Azinger's plan pays off as U.S. regains Ryder Cup

Updated: September 21, 2008, 10:29 PM ET
Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- U.S. captain Paul Azinger sprinted up the stairs to the clubhouse balcony and grabbed the biggest bottle of champagne he could find to join an American celebration he felt was a long time coming in the Ryder Cup.

They didn't need a miracle putt or an amazing comeback like their last victory in 1999.

They didn't even need Tiger Woods.

Strong as a team and equally mighty on their own, the Americans rode the emotion of a flag-waving crowd and their Kentucky heroes on Sunday to take back the Ryder Cup with a 16½-11½ victory over Europe.

Kenny Perry, the 48-year-old native son who dreamed of playing a Ryder Cup before a Bluegrass crowd, delivered a 3-and-2 victory that was part of an early push that swung momentum toward the U.S. team.

"I figured this was going to define my career," he said. "But you know what? It made my career."

J.B. Holmes, legendary in these parts for making his high school team in tiny Campbellsville as a third-grader, showed off his awesome power with two final birdies that set up the Americans for victory.

The clinching point, appropriately, came from Jim Furyk.

[+] EnlargeKenny Perry
Harry How/Getty ImagesKenny Perry, a native Kentuckian, said winning the Ryder Cup in his home state made his career.

He felt hollow six years ago at The Belfry as Paul McGinley made a par putt that clinched victory for Europe, the first of three straight victories that extended its domination of a passionate event that Americans once owned.

For all the birdies and spectacular shots over three inspirational days at Valhalla, the Ryder Cup ended with a handshake.

Miguel Angel Jimenez conceded a short par putt, giving Furyk a 2-and-1 victory and the Americans the 14½ points they needed to show they can win on golf's biggest stage -- and without Tiger Woods, out for the year with a knee surgery but staying involved by text messaging Azinger throughout the final day.

This truly was a team effort.

"They just took an everything-to-gain attitude into this competition," Azinger said. "And I couldn't be happier."

Anthony Kim set the tone by handing Sergio Garcia his worst loss ever in the Ryder Cup and keeping him winless at Valhalla. Boo Weekley galloped off the first tee using his driver as a toy horse, drawing laughter for his antics and cheers for his birdies.

Hunter Mahan, who criticized the Ryder Cup earlier this year as a money-making machine, was the only player to go all five matches without losing at Valhalla. His match was the only one to reach the 18th green, all because of a 60-foot birdie putt from Mahan that slammed into the back of the cup on the 17th hole.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Kim
David Cannon/Getty ImagesAnthony Kim, walking to the first tee Sunday, routed Sergio Garcia 5 and 4 as the Americans tried to finish off the Europeans.

He wound up with a halve against Paul Casey, and a new appreciation for this event.

"It's an incredible, incredible experience," said Mahan, who went 2-0-3 and tied a U.S. record for most points as a captain's pick. "I wish every golfer could experience this, because it's amazing."

Ben Curtis and Chad Campbell, the final player picked for this U.S. team, won the final two matches against Lee Westwood and Padraig Harrington for a lopsided score that for the last three years had been posted in European blue.

It was the largest margin of victory for the Americans since 1981.

Despite his misfit collection of stars -- from the backwoods Weekley to the street-smart Kim -- perhaps no one made a greater impact on the U.S. victory than Azinger.

It was his idea to overhaul the qualifying system, which he felt was keeping the Americans from fielding their best team. He also doubled his captain's picks, and those four players produced one-third of the points.

"I poured my heart and soul into this for two years," U.S. captain Paul Azinger said, his voice cracking. "The players poured their heart and soul into this for one week. They deserved it. I couldn't be happier."

European captain Nick Faldo won't get off that easy.

The British press blistered him for benching Garcia and Westwood -- the most successful European tandem -- on Saturday, the first time either of them had ever missed a match in the Ryder Cup. Even more peculiar was putting three of his strongest players at the bottom of the lineup -- Ian Poulter, Westwood and Harrington.

The Ryder Cup was decided as their matches were in progress. Their points never had a chance to matter.

"It always hurts," Faldo said.

Faldo at least was validated by taking Poulter, who had only two top 10s all year. The brash Englishman was the only European to play all five matches and went 4-1, tying the record for most points by a European captain's pick set last time by Westwood.

Even so, there was something missing from this European team.

For years, the team built its reputation by having the most laughs, making the most putts and learning to play together for points. This time, that defined the Americans.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Europe's best players.

Garcia and Westwood failed to win a match for the first time in the Ryder Cup. Harrington, coming off a summer in which he won the British Open and PGA Championship, now has gone nine consecutive matches without winning. He is 0-7-2 the last two times.

Phil Mickelson had another losing record in the Ryder Cup, winning only one hole in his 3-and-2 loss to Justin Rose. But he spent the first two days showing the ropes to Kim, the youngest player on the U.S. team at 23.

Kim took it from there.

He birdied three of his first four holes and annoyed Garcia -- another turnaround -- by refusing to concede even 2-foot putts and challenging a ruling on the sixth hole. He went 3 up through seven holes, and the scoreboard was filled with red scores belonging to the Americans, who led in eight matches early on the final day.

Europe chipped away, however, until it was clear the Ryder Cup could come down to a big-hitting rookie.

Holmes was all square with Soren Hansen after they traded birdies through the 15th hole and tension began to build. Holmes tugged on his black glove, waggled his driver and hammered a tee shot on the 511-yard 16th that set up a birdie and a 1-up lead.

On the next hole, he sent another powerful drive well to the left, but it bounced up a slope, through the gallery, over a cart path, and kept right on rolling back into the short grass. His wedge spun back to 3 feet to set up the victory.

Azinger, riding around Valhalla in his cart to applaud the crowd and pump them up, jumped off the grassy slope with a look on his face that suggested he had never seen anything like this.

It had been eight long years since the Americans could celebrate like this, and they get two years to enjoy it.


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press