Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Azinger made all the right moves

Ryder Cup Rule 1: All winning captains are canonised!

Rule 2: All losing skippers must be skewered.

As America celebrated the feast day of St Zinger, we Europeans got the knives out for Nick Faldo.

Maybe with a little too much relish.

Faldo’s overwhelming ego makes him a little too easy to dislike and he tripped over it on several cringing occasions at Valhalla.

For sure, he made critical selection errors which contributed directly to his team’s defeat, not least in his singles line-up for Sunday.

And before we Europeans get too deeply embroiled in self-recrimination, let’s acknowledge an outstanding performance by Paul Azinger’s highly-charged team and the vociferous Kentucky galleries who helped propel them to their first victory in nine years.

Valhalla should go down in history as the place where America’s Ryder Cup pride was reborn.

Faldo’s captaincy became embroiled in controversy from the moment he announced his wild cards.

The omission of Darren Clarke was incomprehensible, while the selection of Ian Poulter seemed indefensible after the Englishman hadn’t bothered to try and play his way onto the team at Gleneagles.

While Poulter would vindicate the captain’s faith with a brilliant performance at Valhalla, Europe sorely lacked a player of Clarke’s stature and charisma as they cried out for an inspirational on-course leader last Sunday.

A series of key selection errors were made by Faldo once the match started, the most outrageous being his decision to ’rest’ the talismanic partnership of Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood on Saturday morning.

Garcia requested a time-out but given the significance of his pairing with Westwood, should have been cajoled into combat. Instead, Faldo acquiesced, while his decision to stand-down Lee Westwood as well knocked all the wind out of the Englishman’s sails.

Incredibly, Westwood was informed he’d not be playing the following morning as he stood on the 10th tee with Soren Hansen as they played their Friday afternoon fourball with JB Holmes and Boo Weekley.

Might this explain why Westwood, such a seasoned campaigner, became so annoyed with Weekley’s over-enthusiastic celebrations of a birdie putt on the 10th green that he was still fuming about it afterwards.

That match finished in a tie, allowing Westwood equal Arnold Palmer’s Ryder Cup record of 12 consecutive matches unbeaten ... he was up for more and was furious not to be playing in Saturday morning’s foursomes.

The emotional bond forged between men in the heat of battle is exceptionally strong and, on Sunday night, Westwood himself made a vigorous defence of Faldo’s captaincy and that decision.

"We hold the golf clubs and we hit the shots," he said. "Not the captain. If you want to talk about me and Sergio being rested Saturday morning, that’s the only session we won, so Nick was right to do that. So you tell me whether Nick was right or wrong?"

Faldo was wrong! His momentum broken, Westwood would contribute no further to Europe’s points total at the Ryder Cup. A priceless asset has been lost.

It was also desperately wrong of the captain to throw rookie Oliver Wilson into a potentially scarring foursomes encounter with Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim on Saturday morning.

Yet Faldo got lucky as the impressive young Englishman and Henrik Stenson came back from four down through six holes to beat their vaunted rivals ... though the two Californians played a telling part in their own downfall by imploding spectacularly in mid-round.

If potential disaster was avoided there, Faldo would not escape the consequences of his folly on Sunday after noon.

As he drew up his playing order for the singles, the captain ignored the lessons history and placed four of his toughest fighters, Graeme McDowell, Poulter, Westwood and Harrington at the bottom of the order, where they’d wind-up hitting meaningless golf shots long after this Ryder Cup had ended.

Azinger made an inspired move in sending out crowd favourites Kenny Perry, Boo Weekley and JB Holmes in the mid-order and they crashed like a mailed-fist into Europe’s solar-plexus, with ever-steady Jim Furyk clinching a first Ryder Cup victory in nine years for the USA in the very next match.

Though few would’ve argued with Faldo’s decision to put Garcia in the vital lead role on Sunday, nobody’d consider it now.

El Nino appeared to have grown into El Hombre when he won The Players Championship at Sawgrass in May. His recovery from the massive blow he shipped at The Open in Carnoustie seemed complete.

Yet Sergio was more like ’El Bambino’ on Sunday as Anthony Kim took him to the cleaners in the opening match - and his demise cannot be attributed to fatigue in the wake of his recent FedEx Cup heroics.

Garcia likes to wail at the moon when things go against him on the golf course but even having Jose Maria Olazabal there to put an arm around his shoulder at the sixth and seventh hole on Sunday could not prevent his abject surrender.

There’s nobody more inspired than Garcia when putts drop for him as they invariably did at the Ryder Cup until we got to Valhalla. When they don’t, he seems too temperamentally brittle to cope.

On Sunday we saw just how badly Europe needs another on-course leader like Colin Montgomerie and how much Garcia has to mature before being considered for that role.

Less puzzling, perhaps, was the jaded performance of Padraig Harrington at Valhalla. After completing his second Major Championship success at The US PGA, Harrington had just one week off before throwing himself headlong into a fruitless three week battle with fatigue at The FedEx Cup. Then he came home for a belated 37th birthday celebration,20followed six days later by another trans-Atlantic trip to Louisville.

"I’m happy I didn’t leave any stone unturned in terms of trying but I just didn’t have it this week," Harrington explained. "I’m tired.”

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