kicking.' I'm kind of glad he's not doing it again.''
Pavin's credentials suggest he deserves a chance, too, and that usually has been what the selection process has been is about. He loves the Ryder Cup as much as Azinger, and that is important.
"Corey is a great player,'' said J.B. Holmes, a rookie on this year's U.S. team. "He definitely has earned the right. He's been a gritty player, and when it had to be done, he got it done, so I think Corey would be a great captain. Gritty, fiery, ready to fight.''
In the end, all the players know it's about their performance. Great speeches and perfect pairings are important. Putting the ball in the hole helps make the captain look a whole lot better.
"Corey will do fine,'' said Rocco Mediate, who is Azinger's partner this weekend in the 54-hole tournament put on by Greg Norman. "It doesn't matter. Two more years of that? [Azinger] just needs to play golf, and everything will be fine.''
Then Calcavecchia summed up the situation as only he can.
"Whether Corey Pavin's captain or I'm captain or you're captain, you play and make putts and have fun,'' he said. "And hope we get more points than them. That's all there is to it. And I'm sure Corey will do just fine.''
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
Paul Azinger's pairings might have made many believe the captain is crucial to winning the Ryder Cup. But like a head coach in football or a manager in baseball, the captain doesn't hit a single shot. It's all about making putts, writes ESPN.com's Bob Harig.