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How the Ryder Cup was won

Despite his reputation for planning, Nick Faldo was outflanked by Paul Azinger, whose secret plan to build team unity paid off spectacularly. James Corrigan reports

"Officially no more." So Nick Faldo told a group of British reporters here early yesterday morning before he boarded the team coach to the airport.

The vanquished Europe captain may have been merely referring to his decision not to do any more Ryder Cup press or he may have been declaring his long association with the biennial match to be over. Or perhaps it was his Roberto Duran moment, as he finally saw how wise it is sometimes to stay in your corner. Faldo would not say. "Officially no more" was all we got and with a wave of his hands he was off.

A cruel, more alert observer surveying the wreckage of what was, statistically, the worst Europe performance in 27 years might well have been minded to ask for this in writing, although there would have been little point. When Faldo arrived at Heathrow last night and saw the devastation on the news stands he would have been all too pleased to be making a quite bizarre turnaround and immediately heading back to his home in America. Faldo will not be seen in Britain for a while and after the short and bitter inquest thoughts will turn to the identity of the Europe captain for Newport, 2010.

Whoever that will be will not be named until January, perhaps February, and then Faldo will surely pass on his warning. If his final quip at the closing ceremony was typically crass and hardly appreciated by the Welsh Tourist Board – "Bring your waterproofs" – then a serious " bring your flak jacket" to his successor would be more understandable. Yet it would not be necessary. Provided the Louisville lessons are learnt there is every likelihood the band of blue and gold will march once more.

What the new man must not do is put too much stock in the well-meaning "the buck stops with us the players" statements of those such as Lee Westwood. Paul Azinger has proved once and for all that the Ryder Cup captain does indeed matter. The odds have already shortened about him retaining the role and why shouldn't it be a case of "Zing in 10", as Phil Mickelson kept repeating on Sunday night? He out-thought his counterpart and, incredibly, outworked him as well. While Faldo, the golfer they called Mr Meticulous, essentially went in with the laissez-faire attitude of "letting the boys play", Azinger brought an entirely new dimension to a role that was starting to be viewed as ambassadorial. There is no argument that, in some quarters, the captaincy issue is overstated. But Faldo has shown there is a danger of it being understated as well. Azinger's example displays that there can be a blueprint for victory based on more than the mix of individual talent and camaraderie.

After the 161/2-111/2 victory he teased British viewers by telling Sky that he had a "plan I won't yet share", but within an hour he was letting forth. "About four or five years ago, I watched a documentary," Azinger said, "and I've had this idea ever since that if I was the captain how I would try to approach the team. We put four guys together in practice rounds and they played together every day, and they were the four guys that stayed together the whole week and they were never going to come out of their little group. That's the way I did it." In other words, Azinger found the missing unity in creating divisions. Well, it was always going to take something wacky to inspire this bunch of misfits.

It later emerged that it was a military documentary showing the old SAS tactic of forming "clusters". Azinger, who has been devouring psychology books for two years, split his 12 hungry men into three groups and assigned an assistant captain to look after them as they ate, practised and laughed together. Azinger then sat back and let the bonding ritual take its course. "I never saw Anthony Kim hit one shot in practice until the 18th hole on Thursday," Azinger said, "I relied on Ray Floyd.It's been two years with my hands on the wheel and on Friday, I had to let go. I smashed my foot to the floor, took my hands off the wheel and turned my head. I didn't know what was going to happen, whether I was going to crash into a tree. I had to trust my guys and they came through for me."

He had to trust himself, too, and come the all-important singles time, with America frantically grabbing on to a 9-7 deficit, Azinger kept faith in the list he compiled two weeks ago and sent these waves out together. While the Europe players scanned their eyes all over the scoreboard, the Americans focused purely on the groups around them. "When it all started coming down to the players in our little group we all said, 'It's our turn now'," revealed Boo Weekley. It was four for one and one for four.

Weekley was obviously central to the cause and the "Boo factor" will be hailed right up until tee-time at Celtic Manor. But there were other heroes, notably Weekley's fellow five rookies. "I've played in a lot of Ryder Cups, and it was always, 'Experience, experience, experience'," said Furyk, the veteran who made the winning putt. "Six new guys brought a lot of enthusiasm, infused amazing energy into the crowd and won the majority of the points for the team. They won the Ryder Cup, and they really helped us out." Between them, Weekley, Kim, Ben Curtis, J B Holmes, Hunter Mahan and Steve Stricker won 41/2 points out of singles and figured in 121/2 of the 161/2.

Mickelson, meanwhile, won just two out of five points to continue his miserable Ryder Cup record. He was simply content the new boys had pulled America through to just his second victory in seven appearances. "We know what it's like to be on the other side of it, and it's no fun," he said. "We had six guys who had not experienced that and who were determined to help turn the performance around. They brought a game, an attitude and an energy, and it invigorated the US team."

