Azinger, Faldo trade barbs at Valhalla
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The good-natured barbs were flying, and if they counted for anything, captain Paul Azinger would have staked his U.S. Ryder Cup team to a big lead heading into the 37th Ryder Cup matches.Of course, the matches are still nearly a year away, and that banter that flew between Azinger and European captain Nick Faldo on Monday at Valhalla Golf Club won't mean a thing when the pegs go in the ground next September. Too bad, because Azinger clearly got the best of his former television sidekick, who may have even appeared a bit uncomfortable with it all. The idea was to begin the countdown to one of golf's most highly anticipated events and bring several dignitaries together to sample the golf course and say nice things.
But Azinger didn't need long to get warmed up after European Ryder Cup director Richard Hills joked that the Americans should fear not -- Faldo would not be picking him as an at-large selection."Richard, don't count yourself out yet," Azinger said. "The way Nick's assistants are dropping like flies, you may be in there as a captain's assistant." Laughter ensued, but Faldo could only smirk. His captaincy is already caught up in a bit of controversy, with Azinger referring to the resignation of Paul McGinley from the post of assistant captain last month. That followed Faldo snubbing the Irishman for one of his captain's picks at an event called the Seve Trophy, a Ryder Cup-style format that pitted continental Europe against a team from Britain. Although the tournament doesn't attract 1 percent of the interest generated by the Ryder Cup, every move Faldo made was scrutinized with an eye toward Valhalla and running Europe's winning streak to four. To show just how important it is back home, Faldo noted that a news conference to publicize his own company might attract a pittance compared to the attention afforded the Ryder Cup. And there was Azinger with another barb. "So the Ryder Cup is bigger than Nick Faldo Enterprises?" Azinger mocked. "That's huge." And so it went. Azinger remarked that as competitor he barely ever heard Faldo, a six-time major champion and 11-time European Ryder Cup team member, complete a sentence. "Now his voice activation system has switched on," Azinger said, "and you can't turn it off." More laughs. Here's hoping Azinger is able to have the same kind of fun with the 12-man squad he leads against Europe next year when the Americans try to figure out a competition they have not won since 1999. Azinger has heard all the theories, listened to all the suggestions. He watched an American team that is likely to have several of the same players on his squad trounce the International squad last month at the Presidents Cup, an event the U.S. has lost just once in seven tries. Meanwhile, the Americans have lost five of the past six Ryder Cups. And he is aware of the comments from several players who said they appreciated the way captain Jack Nicklaus handled things. So Azinger called the Golden Bear. "I waited about 10 days after to let it sink in," Azinger said. "I just wanted to get a feel for how he felt the players reacted to what he did. I wanted to understand his philosophy. There's nothing earth-shattering. "Jack's leadership role and the respect he would command as the greatest player of all time is part of it," Azinger said. "When he comes back and pats you on the back, I think it means more. I can't be that guy to Tiger Woods or Jim Furyk. I just can't be that guy. I don't think they necessarily need that either. And remember Nicklaus was the captain of a losing Ryder Cup team and a losing Presidents Cup team. [England's] Tony Jacklin lost a Ryder Cup [as a captain]. There's not a formula that says this is how you do it. There are two teams going head-to-head battling as hard as they can." Azinger has tried to influence a different outcome, however. He was behind a major change to the PGA of America's team selection process which has a majority of points being earned in 2008. Players earned points at only the 2007 majors. And instead of getting points for top-10 finishes, starting in January any player who makes the cut in a PGA Tour event will earn points based on prize money earned. The points double at the majors. "I'm trying to get a hotter team," said Azinger, who will also get four at-large selections instead of just two. Azinger said the notion that the Americans don't have fun at the Ryder Cup compared to the Presidents Cup is overblown. "When the United States team gets behind as often as we've gotten behind at the Ryder Cup, and as early as we get behind, I think it's really difficult to look enthusiastic and like you're having a great time," he said. "And I think that was the case in Montreal. America got off to a great start and everybody is happy-go-lucky and they are putting each other in headlocks and Woody Austin is taking nosedives '' There were a few moments Monday when it appeared Faldo wanted to put Azinger in a headlock. All in good fun, of course. Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.