It was the week’s worst kept secret in golf, and the speculation was officially put to an end late on Monday as the PGA of America finally unveiled 1993 USPGA Champion Paul Azinger as the captain for their challenge of wrestling the Ryder Cup back from Europe in Kentucky in 2008.
The 46 year-old (pictured) will bring a steel and determination to the next US team, which may have been lacking in the last two renewals. Azinger, a veteran of four Ryder Cups including victories in 1991 and 1993, is known as an outspoken and fierce competitor. He enjoyed numerous high profile battles at the Ryder Cup as a player: controversy surrounded his encounters with Seve Ballesteros, who called the 1991 US team “eleven nice guys and Paul Azinger”; he was one of the most vociferous and gung-ho members of the US team that turned the 1991 Ryder Cup into the ‘War on the Shore’, even making an inflammatory comment about the US liberation of Kuwait; and he never lost a singles match, regularly taking on and foiling Europe’s finest players.
One of these matches, in 1993, pitted Azinger against his opposite number for 2008, Nick Faldo. The match at The Belfry, which saw Azinger earn a half despite Faldo playing some fantastic golf that included a hole-in-one, was crucial in the USA’s quest to retain the Ryder Cup that they had regained at Kiawah Island two years earlier. It continued a rivalry that would develop into one of the most heated in the sport during the 1990s, a rivalry that began when Faldo edged out the then-unknown Azinger at Muirfield when he won his first Open title in 1987.
The greatest example of Azinger’s will and determination came when he defeated shoulder cancer, which was diagnosed in 1993. His bravery in the most perilous of situations won him admirers around the world as he stood up to the disease in the same way in which he stood up to his opponents – without fear. By 2000, after years of treatment, chemotherapy and rest, his rehabilitiation was complete as he won the 2000 Hawaiian Open amid emotional scenes on the US PGA Tour. His form was enough to earn him a recall to the US Ryder Cup team in 2002.
On accepting the captaincy, Azinger announced that he had played a pivotal role in pushing through the changes to the Ryder Cup qualification system – also unveiled yesterday by the PGA of America. The system used for this year’s Ryder Cup, which saw the US crash to a second successive record defeat, had been widely criticised and much of the blame for the poor performance of the Americans was attributed to it. Now Azinger will be able to select four wildcards instead of two, and the automatic points qualification system will be based on total money earned over one calendar year rather than top-10 finishes over nearly two.
“It is the greatest honour that anyone can bestow on a professional golfer,” a proud Azinger told the gathered media.
“I had a very active role in pushing through these qualification changes. I’ll get the blame if they don’t work, but I’d also like the credit if they do. We’re tired of getting beaten and I want as many red-hot players as I can get my hands on. I feel the two things that motivate most of our guys are winning tournaments and winning money – I thought it was time for money to be the barometer.”
“I think anyone that suggests that our players won’t be as hungry as theirs is in for a big shock. I think experience is overrated – I’ll be looking for younger players who aren’t scarred by past defeats and call me ‘dude’. They’ll have to play themselves into contention first though.”
Azinger said that Faldo was amongst the first people to congratulate him, sending him a text message saying that he was ‘in shock’. The frosty relations between the pair have somewhat thawed in recent years after they worked together for American television. Azinger fired a very early warning shot to his old rival by claiming that Faldo had everything to lose and he had everything to gain when the battle lines are drawn at Valhalla from 16-21 September, 2008.
“I think Nick will do a very good job, but he is in a bit of tough spot,” Azinger said.
“He has everything to lose and we are the first ever US underdogs on American soil. We can only improve, while Europe can only really come back towards us. But it’s not Paul vs Nick, it’s down to the players. I don’t know yet how I’m going to make them play better – I’m their captain, not their coach – but I hope having the hottest players will make a difference.”