Saying that, the Europe rookies – Justin Rose, Graeme McDowell, Soren Hansen and Oliver Wilson – were hardly overawed contributing eight points out of a possible 10. They were all inspired by competing in their first Ryder Cup, while the leading points-scorer of the entire show was playing for his own pride and the faith of his captain. If only Faldo could have implanted the same desire to prove the naysayers wrong as he did in Ian Poulter, then nobody would now be asking why he failed to get the best out of Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia. The trio did not manage a single win between them and the reasons why should dominate any review.

Except the focus will fall squarely on Faldo. It is certainly possible to analyse his singles order and see that he did not heed the mistakes of captain's past who also "bottom-loaded" (ie put their best players out last). Was that because Faldo knows best as Faldo always has known best?

Intriguingly, his players said "no", so forcefully that it was impossible to believe they were doing so out of sympathy or deference to a targeted man still in their midst. Jose Maria Olazabal looked on the brink of doing something stupid and did say something stupid when pointing at a journalist he considered to have asked an inappropriate question and mouthing the word "bullshit" as he walked out of the room.

Westwood and Harrington confessed they had asked to go out 11th and 12th respectively and the former said that he, too, would have taken the risk of Europe's finest being involved in irrelevant matches. "I would have done the same," he claimed. Well, maybe he would but Westwood is not yet the captain and, as McDowell pointed out, "the captain lives and dies by his decisions". As remarkable as it seems to suggest, Faldo probably took too much notice of what the team were telling him.

In contrast, Azinger had the idea and the lieutenants to enforce the idea. In pure golfing terms this was inevitably to manifest itself as his team holing the most putts. Reputations are made and lost in those moments, as Poulter acknowledged. "The winning captain is the good captain, the losing captain is the bad captain?" he told the media. "That's your decision, not mine."

Next time?

The 38th Ryder Cup will be held from 1 to 3 October 2010 at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales. Europe's team captain will be announced in early 09. Paul Azinger could be the first USA captain to retain the post but is expected to stand down.

Selection Criteria Each captain is allowed to alter the criteria of selection before their picks are announced. Nick Faldo stuck with the system that was successful in Europe's previous wins in 2004 and 06. Five players qualified through the Ryder Cup World Points List – based on Ranking points from all tournaments over a 12-month period. A further five players qualified through the European Points List – based on money won in European tournaments. Two players were picks.

The Americans changed their criteria to allow Azinger four picks. The rest of the US team was chosen on the basis of points earned on PGA Tour co-sponsored events.

Could do better? Marks out of 10 for Europe's Ryder Cup team

Nick Faldo 4/10

Cannot be criticised for wild-card picks as Casey was solid and Poulter sensational. Probably messed up singles order though.

Sergio Garcia 4/10

Failed to live up to expectations, especially when thrashed in the Sunday singles by Anthony Kim

Played 4 Halved 2 Lost 2

Paul Casey 5/10

Wild card battled hard but didn't bring his best game. Victory in tight singles match could have been crucial

P3 H2 L1

Robert Karlsson 7/10

Played some outstanding golf and was finally rewarded with his first Cup win. But to no avail

P4 W1 H2 L1

Justin Rose 8/10

Superb debut performance including fine singles win over Phil Mickelson. Teamed up well with Poulter.

P4 W3 L1

Henrik Stenson 6/10

Flashes of brilliance from the Swede, but not enough of them. Lost crunch singles match on the Sunday

P4 W1 H1 L2

Oliver Wilson 6/10

Nailed 28-foot putt to seal one of Cup's great comebacks in foursome win over Kim and Mickelson. Could do little against an inspired Weekley. Will wish he'd played more.

P2 W1 L1

Soren Hansen 5/10

Great chip-in led to fine start and almost repeated trick to prolong singles, but that was as good as it got.

P3 H1 L2

Miguel A Jimenez 4/10

Lost the game that settled the match. Will not look back fondly on this Cup appearance

P3 H1 L2

Graeme McDowell 7/10

Encouraging debut performance and should become a better player for the experience

P4 W2 H1 L1

Ian Poulter 9/10

Wild-card pick that caused such controversy was outstanding. Proved doubters wrong

P5 W4 L1

Lee Westwood 5/10

Equalled record 12-match unbeaten run, but that will mean little. Lost steam in singles as Cup was gone

P4 H2 L2

Padraig Harrington 3/10

Irishman appeared not to have enough left in the tank after two major wins this season. Singles match became irrelevant. That's just one point total from the last two Ryder Cups

P4 H1 L3

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