Captain Azinger and the road ahead

11/8/2006 - Golf

It would be nice to think that Paul Azinger's appointment as U.S. Ryder Cup captain will solve all of America's problems in the event. No one seems more qualified to pilot the Yanks in 2008 and end this embarrassing run of nine-point losses, and if Tom Lehman hadn't done such a credible job as the U.S. skipper six weeks ago at The K Club, I'd feel great about Azinger's chances of leading our boys to victory at Valhalla.

In his prime as a player, Azinger was fiery but focused, a natural leader with the talent and disposition to excel in the Ryder Cup's high-intensity atmosphere. In his second life as a TV analyst, the 1993 PGA champion has proved to be an independent thinker whose insights and observations are accentuated with a touch of redneck bravado. Azinger has long been one of my go-to guys in my years covering the PGA Tour. He speaks from the heart, doesn't compromise his thoughts and he shares anecdotes. He's a fabulous source.

He also beat cancer, which should make handling the Europeans a cinch, but America's biggest problem isn't with the captains or the venues or the qualification process, a flawed system that will undergo an overhaul before the start of the 2007 season. It's simply a matter of attitude. The Euros want it more, need it more and appreciate it more, which becomes a huge advantage because none of today's top U.S. players have that patriotically inflamed, chip-on-the-shoulder mentality perfected by Azinger. He's a guy who lived and breathed for the third week in September of every other year, relishing the chance to play for Old Glory.

Can the new captain impart that attitude throughout his squad? Not in three or four days, or however long the Yanks hang out before we start keeping score. Not with the '08 Ryder Cup being played right after the FedEx Cup playoffs -- the top U.S. players are sure to be drained by six or seven starts in the eight-week stretch leading into Valhalla. And not with the core group Azinger is sure to have. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk are the best in the world when golf is an individual sport. In a team format, however, the Yanks have proved competitively dysfunctional, unable to maximize their bounty of resources as a group.

You would have thought the '04 rout at Oakland Hills would have brought the '06 squad together, motivating the players to perform at a level close to their potential. And with Lehman in charge, there was unity and camaraderie. There just wasn't any chemistry -- it's a component that can't be manufactured. I hope I'm wrong, but things are likely to get worse before they get better. European squads have gotten younger and deeper, and passion has become their most valuable weapon. Azinger is the perfect man to lead the Yanks, which leads me to wonder: Are certain groups, for whatever reasons, averse to being led?

John Hawkins is a senior writer for Golf World magazine