Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Ryder Cup: The Weekley guide to putting a smile back on America's face

Paul Azinger is relying on the laid-back southerner to inject a sense of fun into the US team.

Bringing joy to the American Ryder Cup teamroom is as unlikely a task as starting a fight in an empty room, but every now and again along comes a sportsman who is deemed capable of the feat. In Valhalla this week Paul Azinger is counting on Boo Weekley being that joker. And if the laughs do ring out, expect the resurgence to follow.

For his part, Weekley is determined to answer the calling of his captain. "What can I give to the American cause?" he said, on the range at the USPGA Championship last month. "Some laughter, I hope. Don't seem to me like they've had too much fun."



Indeed, in America "fun" and the "Ryder Cup" happen to go together like "Woods" and "Mickelson" and that is why Weekley will be so important in Louisville. Few people can generate the humour without raising the hackles – Nick Faldo, take note – and Weekley is one of the blessed exceptions. Evidence of this was provided in the last few weeks.



When Weekley earned one of the eight automatic qualifying positions at the season's final major he was inevitably the rookie who Azinger asked to talk to the press and within a few seconds he had declared: "Padraig Harrington has a target on his back."



In any normal course of events, this would have been taken as a highly provocative, if not by the player himself, then certainly by the British media. But it went largely ignored and was certainly was not spun into a controversy as the scribblers accepted that it was just being Boo being Boo. And Harrington? Well, he had a word with Weekley, but he confessed that it was not a serious word. "There's no malice in Boo," said the Irishman. Weekley likely flashed Paddy that gappy-toothed grin and said in his drawl, "Sir, I'm sorry if I offended you" and that would have been that. That Boo Weekley could start a lasting friendship in an empty room.



But he has a confession to make to the British journalists he gets along with so well. When he appeared on their radar before the Open last year he told a Sunday newspaper that their was no truth to the orangutan yarn that had been doing the rounds in his homeland. "No, sir, no sir," he said. In fact that should have been – "Yes, sir, yes sir. And he did knock me out."



"I have denied this story even though it happened 20 years ago, as I could see the animal-rights people protesting," admitted Weekley. "I don't think orangutan fighting goes on any more which is probably a good thing." In short, the then 16-year-old was persuaded by his mates at a county fair to try to win $50 by climbing into the ring with the orangutan and he then remembers two things. The first was having to sign a waiver – "looking back that was a bad sign" – and the second was "waking up bleeding in the back of a friend's pick-up". It is fair to say the ape had unwittingly struck a blow for the animal kingdom.



Weekley is an avowed hunter and his repeated statements that "I'd rather be out hunting than playing golf" has inevitably grated with many. Yet where he grew up, hunting is not so much sport as a way of life. Sometimes he had to square up to animals simply to protect life; most famously when wrestling alligators who had been blown on to his grandparents' porch. The Blackwater River cuts across the flatlands of the Florida panhandle and as Golf Digest, the American magazine, put it: "It's so deep in the deep south that any deeper and you're in the Gulf of Mexico." Hurricanes are commonplace, as are alligators. "But two or three boys like me on 'em and they ain't going nowhere," he says. Not a bad education for tackling a Tiger, surely.



Yet success on the course did not come simply for the man smarter than your average redneck who was nicknamed after Yogi Bear's sidekick. He is 35, did not play in his first major until last year's US Open and has only cemented his place on tour these past two seasons. As a boy his progress was hampered somewhat by playing the wrong way around. "I'm a bit ambidextrous," he revealed. "And when I began I would play left-handed. But then my high-school coach saw me and said it didn't look quite right and switched me to playing right-handed. I suppose it all started there."



It did not happen overnight. Not even over a decade. He failed to last his first year in college and he ended working in an ammonium factory in his hometown of Milton, where he would be lowered into the tanks to spray them clean with a jet spray so strong "it could take an arm or leg off". Weekley then tried his hand on the mini-tours and like every desperado found them hard.



"You see some weird things out there," he said. "There are a lot of desperate people." Once he got into a shoving match with one fellow wannabe who he caught cheating, while other arguments toppled over into the bizarre. "On the last day of a tournament in Alabama me and another guy were tied for the lead when he hooked it towards some water," he recalled. " 'Get down,' I shouted. 'Sit! Land soft!' His ball went in the water anyway. He growled at me, 'Don't ever talk to my golf ball or I'll kick your butt'." With that they were rolling on the floor trading punches. He won the fight and then won the tournament."



By 2002 he had earned his card to play on the PGA Tour but by the end of 2002 he had lost it again. Weekley had thought he had made it. "When my cheque for $25,000 for Q school came in, I showed it to my wife. She asked me. 'Why are you crying?' I told her. 'There's people work a whole year and don't make that kind of money. They're paying me [for] something I love to do."



Not that he loves golf so much that he wants to spend the rest of his existence sweetly hitting balls for big bucks. He has a plan to make around £5m, and seeing as he has made well over half of that since he regained his card last year the legend of Boo may be over as quickly as it started. "Five more years like this and you won't see much more of me," he said in another Golf Digest article last December.



The game will pray he reconsiders and salvation may just lie in the Ryder Cup. Weekley is a "real" American, not a "proud" American like the majority of his team-mates, and is plainly and genuinely honoured to be competing under the Stars and Stripes. While 12 of his higher-ranked countrymen turned down the chance to play at last year's World Cup in China, Weekley almost fell out of the tree in which he was hunting when he received the phone-call and together with Heath Slocum, the fellow pro he grew up with, they came awfully close to taking home the trophy.



One of his conquerors in that Mission Hills play-off was certainly impressed and when Colin Montgomerie says that Weekley will be a valuable addition to the American team, then the world, and especially Europe, had better sit up and listen. "Boo's a great ball-striker, a great competitor, a great man to have around and has a great temperament," said Montgomerie. "In matchplay it's all about staying calm and you can tell from his smile that Boo is enjoying it."



There is a story behind that. Explained Weekley: "When I've got a big shot to play I always tell myself the same thing: 'This shot is not life-threatening.' My caddie, Joe Pyland, did two tours with the army in Iraq so I look over at him and realise that the worst thing that can happen to me is being stung by a bee or bitten by an ant. Somehow that really calms me down."



Still, Weekley has not experienced the Ryder Cup yet, although he swears it will not affect him in a negative sense. "This has been a dream come true for me in the last two years being able to come out here and play, and last year I got to represent the United States at the World Cup and actually got to feel the tension of what it's like to be a part of something," he said. "I'm with the rest of the new guys on bringing something to the team that might just overturn that slide we've been on."



It is a wise man who plays the fool, they say. But it would be a far wiser one who could fool Team America into enjoying themselves.

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