Sports

Team shapes up for underdog U.S.

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Paul Azinger revamped the Ryder Cup qualifying system to get the best players, and he had no complaints with the eight Americans who earned a spot on the team.

But not even four captain's picks to follow will change the way he sees this competition against Europe.

”We are going to take on an underdog role in this Ryder Cup for the first time in a long time — even on paper — when you look at the strength of the European squad,“ Azinger said Monday morning after the PGA Championship. ”We are going to have everything to gain here.“

That's mainly because the Americans have done nothing but lose.

Europe has won the last two times by record margins — 18½ -9½ — and has captured the cup eight of the last 11 times. Tiger Woods is out because of knee surgery, so Boo Weekley essentially takes his spot among the eight qualifiers. Weekley, who closed with a 66 in the PGA Championship to secure the eighth spot in the standings, is among three rookies on the U.S. team.

Europe is led by Padraig Harrington, who won his second straight major Sunday by going 66-66 over the final two rounds and taking only 11 putts over the last nine holes. Sergio Garcia, a runner-up in the majors for the third time, sewed up a spot on the team despite losing the lead in the PGA Championship over the last three holes.

None of the five Americans with Ryder Cup experience has a winning record, and they are a collective 18-34-15 in the matches.

”We've lost five of the last six Ryder Cups, so most of their experiences are bad experiences. So it's not like experience is going to be a great help. I'm looking for guys that are playing well — it's as simple as that. And if it's an experienced player playing well, then I think that's fantastic.“

The eight who qualified were Phil Mickelson, Stewart Cink, Kenny Perry, Jim Furyk, Anthony Kim, Justin Leonard, Ben Curtis and Weekley.

Although he has never won a match, Leonard's last Ryder Cup memory was a winning one. In 1999, he rallied from 4 down with seven holes to play against Spanish stalwart Jose Maria Olazabal when he holed a 45-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole at Brookline that capped an amazing American comeback in 1999. Leonard wound up with a halve, but it was the clinching point.

He has not played in a Ryder Cup since.

”It's nice to be known for something good like that,“ Leonard said. ”And to be part of a winning Ryder Cup team, that's the last memory I have of it, personally. So hopefully, I can bring some of that into the locker room and have a positive influence on the event.“

The criteria was changed to base the points on money in the current year, with double points in the majors. The system enabled Curtis to make the team with his tie for second at the PGA Championship, and Azinger said he was happy to have him.

”He's got that kind of demeanor that you need on the Ryder Cup team,“ Azinger said. ”You need a bunch of different type of personalities for a Ryder Cup team to blend, and Ben Curtis ... a little more stoic, a little more subdued. But I like his personality. He's that type of guy that's going to put his head down and barrel on.“

In past years, Monday after the PGA Championship was a time for the U.S. captain to announce his two selections. Azinger gets four this year, and he asked to wait until Sept. 2 to make his selections.

”I'm really happy that I don't have to pick four players this morning,“ Azinger said. It would have been difficult to know what to do.“

It might not get any easier.

J.B. Holmes had a chance to join fellow Kentuckian Perry on the team. One shot out of the lead going into the final round, he started triple bogey-bogey-bogey and shot 81. U.S. Open runner-up Rocco Mediate, who was 12th in the standings, shot 85.

None of that seemed to matter to Azinger.

”If ever there was a golf course you could discount a poor round, this would be the one,“ he said. ”Would I have liked both of them to have played better? Of course. There's three weeks to go. I like both of them a lot.“

Azinger said he would ask the PGA of America to continue the standings so he can keep tabs on who's playing well.

Europe will take its top 10 players from two lists — one based on world-ranking points earned over the last year, the other based on a money list — on Aug. 31. Nick Faldo will have two picks the next day.

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