Commentary

No American players stepped up to make Azinger's job any easier

Originally Published: September 2, 2008
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

If Paul Azinger looked and sounded a bit subdued in announcing his at-large picks to the U.S. Ryder Cup team, perhaps it was simply a struggle Tuesday morning to get excited about the four players he added to his team.

For all we know, Azinger stood blindfolded in a room and threw darts at a board and came up with Steve Stricker, Hunter Mahan, J.B. Holmes and Chad Campbell.

You can pan those picks or praise them, and you might be right either way, such was the state of the pool of candidates.

Although he said all the right things and praised the foursome of golfers at his New York City news conference where he filled out his 12-man squad, Azinger also admitted that "nobody really jumped off the page" and that "in the end these are the guys I decided to pick and they are playing really, really well."

That definition will be left up to interpretation, which undoubtedly left Azinger with a difficult decision. Do you go for Ryder Cup experience? New blood? A combination?

U.S. Ryder Cup team

Paul Azinger finalized his roster of 12 players for the 37th Ryder Cup matches to be played Sept. 19-21 at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky.

Player Ryder Cup record
Chad Campbell * 1-3-2
Stewart Cink 3-5-4
Ben Curtis --
Jim Furyk 6-12-2
J.B. Holmes * --
Anthony Kim --
Justin Leonard 0-3-5
Hunter Mahan * --
Phil Mickelson 9-12-4
Kenny Perry 0-2-0
Steve Stricker * --
Boo Weekley --
Combined record: 19-37-17
* denotes captain's picks
A victory or a high finish by any of the players in contention would have likely handed them a roster spot and given Azinger plenty of justification for picking them. Yet nobody stepped up in the past several weeks to make a U.S. Ryder Cup team that will try to turn around its fortunes after losing three straight and five of the last six in the match-play competition.

Azinger certainly did not have an embarrassment of riches to choose from as did his counterpart in Europe, Nick Faldo. And there certainly was not the controversy associated with Azinger's picks. When Faldo chose England's Ian Poulter over Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke on Sunday for the Sept. 19-21 matches in Louisville, Ky., there were howls of criticism from Europe and charges that dissension would envelop the team.

No worries on the American side of the Atlantic, and that is not necessarily a good thing for Team USA.

When Azinger took the job nearly two years ago, he insisted on changes to the system that he said would give him the "hottest" players going into the Ryder Cup. He wanted four captain's picks rather than the traditional two. And after Phil Mickelson, Stewart Cink, Kenny Perry, Justin Leonard, Jim Furyk, Anthony Kim, Boo Weekley and Ben Curtis made the team on points, he was given an extra three weeks to add his four players.

Not that it mattered.

Although six of the eight players who made the U.S. team combined to win a total of 10 tournaments this year, only one player among the next 25 on the Ryder Cup points list won a tournament in the past six months -- PGA Tour rookie Chez Reavie at the Canadian Open. And the last five tournaments on the PGA Tour have been won by foreign-born players.

European Ryder Cup team

After the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles on Sunday, the 10 automatic selections for the European Ryder Cup team were finalized. European captain Nick Faldo then made his at-large selections later in the day to fill out his roster for the Sept. 19-21 Ryder Cup.

Player Country Ryder Cup record
Paul Casey * England 3-1-2
Sergio Garcia Spain 14-4-2
Soren Hansen Denmark --
Padraig Harrington Ireland 7-8-2
Miguel Angel Jimenez Spain 1-3-0
Robert Karlsson Sweden 0-1-2
Graeme McDowell Northern Ireland --
Ian Poulter * England 1-1-0
Justin Rose England --
Henrik Stenson Sweden 1-1-1
Lee Westwood England 14-8-3
Oliver Wilson England --
Combined record: 41-27-12
* denotes captain's pick
If there was a surprise among the four chosen it was Campbell, 34, who finished well down the points list at 20th. The four-time PGA Tour winner has six top-10 finishes this year and played in two previous Ryder Cups, which proved to be an important factor to Azinger as he added three rookies to the team and now has six total.

"I picked three guys who have never played the Ryder Cup before, and I felt that Chad had a little bit of experience," Azinger said of Campbell, who is 1-3-2 in the last two Ryder Cups and tied for seventh Monday at the Deutsche Bank Championship. "He played really well this past tournament, and that really helped him. He's always a terrific ball-striker from tee to green. When I started crunching numbers, I knew right away that he was the right guy."

Stricker figured to be in the mix because he finished ninth in the final standings, just one spot removed from the team, and he is ranked eighth in the world. He also played on last year's U.S. Presidents Cup team, as did Mahan, who made it despite criticizing the PGA of America in a magazine interview about the Ryder Cup, although he has never played in the event. And Holmes was a favorite of Azinger because of his prodigious length off the tee and his Kentucky roots; nobody has played Valhalla more than Holmes.

But Holmes has missed five of his last nine cuts, and his best finish in that span is a tie for 24th. Among the captain's picks, Holmes is the only player with a victory, but it came in February over Phil Mickelson at the FBR Open.

Among those left off the team were Woody Austin, who finished 10th in the points standings and would have made the team under the old format; Rocco Mediate, Sean O'Hair, D.J. Trahan, Brandt Snedeker and Zach Johnson. Scott Verplank, although just 33rd in the standings, was also mentioned as a possibility because he has a 4-1 record in Ryder Cup play.

As it stands, nobody on the U.S. squad has a winning record in the Ryder Cup, with Mickelson's nine victories and 11 total points the most of any player.

Azinger said he called just one of the players -- he would not name him -- whom he did not pick. And it was telling when he said he did "not want to justify for anybody, really, why I didn't pick the guys that I didn't pick."

Perhaps the enormity of the situation was sinking in for Azinger. He will be without the world's No. 1 player, Tiger Woods, due to injury. He does not exactly have the hottest group of golfers who will show up in two weeks at Valhalla. And he will be going up against a formidable European team that includes three-time major winner Padraig Harrington and players such as Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Henrik Stenson, all of whom were in the mix at major championships this year.

"It will be unique to be on our home soil as underdogs," Azinger said. "But clearly the European team is strong. I think it's one of the strongest teams I've ever seen them bring across here. We will be an underdog."

Given the choices Azinger had to add to his team Tuesday, that was not going to change.

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

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com