Commentary

There's nothing simple about captain's picks for Azinger

Originally Published: August 25, 2008
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

Forget hot. Will lukewarm do?

Paul Azinger's long-stated desire to have the hottest players make his U.S. Ryder Cup team as it relates to his captain's picks is not working out so well -- unless he changes the definition or decides to choose Drew Kittleson, the U.S. Amateur runner-up who plays for Azinger's alma mater, Florida State.

Captain, My Captain

Paul Azinger Everyone who is hoping for a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team has been trying to impress Paul Azinger. The American captain will make his four at-large selections on Sept. 2. So whose résumé stands out the most?

Player World Rank 2008 earnings Ryder Cup record
Woody Austin 41st $1,618,527 0-0-0
Chad Campbell 59th $1,826,176 1-3-2
J.B. Holmes 55th $2,079,053 0-0-0
Zach Johnson 33 $700,933 1-2-1
Hunter Mahan 39th $1,722,696 0-0-0
Rocco Mediate 52 $1,374,375 0-0-0
Sean O'Hair 36th $1,965,902 0-0-0
Brandt Snedeker 44th $1,466,972 0-0-0
Steve Stricker 10th $2,002,904 0-0-0
David Toms 76th $682,085 4-6-2
D.J. Trahan 78th $1,895,918 0-0-0

At least Kittleson, who lost in the finals of the U.S. Amateur to New Zealand's Danny Lee, was competing in the Ryder Cup format of match play. The best on the PGA Tour who battle weekly in stroke-play events aren't doing much to catch Azinger's attention just days before he makes his four at-large picks on Sept. 2.

Nobody knows exactly what Azinger is thinking -- his head has to be spinning -- but the view here is he should take Steve Stricker, Rocco Mediate, J.B. Holmes and David Toms.

And if you have been following this Ryder Cup push, it is obvious those four are not exactly burning it up, either.

Stricker imploded during the third round of The Barclays on Saturday after losing an automatic spot among the top eight qualifiers at the PGA Championship; Mediate missed the cut at The Barclays and had a final-round 85 at the PGA; Holmes blew the third-round lead at the PGA with an 81 over his final 18 holes and finished tied for 24th at The Barclays; and Toms has not really been in the Ryder Cup picture all year and has already been eliminated from the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Then again, nobody in the pool of captain's selections has done much of late to distinguish himself. The situation cries out for someone to do something, anything, and yet it hasn't happened. The next 10 players in the Ryder Cup standings after the automatic qualifiers have combined for only 10 top-10 finishes starting with the U.S. Open. Three of them, Zach Johnson, Holmes and Jeff Quinney, don't have any. Woody Austin, D.J. Trahan and Hunter Mahan have two apiece. Only four of those 10 players made the cut last week.

Even a victory at the Deutsche Bank Championship on Labor Day -- while perhaps giving Azinger a reason to select the winner -- will not constitute being "hot." It is just one tournament.

So what does Azinger do? Perhaps other factors have to be considered, ones that have little to do with recent stroke-play success. What does it say that Azinger really does not have one -- let alone four -- obvious choices at the moment? You have to look deeper to find additional criteria for solid captain's picks.

Here are three factors that could help sway Azinger's decision of whom to pick: putting, experience and momentum.

Putting has been a big problem for the United States in recent Ryder Cups, whether it is early in matches or coming down the stretch. That is why Stricker and Toms come to mind here. They are good putters. Of all the above-mentioned players in the running for a spot on the U.S. team, Stricker has the best putts-per-round average of 28.72. Toms is tied for 46th on tour in putts hit per green in regulation.

[+] EnlargeSteve Stricker
Chris Condon/Getty ImagesSteve Stricker's putting prowess likely could land him a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. But the American, who is ranked No. 10 in the world, had a rough time at The Barclays on Saturday after surrendering a formidable lead in the third round.
"In match play, putting is unbelievably important," said European captain Nick Faldo. "It covers up a multitude of sins. You've got to be a good putter to play match play, and I think you get that from the psychology of match play. You're not worried about or not thinking about the next stroke. There's no lagging, or very rarely. Ninety percent of your golf when you're playing match play, you're trying to get the golf ball in the hole as quickly as possible, so I think that's what leads to that.

"I certainly wouldn't have a clue of any reason why [the Americans have not holed as many putts] and I certainly wouldn't tell Zinger that, anyway -- why we are holing all the putts and they are missing them all."

Good putting can lead to more momentum, which is another important part of the criteria. And this is where Mediate and Holmes come in. They are not knocking anybody over with their play of late, but they do bring an intangible. Mediate is one of the most popular players in the game after his near miss against Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open. He would have the home crowd on his side.

And so would Holmes, a native of Kentucky and one of the longest hitters in the game. Not only would he give the team a boost through fan support, but his long game could be a big benefit in the team format, especially best ball, where making birdies is key.

Then there is experience. Azinger has said that it is not a huge factor for him, since the U.S. team has mostly negative Ryder Cup memories. But Stricker was 3-2 at the Presidents Cup last year and Toms went undefeated (4-0-1) at the same event. At least they are familiar with the format. Toms has also played on three Ryder Cup teams, going 4-6-2.

And there is one more thing to remember: The captain's picks are not the be-all, end-all to the U.S. hopes. The idea is to plug gaps. You would expect Phil Mickelson, Stewart Cink, Jim Furyk and Anthony Kim to play in all four team sessions. And perhaps Justin Leonard and Kenny Perry, too, or at least three of the four. (Everybody plays singles on Sunday.)

Depending on the various combinations, these four at-large picks are likely to fill six spots at most during the first two days, meaning they are not being counted on to do the brunt of the work. And in a Sunday singles match, no matter the players' form or whom they are playing, anything can happen.

"I'm looking for guys who are playing well, it's as simple as that," Azinger said recently.

Unfortunately for Azinger, it doesn't appear to be that simple.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com